Her Story is a difficult game to review. Not just because Sam Barlow’s whodunit is beautifully economical when it comes to its design, but because it’s hard to discuss much about it for fear of spoiling just what makes it so special.
Whether or not Her Story even qualifies as a game is something that will be, and no doubt already is, the subject of much discussion. Message boards have a tendency to become so preoccupied with the minutiae of their subject matter that they lose focus of what’s important, however. And by becoming too caught up in debating the merits of Her Story’s qualifications as a video game means that there’s a risk of ignoring what it does so well.
The question, you see, isn’t whether or not Her Story can or even should be considered a video game; the question is whether or not that matters in the first place.
A reaction to games like L.A. Noire and Phoenix Wright, games which place you in the role of detective without ever making you truly feel like one, Her Story removes almost all frippery that could act as a barrier between you and the business of solving the mystery which lies at its center. A man was murdered, and with nothing but a search bar and a police archive of video clips recorded over 7 interview sessions with the prime suspect, it’s up to you to piece together what you think happened. Who killed Simon? Who is the woman you spend your time watching? More importantly, and without spoiling it, who are you?
Her Story rarely gives a definitive answer to any of the questions it poses, and even giving the name of its central subject would constitute a major spoiler. Dealing almost entirely in ambiguity, Her Story is a game that asks not so much what happened, but what you think happened. Over the course of its running time you’ll find yourself taking copious amounts of notes, drawing connections between snippets of dialogue which previously seemed entirely offhand, and watching clips that you’ve previously viewed in a new light. Armed with only a search bar, your investigation is led entirely by the content you watch.
In Barlow’s sole concession to gamification, the video clips that you watch are broken up into small segments, usually lasting no longer than 30 seconds. The dialogue contained within each of these snippets is your sole guide, and it’s up to you to decide what words and terms are worth pursuing. The faux-retro display which acts as your interface is only capable of recalling 5 video clips at a time, so you need to be specific.
You can save clips that you’ve watched, and a canny person might try to organize them into chronological order. Doing so will only get you so far, however; in order to really start piecing things together, you need to pay attention to what has been said, and then link it back to the other clips that you’ve watched.
Actress Viva Seifert’s performance initially feels unconvincing, but then you realize that’s the whole point. She’s an unreliable narrator, so whether or not to believe her testimony is something that will occupy your thinking in the spaces between play sessions. Is she telling the truth? Is she lying? What significance should be placed on that sentence, or that turn of phrase?
While her dialogue is delivered to a third party, you never see or hear the police officers questioning her. What question did they ask to elicit such a response? You don’t know; you can only guess. And so your trawling through the archive is dictated almost entirely by assumption and a woman who may or may not be telling the truth from one moment to the next.
“Oh, she keeps mentioning a door,” you might think to yourself, “so perhaps searching for ‘door’ will throw something up”. An hour later, you’ll still be scribbling down notes, cross-referencing those notes with other notes, and then you’ll sit back and realize that what Sam Barlow has created genuinely is the first true detective simulator – and he’s managed it with nothing more than a few hours of low-res video and a search bar.
None of this means that Her Story is beyond criticism, however. At times, the writing feels pedestrian. Perhaps that’s the point; but there are occasions where you think you’ve made a major breakthrough, only to realize that you haven’t really learned anything new at all. By designing the game around a search engine, Her Story is also open to exploitation. Chuck in a few random words, and sooner or later you’re bound to come across a clip you haven’t found before. And while the interface has been designed to evoke memories of early-90’s operating systems, the visual filter applied to make it all feel suitably retro is perhaps a step too far (though thankfully you can disable it in the options).
In the early 1990’s, FMV was the future for all of five minutes. The 7th Guest, Mad Dog McRee and Night Trap soon showed people that the future lay elsewhere; but that doesn’t mean that we should completely ignore the possibilities opened by dealing with real actors and real footage. Missing (known as In Memoriam outside of North America) was an interesting experiement and exploration of how games can blur the line between fantasy and reality. Her Story isn’t quite so ambitious, but that’s not to say that it is any less accomplished.
As brief as it is, Her Story is still deeply involving. It’s a game which lingers in the memory long after completion, and one which you’ll want to discuss with friends. Who killed Simon? Did you find this video? Did you…
Sam Barlow has achieved something which so few designers manage to achieve: a game which makes you think, something that stays with you long after finishing. Deftly written and wonderfully acted by Viva Seifert, Her Story might well be one of the best games you’ve never played.