Her Story looks like a computer, but it doesn’t act like one.
Her Story makes use of well known storytelling tool. It uses a representation of its own medium to construct a narrative. Like a play within a play or a movie about a movie, Her Story is a computer program in which you navigate a facsimile of an old research operating system and research data base in the hopes of solving a mystery. The computer imagery is very strong, right down to the color palette and arcane noises made by the simulated machine. In fact, it’s so strong that it creates dissonance between the way a real computer would work and the way the game needs it to work.
As a former academic, I’ve waded through many 1990s-era archives. I’ve whiled away days in Lexus Nexus, JSTOR, janky old DB2 databases from the 80s, and a litany of home-brewed campus research collections that encompass everything from laserdiscs to microfiche. The clacking of IBM mechanical keyboards and the sporadic buzz of harsh fluorescent lights were constant companions. It was long stretches of fruitless searching punctuated by unexpected epiphanies.
Her Story's expertly captures that vibe. You play as someone investigating an old murder case by combing through the video recorded responses of a single person of interest who is being questioned by an off-screen detective. All of the woman’s responses are recorded clips and the dialogue has been transcribed so that you can search the video database for certain words contained in the clips. Your entries and results appear on the scratched up CRT screen. Parts of the screen are obscured by the tube lights, and everything appears in that quaintly smudged 4x3 standard definition aspect ratio.The art is spectacularly evocative of what it’s simulating.
This makes it all the more jarring that this system doesn’t actually act like what it’s simulating. Only five search results are shown even if a word yields many more. There is no way to see an entire list of entries in the database, and there is no way of calling up an index. Clips are found by taking blind guesses at potential keywords, and there is no way to organize database entries by date. I immediately tried to do a few variations on “/dir” to get a list of my options but found nothing. The computer has the trappings of a machine but lacks the basic benefits of mechanization and computerization when it comes to organizing data. Her Story looks like a computer, but it doesn’t act like one.
It’s a completely understandable design choice. If the player were able to act like an actual researcher, the game wouldn’t be very exciting. Dumping an ordered list of all the videos and sorting through them in order would have satisfied by academic inclinations, but it would have drained the story of any mystery or sense of discovery. Like any work of fiction, some suspension of disbelief is necessary to keep the story cohesive, but as I continued to unravel the game’s central plot, I was working through another mystery. Would Her Story have been just as well served with a different artistic style?
The game itself walks a thin line between purposefully obscuring data and limiting search results, while still allowing you to view a linear model of which parts of the database that you’ve accessed. In doing so you can get a sense of the order of events, but you have to put in a lot of manual work that defeats the core purpose of using a computer in the first place.
Her Story does an uncanny job of modeling some aspects of real technology, while at the same time ignoring the fundamental purpose of that technology. At times, it borders on being disingenuous. Her Story presents something that looks like the 1990s, but it only contains a small portion of the rules that governed that world. Why not embrace the artificial limits and change the entire setting into a fantasy realm where memories can be magicked away or a cyber-punk future where computing rules are more science fiction than fact? As is the case with games like Skyrim or Mass Effect, people can make great aesthetic leaps as long as the world’s fictional logic is sound.
None of this is to say that it’s not worth making this logical leap for Her Story's. Chances are that unless you are a nerd with too much time on your hands (i.e., me), the incongruity of the system’s look and its actual functionality is easy to overlook. The game remains a remarkable (and staggeringly large) work of storytelling. Its mystery is poignant and exciting enough to overlook the understandable limitations imposed on the in-game tools.
Her Story is about investigating people’s true nature with a set of tools that have had their true nature diluted.