The past is a fickle thing. Our memories paint a warped picture of the lives we’ve led, obscuring our shames and our failures while accentuating our joys and our successes. This mental self-editing is vital to maintaining a positive self-image; if we remembered each and every mistake we’d made throughout our lives, we’d curl up into ourselves and never set foot outside our homes. Nevertheless, sometimes it’s useful to reflect upon the less flattering aspects of our history, examining who we were to see how far we’ve come. After all, mistakes aren’t so bad so long as we learn from them.

Emily Is Away is an exercise in this kind of self-reflection. Designed to evoke the early 2000s with its Windows XP interface and AIM chat client, it is clearly targeted towards those of us who were teenagers during that time period. But though the boot-up sound and the IM notification chime initially conjure up the warm and fuzzies for a time when everything was new and exciting, those feelings start to fade as the narrative gets underway. From the first words typed by the main character - named by you, which only heightens the sense of déjà vu - it is clear that he has a thing for the girl on the other side of the chat window - the eponymous Emily. He - and though gender is never explicitly stated, heterosexuality is heavily implied - agrees eagerly with everything she says, he backspaces and retypes his unsent messages to mask his true feelings with feigned indifference, and he jumps at any chance to hang out with her.

At first, his infatuation appears innocent enough, but it swiftly spirals into something far less wholesome. When he finds out that Emily has a boyfriend, he sets about questioning the strength of their relationship, pulling at the seams in an effort to unravel them. Later, when he discovers that they have broken up, he takes advantage of Emily’s vulnerable state to get closer to her. He proclaims that he would never treat her like that, and that she is better off with someone who really cares about her, like him. His shameless entreaties get him what he wants; Emily comes to see him, and that night marks a turning point in their relationship. Emily regrets it almost immediately, and starts distancing herself from him and his unwanted advances. In response, he acts all woebegone and tries to play the pity card, which earns him no sympathy. He might not want to admit it, but he dug himself this grave.

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The 2000s aesthetic is an effective litmus test for whether the game is likely to resonate with you.

The sense of entitlement he exhibits towards Emily might seem pretty reprehensible in retrospect, but it’s not that far from the sad reality of the ‘good guy’ and ‘friendzone’ fallacies. The notion that courtesy and kindness should be rewarded with intimacy is absurd, and it leads to rotten, irrevocable mistakes that leave the Emilys crying themselves to sleep. Innocence dies, friendships crumble, and the truly good people suffer. In the end, nobody wins and everybody’s miserable.

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It’s in this ugly truth that lies the strength of Emily Is Away. Without pulling punches, its narrative lays bare the foolishness of youth and the damage we can cause when we put our personal desires before the wellbeing of others. Through its nostalgic lens, it shines a light on the dark side of the past, exposing what would normally be buried beneath the bricks of ego. This kind of reflection is valuable; it is all too easy to fool ourselves into thinking that who we are now is who we’ve always been. But that’s not true, and accepting that we are as much a product of our failures as we are our successes is crucial if we are to brave the challenges of the future. None of us are perfect, and mistakes are inevitable, so it is vital that we acknowledge and learn from them in order to become better people.

In this way, playing Emily Is Away felt a little like Scrooge’s visit from the Ghost of Christmas Past. I saw the spectres of my own past resurrected before me, dragging with them the shame of my youthful naivety. Recalling how egotistical my motivations once were was not fun by any definition of the term, but it did remind me how much I’ve matured in the years since. It made me thankful I’m no longer that kind of person, no longer driven by hormones and peer pressure to pursue something society seemed to expect of me. The backwards focus of Emily Is Away made me appreciate the present all the more, and that’s a nice change from the rosy hue of most nostalgia trips. The past can be an ugly place, and sometimes it’s worth remembering that.

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Emily Is Away is available for free on Steam or from the game’s website.

Matt Sayer is 50% gamer, 50% writer, 50% programmer, and 100% terrible at maths. You can read more of his articles here, friend him on Steam here or tweet him cat photos at @sezonguitar