[Note before I start, that I get pretty shouty about gaslighting, manipulation, and rape in this post. So please proceed with caution and care.]
One of the (many) problems of the male as default protagonist in any form of entertainment is that it’s left me cold for vast swathes of media, even media that is critically acclaimed. We’re told that male protagonists are more “relate-able”, and that men can’t be expected to identify with female protagonists. And leaving aside the blatant unfairness of that statement, it is true that women will identify with male protagonists – to a certain point. However, after a while, it just gets hard to care about media obviously aimed at men. For most of my life, I consumed stories mostly about men, but past a certain point you start to ask – why am I never reflected? Why should I care about this story about Yet Another Chapter In the Continuing Adventures of Manly Mans Doing Manly Things when the purveyors couldn’t give two shits what I think?
So. Hold that thought a moment.
I’ve been meaning to write about Emily is Away for a while now. I’d heard great things about it from various sources about the game and how the unique interface delivers compelling gameplay through moments like watching your typing errors be corrected or watching yourself delete or revise your comments. My vague impression of Emily is Away was that it was supposed to be a charming love story about two people whose relationship is witnessed through AIM, and that it was supposed to be well executed.
That was something that I was really interested in! I’ve written previously about how I wish that AAA gaming would make more games that aren’t just violence simulators with awesome graphics. And given that I met my husband online in a newsgroup, then migrated to having conversations via ICQ and IRC… the whole “relationship by AIM” thing was nostalgia that I was interested in revisiting. I felt like I was in the audience that this story was targeting – people who chatted on archaic chat platforms of the 90’s who have had an internet romance.
Unfortunately, when I actually played Emily is Away, I had the rug pulled out from under me, because once again I discovered that I’d been suckered into playing a game that was emphatically Not Written For Me. That frustration only got worse the more times I played it, trying to explore the different branches, because the more I played, the more it hit home that this was a game written by a man for an audience of straight men. Moreover, this post took days to write because I discovered that I have a lot to say about that. So.
Let’s dig into what I mean when I say that this game was written by a man for an audience of straight men. Starting with:
Problem #1: The men in this game are people, the women are props
At no point in this game do we ever get a feel for what Emily as a person is like. She never says anything personal about herself that isn’t about her connection to another dude. She’s going to Travis’ party. She’s getting messages from Brad. She’s dating Brad! But she sure asks lots of questions about YOU – the dude protagonist. (And yes you can put in a female name at character creation. It won’t change the fact that you’re still a dude, but we’ll return to that.)
Emily asks what you chose as your major, but you never ask about hers – nor does she ever talk about what she ends up studying. In the game, you talk about classes, about group projects, about what school is like for you – but YOU NEVER ASK EMILY and SHE NEVER TALKS ABOUT IT. Even when she opens up and says personal things, the only things she talks about relate to her connection with YOU, the protagonist, or her off-again-on-again boyfriend, Brad. Emily isn’t a person. She doesn’t feel “real”. She’s a shallow cardboard cutout. An obvious stand-in for the ultimate Nice Guy fantasy – what if my female friend actually did have feelings for me all along?
Worse, the only other female character in the game, Emma. And she gets ONE out of THREE possible character traits: kind, funny, or hot. Emily at least gets to have a second dimension through some trivial personal details, like the fact that she likes Coldplay and Snow Patrol – which is more than Emma gets. Emma exists in one dimension, because that’s the only dimension she’s ever given. NEITHER of them gets to be a real, three-dimensional person. Even more frustrating, it is VERY HARD not to have a romantic relationship with her.
Emma is depersonalized to the extent that at the end of the game, it’s revealed that you don’t spend time with Emma anymore; if Emma was someone you were pursuing romantically and you chose to go down the path that leads to a romantic encounter with Emily (which we’ll get back to in a sec), Emma rightly kicks you to the curb for ditching your plans with her to make a booty call with your friend from high school. (Seriously, major dick move.) But even if you don’t! Even if you don’t ditch Emma, or you and Emma are nothing more than friends, the ending is always the same. At the end, Emma starts dating someone else and doesn’t have time for you anymore.
Which, really, is the ultimate Nice Guy fear. That a woman they like will find someone else, someone who contributes more than just not being a shitty human being who sees her only as a sexual goal to be attained, and stop spending time with them.
In Chapter 5, when Emily asks how Emma is doing, and you reveal that you don’t see her anymore, you literally don’t have an option that indicates that you’re sad about not seeing her anymore. Even if you and Emma are really good friends who talk all the time earlier in the story, the only possible responses show a breathtaking lack of regard for Emma as a human being:
And that? Makes me pretty furious. Because I have BEEN the woman surrounded by men who are unable to see me as a person. I’ve been the woman that men call an ignorant judgemental cunt, or a fat jealous lesbian, or who say that I’m raising my daughter to be a dysfunctional lesbian – just because I have opinions they don’t agree with about games. I’ve been the female friend who realizes that her male friend, the friend that she felt close to, never actually cared about her – he just liked having someone around who admired his work and stroked his ego. And I’ve been the woman who had use her relationship status (“taken”) to fend off men she’d rather not speak to. Because I’m not enough of a person to have my wishes respected, but my husband is.
I have a lifetime of experience of being the fake woman, the cardboard cutout, the prop in a man’s self-centered reordering of the universe to be all about him. And maybe it’s completely unfair, but my knee-jerk reaction is that of course only a man could look at how Emily and Emma are presented and see the situation as “charming” or “romantic”, because so many men aren’t used to thinking of women as real people anyhow.
Problem #2: the game is NOT gender neutral
Technically, you can put in any name you want. There’s never any pronouns used, so the protagonist can be any gender the player wants… TECHNICALLY. In practice, however, the game and all the dialogue read as YOU ARE A HETERO DUDE.
I like playing immersively, so I used my name. I also decided that for my first playthrough, I wanted to just be Emily’s friend. And, you know, mostly that worked until about halfway through Chapter 3. Emily is sad about a bad breakup, which has cost her all of her friends – who sided with her ex, and reveals that she used to have feelings for the protagonist.
Which. You know. Nice Guy fantasy. But also, it is the most boringly cliched hetero romance moment ever, that I simply could not take seriously the idea that the protagonist was anything other than a straight dude. Seriously:
And look. I get it. The stars are romantic. I, too, have gone for a walk with my beloved and marveled at the stars. They’re large and unfathomable and we are but tiny ephemeral things whose connections will never matter on a cosmic scale. I get it.
But. That doesn’t change the fact that this is a literal retelling of a thing that happens in every other movie about a hetero romance movie ever. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Scott Pilgrim, The Fault in Our Stars, Gregory’s Girl, A Beautiful Mind, My Girl… the list goes on and on.
Anyway, the moment where things go from mildly frustrating to totally fucking gross what the actual fuck just happened here occurs in Chapter 4, in response to events from Chapter 3. Which brings you to:
Problem #3: This game makes you a rapist, then tells you asserting healthy boundaries is JUST AS BAD AS THAT
See, during that conversation in Chapter 3, after Emily reveals that she had feelings for you, she asks if she can come visit you THIS WEEKEND OR NOT AT ALL, and you have several shitty options: 1) say no, you don’t think it would be a good idea, because Emily just told you about her past feelings and she’s coming off a bad breakup, so she can’t visit you AT ALL NEVER EVER. 2) Say “yes you can come visit” with no qualifications 3) Say yes you can come visit, but only as friends.
Because I was trying to play someone who didn’t have a relationship with Emily, I made the most neutral responses that I could when she was revealing her feelings to me, “I didn’t know you felt that way” and “you should have said something”. But when she asked if she could come visit, I said sure! Because she needed support, and in at the beginning it’s established that the two of you are best friends, even if the protagonist is too chickenshit to say it outright. (“You’re my best friend” is one of the things he deletes and corrects.) And sure it meant canceling on plans to do stuff with Emma, but I reasoned we’re all adults and Emma should understand “best friend is in trouble, needs support” – because it’s the compassionate thing to do.
After agreeing to the visit, I even said (the first time around) ‘sure, bring your booze’ when she asks about alcohol, reasoning we’d hang around campus and do shit and just get drunk enough to have fun and feel better about a shitty situation. There have been lots of times where I’ve hung out with friends in shitty situations and got drunk with them to help them feel better.
Which, you know, yay! Until Chapter 4, which opens a year after that visit, with Emily apologizing for not messaging in a while. She says she’s felt weird about things between you, and when pressed responds with the following:
I felt sick. Actually sick. “Of course I didn’t plan that” was the least skeevy response it would let me make, and it was still defensive and not okay. But then it went even further. Emily tells you about how in retrospect, it all seemed so planned. That you introduced her to all your friends, then took her back to your dorm room and got her drunk and you “hooked up”. And she’s felt weird and not okay about it ever since. And no matter what response you make, the protagonist types “you wanted to hook up”, then erases it and replaces it with “I don’t know”.
And THAT? That was like a bucket of cold water. Because “you wanted it” is what rapists tell their victims.
Literally nothing about how Emily describes the situation reads as consensual to me. The defensive responses, the fact that you can even claim to ‘not have noticed’ that things were weird, the fact that your initial impulse is to tell her that she wanted it. This doesn’t read like a misunderstanding between star-crossed lovers. This reads like a woman who is hurt and traumatized by something that she knows wasn’t okay, something that violated her trust in someone that she loved, and she’s trying to confront that without being ready to call what happened to her “rape”. Not yet.
While this whole thing played out, I couldn’t help but remember stories that I’ve heard from other women about having their trust violated by a friend who told them that they wanted it. I’ve heard and read so many stories, so many stories where a woman talks about being raped by a man that she loved and trusted, who told her that she wanted it, and who refused to accept that what he did was not okay when confronted later. And they read uncomfortably close to how this scene plays out. This scene that is supposed to be “romantic”. This scene where you find out that you are a rapist, and it happened offscreen, and you couldn’t do anything about it.
So I went back and replayed it. Made the same choices up to that point, but then told Emily not to bring booze. But that still doesn’t make much difference. You still hook up, things are still weird and wrong, and in dubious consent territory. And this time when Emily calls you on it:
YOU SEEMED FINE?
BEFORE SHE VISITED SHE WAS CRYING TO YOU, LITERALLY CRYING ABOUT HER BREAKUP AND HOW SHE HATED EVERYTHING AND HER SCHOOL AND ALL HER FRIENDS HAD DUMPED HER. SO. NO. THAT IS WRONG. “I don’t know” is such a fucking disingenuous response, because the entire situation that led to this visit? The fact that you and Emily talk all the time, and have this long past together? You know. You fucking well KNOW she’s not okay. How could you not?
The only saving grace is that at least this time around it’s not rape, because Emily was sober and capable of consent. But this is some skeevy emotional manipulation bullshit, and then the fact that the protagonist claims ignorance of her emotional state after the fact? No. NO.
I’ve had my body used for the gratification of a man in a situation that I didn’t consent to. I shut down. I froze, I didn’t move or speak. But when I confronted my attacker later, he at least had the grace to be ashamed and own that what he did wasn’t okay and apologize. Because he knew. HE KNEW and he did it anyway, because in that moment what he wanted was more important than my safety.
And I’ve had men gaslight me. Men who I thought were friends and confidants, who turned my world upside down, tried to convince me that I was a monster because I insisted on trying to get them to see themselves in a critical light because I cared about them and wanted them to be better. Men who decided it was better to betray my trust and destroy my confidence in how I saw myself because it wasn’t compatible with them seeing themselves as the HERO OF THEIR OWN STORY.
So yeah. No.
[ahem] So that’s shitty option number 2. What about shitty options #1 (no you can’t visit ever) and #3 (yes you can visit, but only as a friend). Well, if you opt for #1, at the beginning of Chapter 4 Emily mentions that she had a breakdown after you wouldn’t let her visit and blames you for abandoning her in her time of need. Which. I mean. Fine. You know, having Emily be so emotionally fragile that she falls to pieces and goes crazy the instant a man isn’t there to validate her self-worth is shitty, but at least “you said you’d support me and didn’t” is a legitimate grievance, even if the situation that is presented is so stereotypical and gendered that I can’t even.
And if you opt for #3, Chapter 4 opens with Emily berating you about how things will never be okay because you “missed your chance” and “that was the moment” you could have gotten together and YOU BLEW IT. And the anger and recrimination is just as strong in that situation, the situation in which you asserted a healthy boundary and didn’t take advantage of a woman you cared about who was deeply vulnerable, as it is in situation #2 – in which you can become an actual rapist.
Because the problem, THE REAL PROBLEM, is that Emily has feelings toward the protagonist that aren’t positive. It doesn’t matter if they arise from a legitimate grievance, or you “not making your move”, or you taking advantage of her and possibly raping her. The outcome is always the same, because the protagonist’s actions don’t matter. What matters is that Emily is rejecting you, and that is the REAL tragedy.
Problem #4: No matter what choices you make, in the end you are always The Sad Nice Guy Abandoned By That Girl Who Should Have Chosen Him Instead
Chapter 5 opens by being the only chapter in which you have to message Emily first to talk to her. And during that conversation, Emily is obviously doing a slow fade. She’s not pulling her weight in the conversation, making terse responses, and not trying to keep it going.
Though of course the one exception to this is when she asks, unprompted, about Emma and the protagonist has the aforementioned hissy fit about how she had to get a new boyfriend and doesn’t spend time with him anymore. And it’s ironic that this, THIS, is perhaps the only thing that the author gets right. That dismissal of Emma as a person who has worth independent of her willingness to satisfy your boner is the moment when Emily shuts down and stops trying. You pepper her with questions about stupid shit. Concerts, summer plans, whatnot, and she gives you the soft rejection. Because that’s what women learn to do with men they have reason to be afraid of, to let them down easy so they don’t get stabbed.
But even then, he comes at it all wrong – because the tragedy isn’t what a what a sad, miserable human being you are. The tragedy isn’t that you’re an entitled dickmonster incapable of seeing women as real human beings with hopes and dreams and aspirations. The tragedy is supposed to be that you are SAD and CONFUSED and ALONE, and you don’t understand how you could be graduating college WITHOUT A WOMAN. Because our culture PROMISED YOU A WOMAN.
It’s infuriating to play through a game that misses the point so completely that it ends up in an entirely different universe of NOT THE GODDAMN POINT. And it’s disappointing, because honestly – I’ve had friendships fizzle out where one person stopped caring, friendships that have played out over messaging. And it sucks. It hurts, and it’s painful, and it leaves you bewildered and wondering what you did wrong. So that game? That game I would have played and enjoyed. But not this. Never this.
Emily is Away isn’t “touching” or “romantic”. It’s a disturbing highlight of how entitled men feel to women’s time and attention, and how willing men are to dehumanize someone in the pursuit of achieving their own romantic desires.
 And before you ask what makes that seem so hetero, looking at the stars is just romantic, right? That might be the case if Hollywood didn’t make the few gay love stories they produce tragic like EVERY GODDAMN TIME. Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Brokeback Mountain, Rent, Love is Strange, Carol, Cracks, Aimée & Jaguar, Blue is the Warmest Colour (not death)… you get the idea
It’s pretty fucking impossible to think of a movie about a gay romance that ends happily. …like, to be honest, I’m a movie buff and I literally can’t remember one.
 And yeah, I know about Kyle Seeley’s response to Emily Short’s review, in which she raises the issue of ‘um, you are describing rape’. And in that response, he starts by telling Emily ‘she’s wrong’, ‘it’s not rape’. And then he handwaves and says well you know, he’s not saying Emily’s feelings are wrong or whatever. And then he fails to stick the landing with an ‘I’m sorry if you were offended’ nonpology. (“I’m sorry to anyone who interprets the story that way”). So no, if anything he just dug the hole deeper.