Her Story is a perfect blend of video game mechanics, film techniques, and narrative structure that indicates the future heights in complex storytelling to which gaming can ascend.
Her Story (2015)
Directed, Written, and Produced by Sam Barlow
Released in June of 2015, Her Story is a game that is…difficult…to review. In fact, as with other breakout story-driven indie titles of the last few years, such as Gone Home or Dear Esther, I could imagine a spirited debate breaking out about whether this a game at all. In a traditional sense, Her Story doesn’t have any gameplay mechanics. There are buttons to click, programs to use, and places for you to type and save information, but it lacks the traditional goal oriented focus of video game logic. In many ways, Her Story is like reading a book, but with a movie embedded in its pages and a controller connected to its spine.
Before we go too far down that road though, I should explain a little more about how the game starts. The opening is about as minimalist as it gets, greeting you with a black screen, in the midst of which you’ll find white lettering of the game’s title. Upon clicking start, your monitor becomes a Windows 95 (maybe 98) desktop. A few readme.txt files are scattered around, as well as a log off button. The only program open on the screen is a system for categorizing a series of interviews about a murder that occurred in 1994. A few clips, which average about 25 seconds a piece, are already up for you.
And that’s it. That’s everything. This is how the game begins. The rest is up to you to discover.
Without any context, this can seem like the sloppy or lazy game design found in the depths of Early Access or Steam Greenlight, where a game’s difficulty resides solely in its lack of explanatory material or tutorial features. In this case, however, a lack of introduction is part of the story. As you watch the clips and enter new search terms into the system, other clips appear in which more of this woman’s story—”her story” even—is told. However, as you watch each clip, something more complex than a simple addition of material occurs. Rather, the plot of the game functions like those of novels that rewrite themselves the deeper in you go. Much like Jose Denoso’s The Obscene Bird of Night (1970) or Ian McEwan’s Atonement (2001), in Her Story, new plot points completely rewrite the story as you know it, constantly forcing you into a narrative feedback loop where each moment restructures everything you once thought about the main character and what has happened to her. In my own case, as I continued playing, the story sucked me in, and I couldn’t help but pick up a pen and pencil to jot down notes, draw webs of relationships, and write down my own musings about when the main character was lying or seemed to be hiding something. I felt compelled to become an amateur detective, like I was listening to the NPR podcast Serial again, in order to unravel this murder mystery to which I had no clear, personal connection. And, while your connection to the events described in the interviews is revealed later in the game, Her Story‘s ability to pull you in long before you understand that connection is one of its most impressive features. It hooks you with its story alone, eve before you realize what your exact role in it is.
One of Her Story‘s defining features is that 99% of the game is composed of FMV scenes, where a real actress named Viva Seifert answers a series of questions. You, as the player, never hear the questions themselves, but using context clues from her answers, you can usually determine what the line of questioning was. The video clips have just enough strategically placed static, tracking lines, and audio fuzz (most kids won’t know what these are anymore) to keep it believable that these clips come from VHS tapes in the mid-90’s. On top of this, Seifert’s performance is simply wonderful. She carries her character with strength and believability, especially when players get to the later parts of the game and see just how complex her character really is. It came as no surprise to me when she won Best Performance at the 2015 Video Game Awards this past week. It was also no surprise when Her Story itself won Best Narrative. Praise given where praise is due, in my opinion.
The success of Seifert’s performance, however, should come as a surprise to those who are familiar with the history of FMV video games. The short version is that they have a less than stellar reputation within the gaming community. Some early attempts at FMV were quite popular when paired with other, more succesful genres. The Myst series (1993-2005), for instance, used FMV of main characters in conjunction with puzzle/adventure/point and click gameplay to astonishingly good effect. Star Wars: Rebel Assault (1993) and its sequel (1995) are also viewed with a decent level of nostalgia for the way it combined FMV and actual combat based gameplay into a cohesive whole. Plus, you know Star Wars. Still, there will never be enough good memories of Cyan and LucasArts (may it rest in peace and pieces) to wipe out such disasters as Night Trap (1992) and the Legend of Zelda CDI games. Look these up at your peril. You have been warned. However, despite this checkered past, Her Story embraces FMV and, having clearly learned from historical failures, uses it to its fullest storytelling potential. In fact, I’d say Her Story is a game that actually could not work without FMV. It is that perfect blend of video game mechanics, film techniques, and narrative structure that indicates the future heights in complex storytelling to which gaming can ascend.
Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of this game’s narrative construction, and the original way in which it is revealed to the player, is how, depending on what search terms you enter and in what order, the way you experience the game’s story can change drastically. Eventually, everyone gets more or less the same main story, depending upon how far into the archives you go, but the order in which the events are revealed greatly impacts how you, the player, process the overall story. There was a long stretch of time where I thought that what turned out to be only a minor plot point was actually the major even, simply because of what search terms I had used first.
In other words, the way Her Story presents its narrative allows the game’s story to exist in two layers: (1) the story within the game, and (2) the story of my own personal process of revealing said story. A layer of the game’s narrative becomes how you, the player, process the story in your own mind. To be clear, this seems a little more complex than a simple discussion of Ludonarrative. We’re not talking about the narrative that is expressed through gameplay (i.e. how you pick up objects, walk around, interact in the world); rather, what I’m talking about here is a level of narrative experience that exists outside the game world as a whole. In terms of video game narrative, I can’t think of another game that reveals its story in quite this way. Fullbright’s Gone Home (2013), mentioned above, is a useful comparison. How you pass through your family’s home, the order in which you enter the rooms, discover the messages, journal entries, and recordings, alters what genre you think the game fits into, as well as how you understand the motivations of certain characters. Another useful, though somewhat surprising, analog for this narrative process is the Dark Souls series, where the story of the world is revealed in fragments of text usually attached to items you discover in your journey. In that series, much like Gone Home, since there is no single direction you must follow at any given time (more or less) the order you find those items in, and often whether you find those items at all, depends upon how you, the player, interact with the game world. This is not a one-to-one comparison by any means—let’s be honest, Dark Souls and Her Story could not be further apart from one another in almost every way—but the point remains that there is an extra layer of narrative construction here where experiencing the narrative becomes another layer of story in its own right. When this process of experiencing the games’ narrative in a way that is unique to each player is combined with the narrative layering that becomes clearer as the game progresses (again, trying to avoid spoilers here), Her Story becomes a wonderful experiment in video game storytelling rivaled by few, if any, in the industry.
Despite all that Her Story does right, however, one of the potential downsides of a game like this is that it doesn’t have an “ending.” In fact, the only event that occurs which could be considered an ending to the story is incredibly ambiguous, and even if you watch all of the available clips (and there are around 150 of them), you still won’t come away with a perfectly clear idea of what happened. So, if you’re not into ambiguous endings, this may not be the game for you. Still though, even if you hate ambiguous endings, I don’t recommend skipping this game. The level of ambiguity you find in Her Story depends entirely upon how clever your search terms are and how far down the rabbit hole you want to go with the interviews. Persistence pays off in this case.
I said above that the game’s actual mechanics are minuscule, and while I stand by that statement, there’s still room for a few annoying issues. Because of the way the different interviews are separated, sometimes your search terms will uncover clips that are too short to be of any value. In fact, some of them are so short that they didn’t seem to belong in the game at all. I remember on more than one occasion searching a term that I thought would be a goldmine of information, only to get back clips that included mostly static or a mere two to three word comment. While this could have been an intentional part of the game’s design, it seems more likely that the clips were separated randomly after the dialogue was registered, and as such, some of the clips were segmented in ways that were less than useful to players. For a game where the player’s overall goal is to discover as much information as possible, having these useless clips locked behind random search terms is a bit frustrating.
The game also has some major plot holes, which I can’t/won’t get into here because of spoilers. Trust me though, you’ll know them when you see them, and, unfortunately, I’m not entirely sure how to process such glaring problems. They could be instances of poor writing, moments where I need to personally suspend my disbelief a bit more, or they could be purposefully included to increase the ambiguity of the game’s ending. It’s difficult to say, and again, I don’t want to go too far into them here, lest I ruin the narrative’s unfolding process. You’ll just have to experience them on your own and decide how you want them to become part of the game’s narrative—another way in which Her Story challenges players to think about the art of storytelling, rather than simply leaving them to passively experience it.
Bottom line: play this game. If only to see what a little bit of thought and creativity can do for storytelling in a gaming space, play this game. If only to see a female character depicted with care, complexity, and not wearing a bikini, play this game. If only to find out how FMV can be deployed successfully in modern gaming, play this game. Her Story is a video game experience unlike any other, and if you’ve got a few dollars on hand, pick it up and spend a few hours with it. You won’t be disappointed.