Dear readers, please bear with me. It’s been a long day. I’ve spent hours in front of an old CRT monitor at a police station watching video evidence, trying to determine…
… Wait. No. That was an iPad, not a mid-90s computer monitor. There were definitely hours spent in front of it though. And that was Her Story, not mine. As I speak of Her Story, please forgive any vagueness you may encounter. A single typed word could ruin the entire story. That is the wonderful, agonising complexness that has me in a daze.
Her Story can be described as a non-linear crime fiction game. It is the creation of Sam Barlow, otherwise known for his involvement in Silent Hill: Shattered Memories. And it is unlike almost anything you’ve ever played before. There is no right or wrong way to play it. There are no enemies, nothing to run from, nowhere to run to. There are no weapons, no armour, nothing to defend. The game doesn’t even having an ending, so it defies standard narrative structures.
So what does the game have? Video footage, and a lot of it. Her Story begins with the screen of your device being transported back to a few years prior to the millennium, when Windows 3.0 still ruled the computing world and video games often contained endless amounts of poor-quality video footage just to fill up the space on CD-ROMs. The screen quality is terrible of course, with warped corners and terrible glare – but don’t worry, there’s a setting to turn off the 90s look if your brain, like mine, can’t handle it. The desktop is surprisingly usable, and you’re able to click on everything on it and even move windows around.
The “Readme.txt” file contains everything someone needs to know to play the game. Essentially, you’re searching through a police video database (that explains the constant sirens in the background!) piecing together seven interviews from one woman. Searching for what? Nobody tells you. But the one word they give to begin your search roped me in immediately: murder. Up to five entries in the database in which the woman being interviewed speaks the word “murder” will appear, and anything unwatched is marked.
Click on a video’s thumbnails, and more options appear. Use “user tags” field to jot down quick notes about the video, but don’t except any help from auto-correct. Or be incredibly thorough and fill up every one with extensive notes. Or write down no notes at all, because it doesn’t have any impact on anything game-related. (For those wondering, I am an extensive note-taker when playing in any game. While playing this one, I filled up half a dozen notebook pages making lists of search terms. I take my obligations as a pretend detective very seriously, but I digress.) “Add session” adds the video to an easy-access bar at the bottom of the main database screen. I personally only used this when trying to piece together timelines, as it becomes cluttered rather quickly and there is unfortunately no option to remove a video once it is added; maybe we can chalk that up to the unreliable technology that came with the end of the twentieth century.
Behind the video clip’s “play” button lays the entirety of the game. Each clip is clearly labeled with the date (all in June and July of 1994), time, and interview room. Their lengths vary from a few seconds to over a minute. The videos can be subtitled or not depending on the chosen setting; being the seasoned pretend detective that I am, I chose to not have the subtitles on as it can distract from the interviewee’s behaviour. Everything you could possibly need to know is in these videos: the answers lay in not only the woman’s words, but also in her actions and reactions. The idea is similar to what players can do while interrogating witnesses and suspects in games such as L.A. Noire or Sherlock Holmes: Crimes & Punishments, except without the ability to actually interact with the woman in question.
It is the woman’s answers to police questions (which are never heard but often repeated) that give the key to finding any sort of solution to the mystery problem. By listening carefully and later searching for key words that may have been mentioned, more videos become available and the story start to slowly form. Incredibly slowly. Even minutes prior to deciding I was at the end of Her Story (although one can never be certain) jaw-dropping revelations were being made. Everything I thought I knew was wrong. Or was it? Perhaps my gut instinct should be trusted.
Related reading: For another “solve your own mystery” kind of game, check out Danganronpa.
I would love to end this review by simply exclaiming that Her Story is 100 per cent wonderful, but I’m still not certain of the answers it raised. I am waiting for the moment when I fully understand the journey that just occurred. Part of me is agonising over every detail and wondering what – if anything – I missed, but that is already subsiding in the hours since I left that police station for the final time. I may be slowly coming to peace with what has happened, but the memories that Her Story created will last a lifetime. Her Story has become intertwined with mine.
– Lindsay M.