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Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Interview: Her Story creator, Sam Barlow

A few weeks ago, Her Story hit 100,000 downloads on Apple’s App Store (a huge milestone!). It is a game free of guided plot that instead allows players to explore based on their instinct to learn the story behind the woman being interview in relation to a murder.

Related reading: Lindsay’s review of Her Story on iPad.

Her Story’s creator, Sam Barlow, is not a newcomer to non-traditional storytelling in video games. In the late 1990s he released Aisle, where the player can choose one of four directions to explore a grocery store. Aisle has many endings but no winning. Barlow was also the lead designer and writer for both Silent Hill Origins and Silent Hill Shattered Memories, the latter of which actually removed combat from the game in order to focus on the story.

As you can see, Barlow is not new to games with heavy narrative content, unfamiliar premises, and/or no actual ending where the player “wins” at what they were doing. This idea to reject combat and rely most on the story is something we at Digitally Downloaded are extremely interested in, and we were fortunate enough to chat with Barlow about Aisle, Her Story, and everything in between.

Digitally Downloaded (DD): I’d like to start with a question that dates back to the last millennium: what was the inspiration behind Aisle?
Sam Barlow (SB): Aisle was born out of a frustration with the conventions of text games. Back in the 90s there was an amazing community around text games — putting out really interesting stuff. There’s a lot that was done there that probably still hasn’t been matched in other game genres since. However, a defining aspect of that community was that for all its ambition there was always one foot in the past — most people there were fuelled by their nostalgia for the classic text games. And some of the conventions of the classic games carried across, and there’s this thing in text games where as a player you expect the game to have a slightly snarky sense of humour and to give you funny responses if you type things that are a bit silly. So “Kill friend”, “Take off all clothes”, “Jump off cliff”.

Even some of the most ambitious games would need to have funny responses to some of these kinds of answers, or — at a bare minimum — have a response to “XYZZY”, the classic magic word of text games. What irked me most about this was that I — as a player — couldn’t resist. It was built into me that I would feel the need to test out a new game by seeing how it responded to my funny commands. Part of this is just the instinct we have when playing in pretend worlds, but part of it was this conditioned behaviour. So — cutting this long story short! — the first impetus for Aisle was to make game that was set in a really everyday environment (a supermarket aisle!) and have the game take your commands seriously. So if you type something stupid the game gives you the story you deserve — and so a lot of them skew towards the sociopath angle. From that came the idea of the single move and accommodating this whole spectrum of possible stories around the initial scenario.

DD: What inspiration did you draw on while writing Her Story?

SB: A lot of things. My love of the police procedural genre I’m going to attribute to the TV show Homicide: Life on the Street — the precursor to David Simon’s The Wire. It was an amazing show but also one that really established the idea of the interview room as this dramatic and powerful situation. When I started to develop games, I spent a lot of time looking into the processes of police interviews, reading the handbooks, etc. I watched a lot of footage of real life interviews — and this was a big turning point for the game. Sitting through hours of this stuff — especially things like the Jodi Arias interviews — shifted my perspective from that of the detective to that of the person being interviewed. That really saw it shift from being about the crime itself to being about the whole story of this person’s life and how it led up to the crime.

DD: While writing the game's narrative, did it ever take you to unexpected places?

SB: Most of the time! If I have a process it’s usually to go deep on research and just fill my head with stuff until it gets to the point where I just sit down and tell myself the story. So generally when the story actually comes out, I’m finding my way through it and being surprised in the way an audience might be. If I’m not being surprised I kind of take a step back and come at it again.

DD: Are you surprised by the critical success Her Story has had? Why do you think it is so successful?

SB: Yes! Blown away. A lot of Her Story was an experiment — is there an audience for this kind of game? Can I find that audience? So to see it being received so well, scoring so well, selling so well has been just amazing. And to reach such varied audiences too, that’s been a real pleasure.

I think I underestimated the appeal of the game. In my head I was thinking ‘this is an experimental narrative game’, and underplaying that fact that the wrapper for the game makes sense — it is what it is, there’s no metaphor to get your head around. And the genre being crime, that’s so broadly appealing. And the core mechanic being ‘googling’, that makes it really accessible. And because it’s video, it doesn’t look like a ‘video game’, so that opens up some doors.

DD: There are many similarities between Aisle and Her Story, such as the open-ended gameplay. Do you feel using video in Her Story made the game more accessible to players than the text-based Aisle?

SB: Well I think text games are accessible. I think they’re a very easy thing to explain — more so than, say, a twin stick FPS. But clearly there are issues with people understanding the limitations of what they can type. Perhaps it’s not really accessibility we’re talking about but appeal or worth. Words are cheap these days — words are free on the Internet. So a game that’s just text often has to convince players its worth money or time — look at the way Inkle really polish the presentation of its word games. Whereas Her Story looks like something else, it has videos and stuff — so it’s an easier sell that way?

DD: You developed, wrote, and published Her Story. What challenges did you face doing an independent game versus working with the group at Climax Studios?

SB: Having to do all the code myself was a challenge. Not necessarily the actual game code, but the finicky things like setting up builds and signing and submitting to the various store systems, etc. I really appreciated the work that goes into the back-end of a game far more than I ever did when I was working with a large team! You need quite a strong sense of confidence… you don’t have the people sat around you to confirm the game is going to fun, to give that sense of camaraderie — it can be very easy to doubt yourself when it’s your own money and there’s no safety net!

DD: The games you write and develop are often heavily choice-based with regards to how the story progresses. Why do you prefer this model over linear storytelling?

SB: I wouldn’t say choice-based, but I would say interactive. The big learning I’ve had over the years has been looking into static storytelling is just how much that stuff depends on your brain thinking the story is interactive. Traditional storytelling is full of tricks that are about making you think the story is real, that it’s unfolding in part in response to your desires and thoughts. This is really exciting to me, and so the appeal of 'genuinely interactive stories' is that we get to really take that relationship the audience has to a story and actually work it, create a feedback loop, really enhance that sense of involvement. That’s the thing that I think makes games special.

DD: Silent Hill: Shattered Memories was different from earlier games in the series in how it removed combat and truly utilized the Wii's capabilities. Is there any upcoming technology you would be excited to develop games to work with (for example, the Oculus Rift or Microsoft HoloLens)?

SB: I’m super excited and super cautious about VR. Excited because I think it throws out a lot of the boring rules we’ve gotten used to, it throws in many more questions about your perspective on a game story. Cautious because I think a lot of people will be chasing the Holodeck dream, which I think is a big dead end. The idea of experiencing a story from within it as a character, experiencing it as indistinguishable from reality… I can’t reconcile that with my idea of what makes a story work (which requires some distance) and I can’t see it working unless the player is themselves a really good actor! But anything that throws out traditional control schemes and forces people to rethink from the ground up is always an interesting proposition.

DD: Any hints as to what we may see from you in the future?

SB: There are lots of ideas floating around in my head… I’m waiting for one of them to really take roost and have me fall in love with it. I want to do something that directly addresses the audience I’ve found with Her Story, but I don’t want to repeat myself… so it will be a game that respects the audience’s imagination and intelligence, it will tell the kind of story that you don’t often see in bigger games, it will be accessible… but beyond that… watch this space!

- Lindsay M.
News Editor
Interview: Her Story creator, Sam Barlow
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