Her Story is a unique indie mystery game-cum-interactive movie from Sam Barlow, the creator of Silent Hill: Shattered Memories. If you’re interested in a game that pushes the storytelling envelope without delivering much gameplay or puzzle solving mechanics (outside those occuring inside your own head), you should check it out. It’s a game that places heavy emphasis on plot and tone, and almost none on gameplay variety. It wasn’t designed to be the new face of video games. It was designed to be an artistic, minimalist enigma that you’ll likely be thinking about weeks later. It accomplishes this, and then some. So if an artsy, cerebral, dark mystery that tasks you with solving a murder by reviewing monologues is something you’re interested in, give this game your time. It will be worth it.
We’ve all heard the story before: a sharp-as-steel detective tracks one clue to the next before putting the entire crime together in his head and meting out justice to the foul, duplicitous criminal. This is the version of “detective mystery” we’ve seen popularized on TV shows like CSI, but it’s existed for much longer, with mysteries like Sherlock Holmes. So, what’s kept it alive for so long? What makes this version of mystery stories so fun to consume?
Isn’t it because the idea of a detective who uses logic, who stands on the side of the truth™ and saves the day, comforts us? Reassures us that the world really is a sensible place, where the truth wins out and justice always has its day? Pacifies us with the notion that mysteries are always explainable, always end up making perfect logical sense? Of course, we know better, despite the popularity of bad-guy-of-the-week TV procedurals. In the real world, mysteries don’t always light the way to revelation. They often just lead to deeper and deeper mysteries. Because the world isn’t our intellectual oyster – it isn’t a puzzle that’s just waiting to be solved. Lies and mysteries don’t exist merely to be figured out by the intrepid detective. Rather, the world is more like a beguiling house of mirrors that warps and twists our own perceptions into themselves the further inside the funhouse we dare tread.
In essence, that’s what Her Story is all about. It’s a game that ideologically rejects much of the trappings of detective genre fiction. Despite casting you as its detective. And despite providing you with the most cliche of all detective mystery plots – an unsolved murder. Much like the TV show True Detective or the book series The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster, this is a detective story that subverts the very premise most detective tales are founded upon.
In other words, Her Story isn’t a game that you’ll walk away from feeling confident in the forces of good and truth. It isn’t even a game that gives you a clear idea of what the actual truth is. These are decisions and distinctions that you alone are forced to make for yourself and whatever conclusions you come to, they are likely incomplete answers. There’s at least one piece of evidence that won’t square with your conclusion, whatever the specifics. And, depending on how you play the game, by the end there will still be questions you can’t even begin to answer. And isn’t that grand?
In short, you won’t find closure here, in the way you might from an episode of CSI. Like a true to life mystery story, this game’s questions just dovetail into deeper and darker mysteries. And when you start your journey down the rabbit hole that is Her Story, prepare to be in the dark. Prepare to be occasionally terrified. Prepare to argue about it on message boards. But most of all, prepare to play an insightful and innovative game that rebuffs the age old “can video games be art?” argument. Her Story is a work of art that could only exist as a video game. And as a big believer in the medium specificity argument, I see this as a very good thing for all of gaming.
You play as a silent detective, whose face and personality are only revealed indirectly. The entire game takes place within the interface of a clunky, early 2000’s looking PC located at a local police station. For reasons that are at first unknown, you’ve been given access to a number of case files from the mid 90’s, but only ones pertaining to a very specific crime. That crime – the murder of Simon Smith – is the only mystery you’ll be attempting to solve. In the process, you slowly uncover information that demonstrates this is far from a routine investigation. And by the game’s “ending,” if it can be called that, the very notions of evidence, logic, identity, and the sensibility of the world will all be drawn into serious question.
The gameplay itself is the least interesting thing about Her Story, though I’ll admit even this is designed pretty cleverly. The single gameplay element is a search engine-like system that you use to sort through various fragments of relevant interrogations (in the form of short FMV’s) regarding the murder of Simon Smith. Yet oddly enough, the only two suspects you’ll ever hear from, through the barriers of both time and technology, are Hannah and Eve. These two women each knew the victim and each hold all the evidence necessary to solve the murder (to the extent it can be, that is). Your job is to filter through the hundreds of video clips available to you through the use of keywords, with only your own ingenuity and listening skills to guide your searches.
There’s an application on the police desktop that, once opened, informs you how many of the clips you’ve watched and how many remain. The goal of the game is to watch enough clips to piece together the events surrounding Simon Smith’s murder and come to your own conclusions as to what really occurred. But, in case this review hasn’t already demonstrated, nothing about the story you eventually uncover is straightforward, purely logical, or close-ended. This is a heavily open-ended game, lending itself to multiple interpretations. And that’s a big part of what makes Her Story so special. Even the very mechanic of watching these clips, pulled randomly from equally random dates and times, scrambles your sense of linearity until you finally begin to piece together the narrative’s chronology. It’s like piecing together a “found footage” story that’s been chronologically scrambled a la Pulp Fiction.
The bilk of the game centers around watching clips of either Hannah or Eve, where you must listen closely for clues as to what your next search entry should be. This takes a lot of creative thinking and deductive logic on behalf of the player, something that might remind you of the point-and-click adventure games of old. But Her Story takes what worked about that format and jettisons most of what often made those games so frustrating – you won’t have to worry about combining a rag doll and a can of soda to make a flamethrower, or some such 90’s adventure game nonsense. Every superfluous element has been sanded away, leaving only the raw gameplay mechanic of critical thinking behind. And that’s a definite improvement.
In order to play Her Story, you have to be an active listener. You have to really play at being a detective – sorry, no Witcher sense or Batman vision to do the heavy lifting for you. And when you do eventually uncover the really important bits to the story, you’ll be surprised at how good it feels to find a huge revelation of your own accord. There are no hints provided by the game, other than the ones embedded in the hundreds of video clips. There are no tips on how to play, no guide provided by the game on how to be a better listener or thinker. All these things are on the player. Like I said, this leads to feeling like you’ve really accomplished something once that keyword you entered on an off chance brings up a new set of unwatched clips. Admittedly, the downside of this is that you might get stuck once or twice as to what keyword to search for next. If you can’t think of new keywords, you won’t be able to find unwatched clips. And without watching all the pertinent clips, the mystery’s impossible to solve. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit there were a number of search entries I did as complete guesses – ketchup, for instance. That being said, there were a few times that total guesses paid off. It’s all a combination of critical thinking, good listening (or note taking), and luck.
A place Her Story really shines is in its acting. There’s only two characters with any speaking lines, and the stories they tell comprise roughly 95% of the entire game. So you’d better hope the creators of the game cast good actors to play these roles! They managed to cast believable, nuanced actors that will surprise you in their complexity. If you’re like me, you may end up rewinding a clip over and over again just to observe the way Eve seems to dart her eyes to the right just after lying. You might, like me, feel suspicious that there’s more to the reserved Hannah than she wants to let on.
Having actors who seem realistic is crucial for this experimental gameplay experience to work – and fortunately, this necessity is met with aplomb. For a medium that gets constantly mocked for its historically badly written dialogue and poorly acted characters, Her Story does much to refute the idea that video games are unequivocally a bastion for subpar writing and acting performances. The original intro to Resident Evil, this is not.
And what’s even more important, Her Story accomplishes its enthralling story and compelling characters without making a game that could have just as easily worked as a film. Much like Alan Moore’s Watchmen is for comics, Her Story is a work that was designed to highlight the strengths of its own medium. You are the editor of this narrative. You are the one deciding which direction to take the story in next, when to revisit old testimony, and what line of questioning to pursue. That being said, the level of interactivity offered here is admittedly meager when compared to other games – after all, like I said; most of the game is spent listening and watching clips of women talking.
You will also type keywords into a search engine that looks like a remnant of the AOL days of late 90’s internet. You sit in your chair, motionless, debating what keyword to put in next. So as far as making the case for games as interactive works of art, there are likely better examples out there. But what’s interesting here is that Her Story takes a genre that’s more commonly found in television and film and subverts it to work as a video game in a way it just couldn’t work as anything else. Not only does Her Story pull this off, it presents the “detective mystery” genre as something that can actually be improved by the interactivity gaming offers. Rather than watching, say, Liam Neeson or Denzel Washington putting all the pieces together on camera for us, we are the detectives in this story. We are brought into the narrative as a character searching for the truth and it’s our actions that determine whether this goal is ever achieved. So in that regard, Her Story excels in making the case of gaming as a viable medium for art and storytelling better than some of its bigger, flashier colleagues.
If you care about diversity in video games – literal diversity, in the sense that you’re tired of playing games which all feature similar protagonists, game mechanics, and shoehorned in features like crafting systems – this is a must own game almost by virtue of its uniqueness alone. I’d be lying if I said that the game’s prominent use of female characters didn’t please me greatly, since I am one of those crazed loons who thinks having different, newer types of characters and themes featured in gaming won’t magically cause Cthulhu to rise from his water-logged slumber and destroy the universe. But even if diverse representation in video games isn’t something you’re particularly passionate about, these are well rounded and deeply complex individuals that are fascinating to get to know. Politics aside, Her Story is a win for writing in video games. It’s a “win” for uniqueness, for artistry, and for depth. And in the immortal words of Kanye West, we should all do our part to respect artistry.
Her Story is a game that is more about story than anything else. This means mileage may vary on this title, depending on how much you’re willing to sit around and puzzle solve with your own brain – rather than through the intermediary of a gameplay mechanic. That being said, these are not faults of the game per se. Her Story was designed to be an unusual experience – a minimalistic excursion into some very deep philosophical questions without any of the trappings of a conventional video game dragging it down. I, for one, am ok with the game being light on variety and actual gameplay since it’s so heavy on good writing, good story, and interesting themes. Themes I can’t really go into at all without spoiling the game, but suffice to say: this game is great to play with friends or your SO, because you’ll be dying to have somebody to talk to about it afterwards.
That isn’t to say I’d be happy if every game plays and feels like Her Story – far from it, in fact. It’s this game’s unusualness that makes it so special. It’s because this game is so unpretentious and understated in its presentation and feel that I found myself so intrigued by it. So to be clear: this isn’t a game that will necessarily set the gaming world on fire, and inspire countless derivatives and knock offs. It won’t be the highest selling game of 2015. But I wouldn’t be surprised if it becomes the most talked about and analyzed game of 2015. And as I’ve been saying all along, that’s totally fine. All Her Story set out to do was tell a low-key yet fascinating tale of intrigue, drama, and depth the likes of which we don’t often see in video games. And as far as that goal goes, I’d say Her Story achieves it in spades.