Her Story is an exceptionally told mystery, laced with suspense and anchored by a phenomenal performance from lead Viva Seifert. I was completely hooked for the first two hours and invested all the way until the end, and that’s typically enough to recommend a video game. Her Story is good, and likely even great.
It’s also a perfect example of the concessions that have to be made to reach the best version of a story. Developed by Sam Barlow, Her Story makes use of Full Motion Video and inserts real actors into a medium usually populated with digital avatars, but that realism is largely a façade. Her Story is unmistakably a work of genre fiction akin to a David Fincher movie, and Gone Girl in particular. (Don’t worry. The actual plots are very different.) Though the premise and settings are plausible, the characters do not behave like regular human beings.
That’s not necessarily a problem. Her Story is presented as a series of short video clips. Most last less than a minute. Some are only a few seconds. The videos are pulled from taped interview sessions in which Hannah Smith (Seifert) is repeatedly questioned about her husband’s disappearance.
The catch is that you will end up seeing the videos non-sequentially. You plug words into a search bar, and a police database spits out the clips in which Hannah uses those words. However, you can only see five videos at a time, so you’ll have to get clever (and listen closely) to find new words that will lead you further down the rabbit hole.
It’s an unconventional, yet captivating way to convey a mystery. Since you’ll see clips from the final interview before clips from, say, the fourth interview, you’ll often know what happened long before you understand why it happened, and it encourages you to pay attention to the performance rather than the raw facts. The goal is to empathize, to better understand her story so you can understand her character and the chain of events that led Hannah to that interrogation room.
The execution is a nearly flawless. Barlow has used keywords judiciously, spacing them out to ensure that no one search will yield the entire mystery. There are clear trains of thought and intersecting pathways woven throughout the narrative, allowing you to see how Hannah thinks in a way that prioritizes the complex psychology of the main character rather than the details of the mystery.
The catch is that the whole scenario is rather obviously contrived. If the police department has these videos and someone came in searching for answers, I can’t think of any reason anybody would ever choose to experience them in this particular way. You’d watch the videos in chronological order, and then maybe go back to reexamine pieces that weren’t clear on first inspection.
That just wouldn’t make for much of a game, which is why I hesitate to call the design a mistake. Her Story performs some decent expositional hand waving and the framing at the end does give the player a clear motivation for wanting to explore the tale in such a piecemeal fashion. I’m almost certain that Sam Barlow did consider that particular shortcoming, and that he simply chose to make the game anyway because the entertainment value outweighed the need for verisimilitude.
I think that’s the right decision, but it has made me reconsider the language we use to talk about video games. Great works of fiction have always required the suspension of belief, and games are no exception. I never feel the need for realism while I’m waiting for bullet wounds to heal while playing Uncharted.
So why do I notice it in a more grounded game like Her Story?
To an extent, some of it has to do with the way relate to various media. When a character makes an illogical decision in a film, we ask why would he or she do that and then we make fun of them for being silly. When a character makes an illogical decision in a game, we wonder why I would do that and then we get annoyed if we think we could do it more efficiently.
(In the case of Her Story, the ‘I’ is the person sitting at the computer.)
But the comparisons to Gone Girl – and crime fiction more generally – are ultimately more illuminative. Though it ostensibly features real human beings, the events of Gone Girl are utterly ridiculous. However, the willingness to climb onto a dramatic rollercoaster and rocket towards the ending is a core element of the genre. That’s what makes it fun, and an effective thriller hides its flaws while the ride is in motion.
On that front Her Story is unquestionably effective, demonstrating that audiences will opt in when the suspense is well constructed. That’s what makes Her Story such a memorable game. Barlow bent his game world to his mechanic at the expense of realism, but any other choice shuts down exciting creative possibilities. We’d all be poorer had Barlow not been willing to make a few concessions to logic.
More to the point, the artificial premise allows audiences to focus on the more interpretive aspects of the game. Beneath its mechanics, Her Story is interested in questions of love, identity, and perception. To say anything more would constitute spoilers, but the game’s contrivances make those questions more incisive, becoming more relatable precisely because the human element is so exaggerated.
That’s what good fiction does. Barlow has taken creative liberties, but in the process he’s built something that allows us to better understand ourselves.
It helps that Her Story stands as one of the most accessible video games I’ve ever played, as well as one that opens new avenues for interactivity. There may be better ways to resolve the inconsistencies. The search features could be incorporated as a smaller element of a larger game, or they could be used in a more fantastic setting where the world structure dictates specific norms and interactions. But Barlow did it first, and game developers have a bigger toolbox thanks to his efforts. He deserves credit for sticking to his convictions.
Her Story is successful because it holds your attention until the conclusion, demonstrating that the right gameplay decision is not always the right logical decision. It’s a truly innovative work of art that holds up according to the rules of its own internal game world, a solid reminder of the strange delights that only fiction can provide.