‘Emily Is Away’ Re-Creates Social Media’s Awkward, Early Days

Ask someone who played it what they think of the indie game Emily Is Away, and they might confess to shedding a tear at the end. If they did, they’re certainly not alone. Originally created as a free-to-play visual novel, Emily Is Away debuted in 2015 as an AOL Instant Messenger simulator where you attempt to foster a relationship with your crush while transitioning from high school to college. Throughout the chats, you choose one of three prewritten dialog responses and manually type on your keyboard, each real-life keystroke simulating a virtual keystroke as well as typos, deleted sentences, and anxiously rewritten jokes in an attempt to play it cool. Despite its short run time, it’s a remarkable time capsule for the aesthetics and emotions of AIM’s heyday a decade earlier.

Upon its release, Emily Is Away was met with a flood of praise that caught its 29-year-old creator, Kyle Seeley, off guard. Nine months earlier, during a getaway weekend with fellow Boston-based game developers to prototype new ideas, Seeley was pleasantly surprised when higher-profile developers behind games like Kind Words and Vacation Simulator were eagerly coming by to see what he was working on. “At that point, I thought, ‘Oh, I might have something special here,’” says Seeley. “It was a proof-of-concept thing, and that’s why I wanted it to be free, but I never expected it to take off as quickly as it did.”

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Given the success of Emily Is Away, it’s surprising to hear that Seeley never planned sequels. After a few months of reassessing the reactions to his game, however, he felt compelled to up the stakes and deepen the narrative. In 2017 he released Emily Is Away Too, a more in-depth version of the AIM setup that introduced new characters, a wider array of buddy icons, the real-time stress of talking to multiple friends simultaneously, and the thrill of swapping music suggestions through YouToob links, the game’s era-specific parody of YouTube. Unsurprisingly, the sequel was a hit.

Then, in April 2021, Seeley returned with Emily Is Away <3, new visual novel centered around Facenook—his spot-on re-creation of Facebook circa 2008 and all of its forgotten flair—that offers a complex and nuanced look at how you interact with your friend circle while dating someone. With an increasingly winding narrative and an even wider cast of characters, Emily Is Away <3 is captivating to play and even more mesmerizing to look at. Seeley built the UI of Facenook to replicate the original Facebook wall structure, the old-school newsfeed, and the retro setup of the messaging platform. The accuracy of it is somewhat astounding considering the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine could take him only as far back as the old Facebook login screen. The game took Seeley three years to complete.

The most crucial part of re-creating Facebook from scratch for Facenook was the attention to the most minor details. The iconic traits of early Facebook, like the tell-all format of the original homepage or the never-ending poke wars, are all lovingly re-created. Other parts are rarely discussed when mythologizing the platform’s initial days, like notes used for chain-letter questionnaires or the gaudy virtual gift prompt that seems bizarre in hindsight, where you could give friends a pixelated thong or bubbling champagne bottle to celebrate their birthday. “I had totally forgotten until seeing old Facebook screenshots that the prompt for a status back then was always ‘so-and-so is,’” recalls Seeley. “That seems like such a crazy thing to do now, because it doesn’t make any sense to set people up with a tense. That was a big thing on early Facebook, and people got really innovative when working around that status format.”

Arguably the most vivid blasts from the past appear on YouToob. The layout of Seeley’s parody site serves as a reminder of how subtly YouTube’s redesigns came and went over the years. Poking around feels like blowing dust off an old trunk in your attic, especially when you notice the absurdly low view counts on each video. “All of those are accurate for the time period, which is pretty crazy,” laughs Seeley. “Even in 2010, if you had 2 million views on a video, that was like the biggest video on YouTube at the time, by far.” Don’t forget the typo-laden comment sections on each YouToob page, too, which Seeley pulled from the original posts he found while using Wayback Machine. Be warned: Most of the comments have dated slang and text emoticons that’ll make you cringe.

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