Start Date: August 19, 2016
End Date: August 19, 2016
Her Story is a murder mystery game presented in a full-motion-video format, which for some of you might conjure up unpleasant memories of stuff like Night Trap. The FMV genre came and went quickly in the early 90’s, and those who even remember it do not remember it fondly. So you could be forgiven if, upon first glance, you assume that Her Story is the same type of cheap, half-ass experience as those “classic” titles. The difference is: Her Story is really, really good.
The premise of Her Story is that you’ve been granted access to an ancient police database computer, so that you can watch some interview footage from 1994. The footage all features a woman who was called in for questioning after her husband went missing. These interviews, which take place over the course of several days, are split into 271 short video clips, which can be accessed by typing an applicable keyword into the database’s search engine.
If you type in the word “husband,” for example, the search engine will pull up the first five clips in which the woman uses that particular word. In one of those clips, she might reveal that her husband’s name is Simon, so you could type in “Simon” next, to get some more information about him. Then you might find a clip where she mentions the name of her husband’s boss, so you’ll type that in…. and so on.
Since the search engine never provides more than five results at a time, the idea is to keep coming up with new search terms and watching new video clips, as the disjointed fragments of the woman’s story start to sloooowly form a larger picture. The beauty of this system is that, depending on what keywords are chosen, different players can have entirely different experiences… learning key information and discovering important revelations at totally different stages in their playthroughs.
The game does occasionally drop subtle hints to steer you in the right direction, but its cleverest moments are when it anticipates your train of thought and then snarkily subverts it. You might have a hunch that the husband ran away to join the circus, for instance. So you type in “CIRCUS” and then the very first clip will be the woman saying, “You think he ran away to join the circus? That’s ridiculous!” It’s very clever. I completely made up that example, by the way. I’ll leave it up to you to discover whether or not anyone joined the circus.
My girlfriend Carla was my partner in mystery-solving for this game. She’s not usually much of a video game person, so I all but insisted that we should play Her Story together, thinking that this would be a fun shared experience. And I was totally right! For the most part, our workload was split as such: I typed keywords into the game and accessed videos, while she frantically scribbled notes onto pieces of paper. Below are some of her notes, presented to illustrate how fucking rad it is that this game inspires this kind of note-taking. You probably shouldn’t actually read them, if you’re planning to play the game, okay?
I really recommend playing this game with a loved one, especially someone who might not normally play video games but enjoys a good, twisty mystery story. Whenever a confusing or contradictory piece of footage showed up, I had someone to share quizzical looks with. Whenever one of our hunches actually panned out, I had someone to celebrate with. Whenever a particularly juicy twist happened, I was gasping in unison with someone else’s gasps. It was a really great experience.
But all good experiences must eventually come to an end, and after a few hours of video-watching, we were done. Some might find the “ending” of Her Story awkward, because it never really comes to a definitive conclusion. Instead, about halfway through, it gives you the option to end the game at any time. From that point forward, it’s up to you. Whenever you feel like you’ve uncovered enough to piece together the full story, you can end your game and watch the credits.
There is no ending sequence, no cutscene or final bit of exposition to confirm that the conclusion you’ve reached is the correct one. It’s a little bit like Gone Home in that way. Some players might find this frustrating, but my takeaway was that the game trusts my judgment and my ability to interpret the information I’d been given. That’s a really rare thing for a video game to do, and I really appreciated it.
To further stoke the player’s frustration and/or appreciation, the story is fairly open-ended. Without spoiling anything, there are two primary ways in which you can interpret the events of Her Story, two conflicting theories that both have valid evidence to back them up. It’s another neat little trick, and it ensures that this story will stick in players’ minds long after they’re finished playing.
Of course all of this would be meaningless without good writing and acting. Only after finishing the game did I discover that its creator, Sam Barlow, was also responsible for the Wii game Silent Hill: Shattered Memories. That makes perfect sense because that game, while flawed, had the same type of psychologically challenging story elements as Her Story. The dude really outdid himself this time, though – I can’t even imagine the process that went into writing this story, and then dividing it up into small chunks that render the narrative obscured but still ultimately discoverable. I bet he went through a thousand packs of index cards.
The actress portraying the titular “her” – Viva Seifert – deserves nearly as much credit. This entire game is pretty much just three hours of her sitting in a chair talking, and it never gets boring for a second. She somehow manages to be charming in some clips, and creepy as fuck in others, all without feeling like she’s breaking character. It’s a testament to her performance that this is probably the longest I’ve ever listened to a British person talk without wanting to give them a motherfucking atomic wedgie.
I guess it’s worth mentioning that after you decide to trigger the credits, two new features become available: (1) searching for keywords now brings up fifteen results instead of just five, and (2) you can type “admin_random” to bring up a completely random video clip.
The idea is to make it easier for completists to unlock all the videos that they missed. When I did this, every single new video I found was just a split-second clip of the woman either saying “Yes” or “No” – in other words, shit that would have been nearly impossible to find via the game’s normal search method. I listened to a lot of yeses and nos, until I completed my collection of clips:
Let me also take this opportunity to brag that I 100%-ed the Steam achievements for Her Story:
I should really say “we” instead of “I” since playing this game was a total team effort. Thanks, Carla! This wouldn’t have been anywhere near as fun without you!
Her Story costs six measly bucks on Steam, and it’d be a steal at twice that price. Go play it with someone you love.