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'Her Story' Asks You to Learn Your Story

The game only ends when you let it end, when you’re satisfied that you’ve gotten all of its story, or when you’re simply satisfied with its story.

Her Story

Publisher: Sam Barlow
Price: $5.99
Players: 1 player
Developer: Sam Barlow
Platforms: PC, Mac, iOS
Release Date: 2015-06-24

Her Story is deceptively simple. It presents us with a fake computer desktop and access to a database of police interviews about the disappearance and presumptive murder of Simon Smith. One woman is interviewed over the course of several weeks and several sessions. Her words are automatically transcribed, and each session is broken up into short clips ranging from 5 seconds to 2 minutes. Your job is to search the database using keywords gleaned from the clips. Watch a clip, take note of places or people or things or events, and use those keywords to discover new clips.

That’s the game. It’s fascinating in its vagueness, giving us a distinct objective but no distinct goal. It’s ultimate player freedom. There are credits, yes, but you can go back into the database afterwards. The game only ends when you let it end, when you’re satisfied that you’ve gotten all of its story, or when you’re simply satisfied with its story.

Her Story is a linear narrative that will be different for every player. There’s a chronological order to the clips, but my search will differ from your search since we'll latch onto different topics and base our investigations on those diverging paths. With the right search, you might come upon a twist in your first couple minutes, or it might take you a couple hours. Regardless of the timing, we'll both eventually find some piece of information that blows up our interpretation of events. These moments are as thrilling as any chase or fight, forcing you to scribble over your notes, crossing some things out and connecting other things with unexpected arrows.

Yes, you'll want to take notes, not just to help you understand the story but to act as a record of your story. As a player, we're part of this story, and you'll want to keep track of your character arc: when you learned certain things, when your assumptions were challenged, when your opinion of characters changes. It is in these moments when Her Story transcends the common video game experience.

To give too many details would spoil the experience, so I'll stay vague about why. Suffice it to say, this is a game that everyone should play.

Her Story is a game about the construction of stories. For any narrative, the order of events is as important as the events themselves -- what came before colors our thoughts on what comes after. However, when the order of events is jumbled and fixing that is left entirely to the player, the story then becomes dependent on our individual whims and curiosities. What keywords will you latch onto? Yours will be different than mine, which will send each us down different investigative rabbit holes, which in turn casts different characters as victims or manipulators. If our first impressions of a character differ, then our trust in them differs, and then our interpretations of their life differ. I believe her because I saw X before Y. However, you saw these events in the reverse order, and so you can't let go of your suspicions.

Thankfully, Her Story is very aware of what it's doing and makes no judgment on us. It wants us to come to our own conclusions and then reflect on why those are the conclusions that we decided upon. It wants us to think about how a story is told, how it changes, how it grows, how it can be manipulated, and how much of it can be trusted. How much of any story can be trusted?

Heroism and villainy are nothing more than matters of perspective, and in storytelling, perspective is dependent on editing. We are our own editor for this game. As you play, you’ll automatically cast certain characters into certain roles based on tropes and limited information, only to reverse those castings later on. This is a story in which everyone could be the protagonist or antagonist, depending on how events are framed. Each character is selfish and sympathetic, kind and mean, clever and foolish, victim and perpetrator. They’re all so painfully real.

What’s most impressive about the game is how much it hinges on the performance of a single woman, actress Viva Seifert, and how ably she carries that weight. It’s a difficult role since it’s predicated on the idea that audiences will be watching her every little move, yet it never becomes theatrical. She never acts for the player, exaggerating some movement or tick to give us a clue. She never acts like she’s part of a game. Sometimes she's scared, sometimes she's defensive, sometimes she's casual, and she always acts like a woman being interviewed by authorities.

Her acting does provide clues, but only subtly, and in ways that feel entirely natural to the character and to the story. Her expressions and delivery are just as important as her lines, and you’ll be reading her as much as the subtitles. It all plays into your perception of her, and if you re-watch the clips when all is revealed, her performance becomes even more impressive for its tricky consistency and nuance.

When all is said, Her Story reveals itself to be equal parts tragic and beautiful, pulpy and literary, unbelievable and far too believable. It stretches the concept of what a “game” can be, using its presentation and interactivity as a means to make us reflect on not just its own story, but on the nature of storytelling in general, our desperate need to organize our lives into a narrative, the hypocrisy of casting ourselves as the protagonist, and the ways in which any story can be altered by additional information.

Her Story is a tremendous achievement of writing and design. It’s a tremendous game.


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