Developer: Sam Barlow
Platform: Windows, Mac, iOS, Android
Regrettably as the older I’ve become, the less effort I’ve found myself willing to put into playing computer games. I prefer to blame the time constrictions of maturation: fatherhood, home ownership, Netflixing with my better half. Ultimately, however, the greatest factor is my waning patience with gratification. This extends to all forms of media; if I have to wait longer than five minutes for stimulation, my interest wanders. Thus, the piled up bin of pilot episodes (sorry Nurse Jackie), second chapters (you too The Girl Who Played with Fire), and barely played computer games (maybe later Quest for Glory 2) awaiting continuation but more likely relegated to eternally gathering dust. Despite this I’m also not looking for cheap and unsatisfying thrills (I’m looking at you Angry Birds). Her Story may be my panacea, motivating me not only to play through its story, but also to forge on and try other games that have been sitting on my virtual shelf for far too long.
The genre bin one could dump Her Story into most easily is that of interactive movie. There are virtually no puzzles and a satisfying conclusion to the game can be met in just a couple hours. However, unlike some interactive movies that just involve mindless clicking, author Sam Barlow does a masterful job and allowing the player to become invested, attempting to deduce the truth behind the story at their own pace.
The mechanics of the game are simple. You are presented with an old police database of interrogation videos, all of the same woman under suspicion of murder. Because the database is old and poorly maintained, you have access to only short clips with no way to effectively watch them in order; the videos are not tagged with timestamps, but rather with keywords. Thus, the only way to access each video is by guessing a word that the interviewee says. The game starts you off with “murder,” which produces a few videos where that word comes up and where you learn she’s under suspicion. It is then the player’s job to follow their own trail, accessing further videos by following different rabbit trails. The brilliance in this game lies within the fact that the “truth” of this woman’s history is revealed exactly as slowly or quickly as it needs to; while not every player with have their “a-ha!” moment at the same time or even with the same video, it will happen eventually. And even after you’ve had that moment, accessing further videos provides more character development while possibly casting doubts on assumptions you thought were convictions just moments before. I found myself turning her story over in my head for several days after playing, a true testament to the writing. I’m also not the only one, as several blogs on the internets are dedicated to analyzing and dissecting the interrogation, a treat if you want to completely doubt your own intuition.
Of course, none of the above would matter if the acting were sub par. Viva Seifert, a gymnast and keyboardist with virtually no acting experience was given the role (and it’s the only role; you never hear the interrogators during the game) and while she isn’t going to win an Oscar any time soon, she most definitely holds her own. There were a couple videos where she appeared to be projecting her emotions before she would have actually felt them, but all in all she was convincing with her non-verbals, her laughs, her paranoia. And they actually found a way for her character to sing and play guitar at one point, which was a huge treat.
I didn’t even realize while playing who the game’s author was. Sam Barlow designed one of my favorite interactive fiction games, Aisle, back in 1999. I’ve played it multiple times over the years, and it’s easy to see how Aisle influenced Her Story, what with the player taking a more passive, voyeuristic looking into one character. In between the two games Barlow helped write and design a couple of Silent Hill games and wanted to get back to having creative control over a project where story was paramount. I would say he succeeded and looking forward to his next project.