Updated: Jan 24
What's going on everyone?
I recently decided to teach a lesson using the video game Emily is Away developed by Kyle Seeley. I figured it would be a fun lesson before sending my students off for the holidays. You can find the lesson plan for Emily is Away here.
Emily is Away is an interactive story set in a retro chat-client. Create a screen name and choose your path through the branching narrative.” The game is free to play and only takes about 30 to 40 minutes to complete. It can be taught in 1-2 lessons and I believe it will be a fun and unique way to get our students to read.
I started the lesson by asking students how they mostly communicate with other people. The most common answers were either face-to-face and texting. From here we went on to have a conversation about how people communicated before texting became mainstream. We talked about how AIM (AOL Instant Messenger) radically changed how people communicated with each other. It was really the first time that people communicated in real time over the internet. Email existed, but that was a much slower form of communication. You actually had to check to see if you received any emails. With AIM, your friends could actually see if you were online and a chat would automatically open if someone started a conversation with you. We no longer needed to be face-to-face with people in order to converse with one another. It laid the foundation for texting which is currently the most prevalent form of communication between adults in many countries. Some of the students recognized the old Windows Operating system, but only a couple of them knew what AIM was.
Emily is Away takes this medium and turns it into a short story. It’s a visual novel where the player can interact with the story. While the plot of the game is mostly linear, the player does get to choose various dialogue options that will directly affect the relationship between the player and their friend Emily.
It is a very poignant game that exemplifies just how we as a people, especially teenagers, have learned to communicate differently than the generations that came before us. It is also a story that cannot be told as a traditional text. The dialogue choices are necessary to help the player project themself into the game's story. There are visual cues that add to the story which simple text cannot accomplish. It is also fun interacting with a technology that I myself have not touched in almost 20 years.
When you enter the game you are greeted by that familiar sign-in tone from AIM. When I played it, a wave of nostalgia immediately rushed over me. I was about 9 years old when I first started using AIM and it was great relieving those memories of rushing home from school just so I could chat with my friends over the Internet. As the game continued on however, those fond memories quickly disappeared and turned into something significantly more cringey.
The Aim of the lesson is, "How do the dialogue choices in Emily is Away strengthen the overall narrative of the game?" The purpose of choosing this game was to show how inserting player choice in a narrative heavy game gives the "readers" more autonomy than a typical book. It lets the players connect more with the story because they actually have some choice in how it plays out. Your first major choice in the game is to choose whether or not to attend a party with your friend Emily. You can see in the student work provided that the students chose to go. They could have also decided to stay home if partying isn't something that particularly interests them.
The game is broken up into 5 chapters told over the course of five years. It begins in your senior year of high school and continues through college graduation. You relationship with Emily gets more and more complicated every year she reaches out to you. You attend different colleges and it is clear that this friendship is struggling to stay afloat. You can attempt to remain friends, or you can choose to try and have a romantic relationship with Emily. Emily often reaches out looking for advice and instead of helping her, you may make choices that are in your own best interest. It was interesting watching how students decided to progress the story. You can see in question 2 that most of the students were not helping Emily at all. And in question 3 you can see that the students feel the dialogue choices are realistic and can see themselves making similar decisions in real life. One student wrote that, "I know I will definitely do or say something like this."
What the player begins to realize is that no matter what choices you make, your relationship with Emily eventually deteriorates. There is nothing you can do to save it. The point as one of my students puts is, "that people change with time and that it's difficult to keep a relationship between friends with distance." This is especially true for those who went off to college before social media was available. While the way the game ends may vary, you are still unable to salvage your friendship. One student mentioned that "it's frustrating and heartbreaking to feel like the game is actually real." This student in particular is heading off to college next year so it probably resonated with him on a deeper level.
The purpose of this lesson was to introduce my students to dialogue choices in games. In the future I hope to bring in more complex games that feature this game mechanic. Emily is Away is a great entry point to show students how choices in dialogue help them connect more with the characters in the game allowing for an overall stronger narrative. It is also free to play and only takes about 45 minutes to get through the entire story. You can play it on Steam here. Definitely try this game out with your students. They really loved it despite how simple the gameplay is. It is super accessible and I found it to be the perfect game to play before leaving for winter break. There is also a sequel to the game which I would love to teach with in the future as well.
Thanks for reading,