Game Development as a Reductive Practice: The Beautiful Simplicity of ‘Her Story’

In an era of feature creep and feature glut, what Her Story shows us is that by reducing a game to a singular activity that one can still create a surprisingly satisfying experience.

Her Story kind of reminds me of collectible card games.

Okay, I know that that makes no sense. Just hear me out for a minute on this one.

Perhaps, two of the finest card games designed in the last ten years are Dominion and 7 Wonders. Now, neither one of these games is a collectible card game. However, both games seem to me to have been inspired by collectible card games. They both seem to be based on the idea of reducing complex collectible card game systems to one singular idea.

For example, Dominion is a deck building game, which to anyone who played Magic: The Gathering 15 years ago and that hasn’t kept up on the current gaming scene should seem to make no sense at all. Deck building is a fundamental component of playing any collectible card game, like Magic, but it isn’t actually the game. Certainly, playing Magic requires that each player play with their own deck, not a shared deck of cards (as one would in any traditional card game, be that Bridge or Poker). So, it is essential that before you play Magic, you take the cards that you own, select out ones that make good sense together, and then construct a deck to play with. That is an activity done before play begins, though.

What the designer of Dominion, Donald X. Vaccarino, seemed to have recognized is that building a deck is in and of itself a fun activity. Indeed, it may be the central strategy in successfully playing Magic. So, what if you got rid of the actual game and created a game that was actually about building a deck and nothing else? Thus, it seems, Dominion was born.

Likewise, Antoine Bauza seemed to recognize that the drafting process, which is a common element of collectible card game tournament play, is in and of itself a fun activity, which is the basis it would seem of 7 Wonders, a game which might best be described as a card drafting game.

When one “drafts” cards in a tournament, players circle up, each with a group of cards in their hand, chooses one and then passes his remaining cards to the player on his left. One then picks up the remaining cards of the player on the right, chooses one, and again passes to the player on his left.

Drafting a deck is a means of forcing tournament players to build a deck on the fly and not depend on pre-constructed decks for play. Essentially, what I just described is how you play 7 Wonders with the only difference being that in 7 Wonders you have to play every card you select in the draft immediately. Thus, the act of drafting becomes the whole of the game.

Which brings me back to the recently released indie game, Her Story. The game is a somewhat unusual “game.” The player of Her Story is tasked with using a search engine that is tied to a database that contains a limited number of video clips. The video clips are all a part of seven interviews that the police have conducted with a woman whose husband has been murdered.

Essentially, to “play” Her Story, the player views a few videos, notices various details about what this woman discusses (names of people that she and her husband knew, information about his occupation, the name of the local pub that he used to frequent, etc.), then begins searching for those names or details in the database. Successful searches lead to more videos. More details are then learned, which become the basis for more searches. The story of Her Story is thus told through a series of brief clips that lead into branching paths of inquiry for the investigator (the player) to pursue in the database.

It’s essentially like telling a story through a jigsaw puzzle, if that puzzle’s box, which normally gives away the full picture of the puzzle you are piecing together, is left unavailable to the person trying to complete the puzzle. Instead, the “full picture,” the “whole story,” is simply made clearer as pieces are added and when most (or all) of the pieces are finally revealed and put into place.

What it is also essentially like in my mind (and this is how it relates to me to games like Dominion or 7 Wonders) is like those video games (like Bioshock as one example) in which, as a part of the game, you collect fragments of audio or video logs as you explore the game world, logs that will eventually (as you collect more and more of them) make some of the backstory of the game world clearer.

In other words, it seems like Sam Barlow, the developer of Her Story, recognized that there is something inherently fun about the activity of collecting audio logs in a game like Bioshock and then in inferring what has gone on in the city of Rapture as a result. He then made a game that was solely based on the idea of seeking fragmented information and inferring the bigger picture on the basis of collecting those pieces. Basically, Her Story is like playing Bioshock if all of the shooting, the collecting of plasmids, the strategizing about how to kill a Big Daddy, etc. were removed from the game, and instead, all that you did was collect audio logs and that was the game — all of it, the only thing that the player needs to do.

More or less what I’m trying to say is that what Vaccarino, Bauza, and Barlow all have in common is a design philosophy based on reduction. By reducing a game to what is essentially a singular game mechanic or activity in the game, what these three developers have discovered is that one can create a surprisingly satisfying experience. This seems to me to be an important lesson in an era of feature creep and feature glut.

Much as I have admired games like Assassin’s Creed or The Witcher in the past, I find myself more and more to be turned off by the sheer volume of collectibles, side quests, and other activities in those massive game worlds. I mean, I want to play The Witcher 3, but every time that I do so, it feels like such a huge commitment and also some activities seem fun, while others are terribly dull. But you still feel as if you need to do them to earn new abilities and skills, essentially to “level up.” Watch Dogs seems like the poster boy for such open world grinds, as it is a game that feels almost entirely composed of boring and all too numerous supposedly “fun” extras.

I never got into Magic: The Gathering, despite being interested in many of its mechanisms and many of its components. It was too expensive a game to play competitively and frankly just seemed too daunting to learn as it grew and grew in game concepts. However, I have played the hell out of both Dominion (a true masterpiece) and 7 Wonders (which while not as fun to play as Dominion is still a good game). Barlow is certainly not the first video game designer to adopt this “design by reduction” philosophy, but Her Story in particular makes me hope that more video game developers would ask, “What if in this game, you only did X?” And nothing else.

Because sometimes X is fun enough in and of itself.