Unpredictable is a column from Caty McCarthy about recent games and other happenings bustling in the world of media. This week: the game Emily Is Away Too and the movie Alien: Covenant.
Do you remember AIM? AOL’s Instant Messenger? Where bloops of your crush logging online sent your heart racing, away messages were carefully crafted like works of art, and icons were meticulously chosen to represent your truest self.
In Emily Is Away, the 2015 bite-sized visual novel from independent developer Kyle Seeley, players got the chance to relive their days using AIM. And in its spiritual successor from Seeley, Emily Is Away Too, players get to experience even more of that very old-school internet experience. The type that cannot, and will not, exist ever again.
Emily Is Away Too was released on Steam on May 26th, 2017, just last week, for PC and Mac. The game’s a lot meatier than the experiment before it: players interact with two characters over chat instead of just one. Choices can drastically shift the narrative (unlike the original), where you’ll be plagued with a very Telltale Games-esque “[insert name here] will remember that.” But in Emily Is Away Too there’s a special extra bonus: spoofs of websites like Youtube and Facebook are often linked to within chats. The sites are not as we know them today, but as they once were, when they were cluttered as hell and almost offensive to the eyes to look at.
As I booted up Emily Is Away Too, I felt I should channel my inner Myspace-era self: extremely dumb screenname and all. At the start, I was immediately drawn to Evelyn, a “punkier” girl excited about Warped Tour and the screamo band Senses Fail. She sent me a link to a song of theirs over the messaging system and I clicked on it, only for the game to shoot me back to my real-world browser—not a faux-browser within the game. The website had a twist: this Youtube wasn’t the Youtube I’m used to today at all.
This faux-Youtube (named YouToob) was reskinned like the old days, with the Senses Fail video carefully embedded in the reminiscent space. I reopened the game, only to choose the dialogue option, “Yeah I like this,” as the song still played for me in the background. The game itself’s only sound being the soothing sound of typing.
Emily Is Away Too is immediately far more clever than its predecessor. With multiple characters to interact with and the faux-websites you’re often linked to, the game ventures beyond just being nostalgia bait. It literally transports you to another time entirely. A time where away messages fended off unsavory interactions. When friendships blossomed over shared musical interests. (I later ended up bonding more with Emily rather than Evelyn, after she shared a Sigur Ros album with me and effectively stole my heart. “Let’s go to Iceland,” I remember responding to her.)
It reminded me that nostalgia often feels like a trap when playing games, when it’s used ineffectively that is. With today’s news that Square Enix’s Tokyo RPG Factory is making another RPG following I Am Setsuna, I met it with skepticism. I Am Setsuna, while fine, was a game that erred too much on the games that inspired it. Altogether it forgot what made the JRPGs before it special at all: the sense of adventure and colorful characters. As a result, I Am Setsuna was ultimately bland. I Am Setsuna is use of baited nostalgia at its very worst.
In the original Emily Is Away, while an endearing concept, the too-linear pathway and one-dimensional characters made the game hard to connect with. While delightful in its reimagining of AIM in an uncanny way, it failed in most other ways.
In critic Julie Muncy’s piece “The Doom of Your Memories Doesn’t Really Exist,” she posits memory as an almost betraying thing. “When you revisit the things you cherished in the past, you’re likely not going to get quite what you remember, because what you remember doesn’t really exist,” she writes. “Our positive feelings about our favorite games heighten the good and minimize the bad.”
And she’s right. I replayed Kingdom Hearts, a childhood favorite, and found it not good enough to warrant the 100s of hours I once spent with it. Other games peddle nostalgia for other things as their saving grace, with not much else to offer. I Am Setsuna serves to remind of us of other JRPGs before it, more than cementing its own worthiness. The original Emily Is Away only wants us to recall another time, not to engage with it on any other level.
Luckily, Emily Is Away’s sequel seems to have fixed just those very qualms. Emily Is Away Too avoids its former nostalgia-baiting trappings to instead transport the player to a specific time and place, as the recent Twine adventure Arc Symphony did beyond its viral hype. In result, Emily Is Away Too creates a unique visual novel experience that feels plucked straight out of the early-mid 2000s, right down to its very first Snow Patrol reference.
This weekend I finally saw Alien: Covenant, Ridley Scott’s third outing in the series he once borne. I liked it. For some, that may be a controversial opinion. But I wanted to talk about why I liked it.
First, I’m a gal of simple tastes: I’m real into gore. Not Hostel and Saw-level human-on-human gore, but nasty, wildly ridiculous gore. The type that’s borderline cartoonish, well, in a twisted away. Aliens bursting out of people’s spines shit. That’s why I liked Alien: Covenant, it provided me with that gross terror that made me sink deep into my seat and gave Michael Fassbender what is no doubt his greatest acting challenge yet: acting opposite himself, and somehow still having intense sexual chemistry… with himself.
Alien: Covenant is a direct sequel to Prometheus, and an indirect prequel to the Alien movies that come after it. Alien: Covenant and Prometheus together explain the birth of the haunting monstrosities that eventually terrorize the empowered Ellen Ripley, and it does so with some fumbles, but mostly grace. The movie itself moves at an incredibly odd pace, with ups and downs as infrequent as a poorly designed rollercoaster. Tension is destroyed often with a single shot. That said, I still enjoyed Alien: Covenant.
Covenant’s biggest save is that for the first time in the series, there is a real, on-camera, present villain. And not of the non-vocal monster variety. This villain is menacing, sinister, their logic emboldened by a sick twist of fate; a creation they never asked for. This true villain is the one who imbues terror in Alien: Covenant, and not the alien critters that tear through flesh.
While the human characters of Covenant leave a lot to be desired—while not the all-star cast of Prometheus, a few recognizable faces fail to resonate beyond that, being recognizable—Michael Fassbender rises high above the rest in his dual performance. He is singularly intriguing, haunting, kind, mysterious. He elevates the entirety of Covenant as a film, just as he elevated my life when he declared love to himself on screen.