Written by Megan Frederick
Even before its release, Sam Barlow’s Her Story had already received flack for its unrestricted eccentricities, including the use of full-motion video (FMV), non-linear storytelling, and limited playtime. However, with the upcoming slate of blockbuster releases full of familiar dreary dystopias and mechanical adversaries, the game’s nonconformity seemed rather appealing by comparison. So it was with cautious optimism that I cultivate my own verdict of what the final game had to offer.
Her Story is, in itself, a piece of crime fiction. The game begins with a police database opened on a dated computer desktop, where the word “MURDER” has been typed into the database search bar. Below are four expository videos from a police interrogation of one woman held in 1994. These videos set the stage by revealing three things: a man named Simon was murdered, the woman being interrogated is Simon’s wife, and she seems extremely suspicious. Using the search bar, the player must use keywords and phrases to piece together this woman’s account of her husband’s murder. But because the database only gives access to a total of five video results for each word or phrase, the player must use the content from the videos they have already found to discover keywords that might lead to related videos.
Helpfully, the database gives the option to save videos that the player finds important for future reference. The player uses these tools to ask one simple question: Why? Why was the victim murdered? Why is his wife being interrogated about it? And why are you digging through these videos trying to find the answer, anyway?
Now, whodunnits have no inherent appeal to me, and I was certainly not sold on the idea of digging through this woman’s confessions to find her husband’s murderer; even the idea of perusing a search engine as the core mechanic left me skeptical. But as I began wading through hours of full-motion video content, I realized what an incredibly potent mechanic it really is. The search engine is a simple and familiar tool, meaning the true challenge derives from the player’s ability to use deductive reasoning. The game provides no direction; it’s completely up to the player to devise a cohesive story from this woman’s ramblings. So, because the player is paying such close attention to the woman’s monologues in order to come up with their next keyword, they immediately become immersed in her story. Through this interactivity, the narrative of Her Story is exclusively propelled by the player’s curiosity and sense of fulfillment, deviating from the experience of simply watching a murder mystery film where the audience’s only source of agency is pressing “play” on their remote..
The game’s use of full-motion video content gives the narrative an eerie believability that kept me awake for a night or two. Because videogames so often use computer graphics to express their narratives, watching an actual woman perform the interrogation provides a level of realism that has yet to be achieved by name-brand crime fiction games like Sherlock Holmes and Nancy Drew that use CG. While the game’s lone actress Viva Seifret won’t be receiving any Academy Awards for her performance, the majority of the game’s footage is pretty solid. The occasional lackluster delivery of lines is easily blended with the game’s lo-fi recordings to create an appropriate outdated aesthetic. That being said, there is one visual aspect that makes or breaks the engagement of Her Story’s full-motion video; whenever the player finishes viewing specific videos that reveal key information on the interrogated woman’s background, the reflection of a CG face will flash on the screen.
For someone as meek-hearted as myself, these were repeatedly terrifying occurrences that continuously broke my concentration on the narrative. It wasn’t until I had viewed 75% of the database that I discovered turning off the anti-glare filter in the settings tab nullifies these ghastly visits. However, I will admit that the reflection does add to the narrative as a whole and suggest that players test the waters before turning off the anti-glare filter for good.
Regardless of how unorthodox Her Story is, the game provides an engaging narrative and an intuitive interface. Its abnormalities should be approached with intrigue; they’re new, exciting, and different from anything we saw in the big-budget mayhem of this year’s E3. The game isn’t intended to be a brisk murder mystery, but rather a collaboration between the uncanny nature of a psychological thriller film and the interactivity of a videogame. Yes, it’s short and the gameplay isn’t complicated, but Her Story’s blend of player agency and a riveting plot leaves little to be desired.