‘This is a game where the devil is in the details‘ – Bee Bonthuys on Sam Barlow’s Her Story
Today you asked the barman down at your local about Her Story. Why all the secrecy? Why won’t anyone speak to you!? For once, the usually talkative One-Armed Willy didn’t have much to say. As you drowned your sorrows in a Jack and Coke, he just kept on polishing that mug – an impressive feat for a man with only one arm – while shooting pitying glances your way. Willy knows something, but like everyone else, he ain’t sayin’ nothin’.
Even Her Story’s Steam page seems a bit light in the description department: a woman is interviewed seven times by the police, and it goes on to mutter something about a murder, video clips and finding answers, and now you’re having flashbacks to those FMV adventure games from the ’90s with their scratchy video and terrible acting.
So why is everyone so tight-lipped over this indie title? Maybe because this is a difficult game to talk about; even the smallest slip might dampen that ‘new game glow’ and once you’ve 100-percented it, you’ll mostly likely spend days anxiously waiting for someone you know to play it too as you’ll just have to talk about it to someone. And isn’t that the mark of a good title?
British game designer Sam Barlow, of psychological horror Silent Hill: Shattered Memories fame, might be flirting with genius here. Although that will not be apparent when you first boot up: first impressions are a bit underwhelming, with the interface appearing downright basic. The whole game environment is designed to look like an ancient police desktop. Nothing to see here, folks… except for a rather deceivingly drab selection of Windows 95 icons.
Where do you go next? The tiny bit of ‘tutorial’ text (cleverly disguised as a simple readme file) provides you with some direction. A freedom of information request has been filed on the player’s behalf, granting you access to the South East Police Force’s archived footage of interrogations and interviews. That – and one word, murder – is as much background as Barlow will grant you at the start, because Her Story is about finding the right questions to ask. You already have the final answer, but it’s the questions that make the journey worth it.
Who was murdered? When, what, where and how? Well, that’s what you’ve been tasked to find out. How to you go about this? That’s the brilliant puzzling aspect of Her Story. The gameplay is incredibly simple: the player searches for a word in the database and it might return a clip or two (all of these live-action video of a young woman) if that word is said in the clip. This may sound monotonous, but you’ll find yourself doing a fair bit of deduction, trying to find words that will lead you closer to Her. Much like Tetris, the gameplay on show here is easy to learn, but deceptively complex; nothing is just handed to you, and how much of the story you discover is totally dependant on you.
And that story, let me tell you, is a doozy. The plot feels pulled right out of Law and Order or CSI, but neither police procedural has anything on this one. The plot twists, contorts and U-turns on itself, and just when you think you’ve heard everything, Her Story throws another curveball your way.
Similar modern interactive story games such as Gone Home have shown that the gaming industry has grow up emotionally, pushing storytelling front and centre, without need for an ammo clip full of spectacle. Her Story narrows this focus even more, by removing all the action affectations and relying solely on the power of the image to convey meaning.
In many ways the player’s role in Her Story’s, well, story is a passive one, The events you’re learning of happened in 1994 or earlier, so the ability to effect change is minimal. This creates an odd feeling of intrusion, of an unsettling helplessness; you are a voyeur of a different time. But Barlow still manages to keep the player engrossed by employing a cleverly crafted trail of breadcrumbs and the classic lure of a good ol’ mystery.
This is a game where the devil is in the details, testing the player’s ability to spot the most insignificant of aberrations. Finding the right combination of words might lead you to the final ‘solution’ quicker, but it’s the details that draw you into the lives of the people you are being told about that make it special.
Much like in Shattered Memories, this title tells you something about yourself. Do you go digging for the salacious tidbits first or concentrate on cold, hard facts? It’s up to you: no ‘Game Over’ screen here. (Wouldn’t David Cage be proud?) What is certain, though, is that no one journey through Her Story will be alike. While the plot is basically linear, the way it unravels isn’t, and every player will go about things in his or her own way.
Here a special nod has to go to Viva Seifert (of the band Joe Gideon & the Shark) who portrays Her Story’s mysterious Jane Doe. While her responses might come across a tad wooden at times, remember to take nothing at face value. The weight of this whole enterprise rests squarely on her acting ability, which is a daunting task, and as the player digs deeper, you will truly see the evolution of the character Seifert is inhabiting.
Seifert’s performance is underlined by Her Story’s soundtrack of ethereal techno beats, underscored by the hum and drone of an IBM XT, which creates an isolating atmosphere as the minutes tick by, and subtle shifts in the score and lighting hint that you might be stumbling in the right direction.
It’s important to mention that even with all its innovative gameplay, Her Story might not be every gamer’s summer indie darling. I can’t see it spawning the numerous genre imitations that Minecraft or Gone Home did, and the lack of replayability will put some off. (That’s forgivable, though, since price-wise it’s only slightly more expensive than a soy mocha venti and overall better for your figure.) Criticism might also come from gamers who feel it’s a low-budget film masquerading as a game. If you’re after something that requires a no-scope kill counter, this title isn’t for you.
Her Story is a game about exploring the psyches and lives of ordinary people, taking a peek behind the curtain of civilised society. Is everyone really as normal as they appear? It will satisfy the armchair detective in anyone, and players who hunt down every clue will be discussing the ending around the bar for years to come, while shooting the pitying glance any those who haven’t.