Electron Dance
28Jun/15Off

Her Story Is Awesome But

rt10

Here’s a one-word review of Her Story (Sam Barlow, 2015): BUY.

But if you’ve already played it then hang around as I have a few more thoughts to share with you. While I love Her Story it does get away with a few things that a less accomplished game wouldn't be allowed to.

Total spoilers ahead. Get your Spoiler Hazmat Suit on and proceed with caution.

S is for spoiler

P is also for put that spoiler away

O is for Oh My God Spoilerz

I is for I can't see, blinded by spoilers

L is for look away now, spoilers y'hear

E is for extra, extra, try not to read all about it

R is for right, last chance, stop now

I answered Her Story’s central question, what happened to Simon, in a couple of hours but there was still plenty of interview footage I hadn’t seen yet. Even though I now have about three hours under my belt there’s still a lot more to see - but I feel safe to put down some words about it.

Look, let’s get this out in the open: Her Story is an intelligent game. It’s full of little stories, not all of which are vital to solving the mystery. But there are multiple levels of understanding here, observations that are only possible with the right perspective or by replaying clips again after more information is gathered. One of my favourite, beautiful throwaway lines: “the perfect mirror for someone who doesn’t like their reflection” is sodden with meaning.

It’s a brave developer that allows players to effectively investigate a story at random. Yet still every player will have a personal experience that won’t give the story away until they’ve spent a decent amount of time with Her Story. Most clips seem innocent at first and those which appear obviously dodgy do not surrender their true meaning easily. For example, there are two clips where “Hannah” has to explain the sequence of events on the weekend Simon disappeared and if you put them together you notice the descriptions are almost identical, which gives away that this has been rehearsed but only if you put these two clips together.

(Update 29 June: Sean Barrett on Twitter pointed out this is a ridiculous example. Because both clips use almost exactly the same words they are extremely likely to appear side by side in any search. I'm strangely fortunate that this did not happen to me.)

The game is full of little nuances like this to signal that the interviews are largely an act for the police: it's impossible for the average player to miss all of them. Yet I can only imagine Barlow had to review each interview segment on paper to see if it gave away too much or if its meaning was locked through context. Even clips from the last interview, the big confessional, can be baffling if the player has not figured out there is a Hannah and Eve.

On that last interview, it's important to note that the clips you bring back with every search are ordered chronologically rather than given a permanent random ordering. This seemingly minor detail is significant because the final interview clips often get edged out of a search's five clip cap. This is an astute way to bake hard answers into the game without having to gate them artificially, thus retaining Her Story's sense of openness.

The database search mechanic and it's odd limitation is, without a doubt, ridiculous. But Her Story takes itself seriously and avoids having too many jarring moments where it becomes harder to suspend our disbelief. Like, for example, why anyone would be asked to sing a song at a police interview. We ignore the artificiality just like we do in every FPS or strategy game.

I can remember precisely the moment I realised there were two “people” being interviewed. There was a bit of footage from the final interview where she said “Hannah fucked it up”. I searched for Hannah and got a piece of footage where the interviewee introduces herself as Hannah and – what.

hs-display-2

I spent the rest of the game trying to figure out whether Hannah and Eve were two separate people or not and, even though I found out what happened, it was only after much perseverance I convinced myself they were different people.

And this is the problem with Her Story. It’s an extraordinary story. On one hand, I was relieved it didn't wind up as a split personality plot which is an overdone trope plus, split personalities never quite work in real life as crime writers pretend. We dodge that bullet but are still left with twins. How could the killer be in two places at the same time? Twins! That’s a sort of crime story no-no.

The reason Her Story can get away with this is because it multiplies the complexity of the story; the player is desperately trying to piece together not just what exactly happened, not just the history of “Hannah Smith”, not just the shattered interviews but also two different people. It's absurd and fantastic and in the best interests of the player, which is why it gets a pass from most of us. A second game using this structure wouldn't be able to deploy this neat cheat. But it's an extraordinary story.

Still, there are precedents here. I sensed echoes of the so-called “Silent Twins”, June and Jennifer Gibbons, whose story I won't get into here, but it's worth browsing through the Wikipedia entry to see what you think.

Also contrary to expectations: I thought my job would be to prove her innocence, not to concur with the police that she was the murderer after all. Mind you, I don't think it's necessarily an open and shut case. We have only Eve's word for everything at the end, and there are a number of suspicious deaths in the past which do not get serious attention.

hs-flyer

Let's go back to my Rezzed preview. I wrote:

I'd always fantasized about a game that left you to figure out a mystery without having to broadcast "the truth" with an expository cutscene at the end. Is Her Story that kind of game?

Well, yes and no. I started scribbling down notes but, after a while, I found I was just hopping from keyword to keyword and I didn’t need to note that much down. The story slowly came together in my head and it didn't rely on noticing every critical detail like a time or place, although there are definitely great finds in there like how “Hannah” recovered from a bruise too quickly and seems to forget which side of the head it was on. But really solving the murder is about opening up the final interview in which it is laid out.

The final interview is insufficient to understand everything leading up to the murder which is why uncovering the answers in the big interview doesn't dampen a player's enthusiasm to keep searching. But there is a definite “win state” coded into the game even if we cannot be 100% certain of what happened.

Searching through the database as a completionist is not important and I don't know if I like that there's a Steam achievement for finding every video. It's serious work to do that and I can imagine players grinding through keywords just trying to pick out those last few clips. The video cap unlock awarded to the player late in the game helps, of course, but players are still likely to be stuck with a few holes in their clip list. Barlow has put enough clips in there so everyone's investigation feels unique and personal, not a controlled progression through five key clips.

But damn Barlow for putting the critical words of “mirror” and “grace” in plain sight in the recycle bin! I didn’t even think of using those words. The mirror is a key theme of Her Story which is so powerful it metastasises from metaphor to murder weapon. Reflection is everywhere. In the palindromes of Hannah and Eve. In the glass of the monitor.

Another thought from my Rezzed preview:

Are we trying to solve a mystery or just trying to understand who this woman is? What does it mean to have a "searchable index" of everything someone has said? How does that transform that person?

Nope, I didn't feel those themes at all. Her Story drives you to understand “Hannah” and forget about the idea of the police video as ye olde confessional YouTube videos. And the final revelation of who the player really is completely puts any qualms to bed. (An interesting aside: in the Rezzed version, “Hannah” was reflected back at you in the monitor screen. Barlow cautioned me that it might not survive to the final version so I did not mention this; but I'm curious at what this earlier incarnation of the game might have been leading to, maybe Eve reviewing the interviews.)

I also want to make a quick point about acting. Because most of the interviews are an act, some of the clips are meant to be unconvincing acting, but it does mean you sometimes struggle believing a scene that just looks “acted”. Also, there were plenty of times I just wasn't convinced detectives were in the room with her; I'm not sure if that's to do with the camera itself, but it felt like Viva Seifert, who played Hannah & Eve, often seemed to be looking at points too far left and right.

But the piecing together of Her Story is so engrossing that it's easy to put aside these niggles. I'm reminded of Missing (Zandel Media, 2015) which Rock Paper Shotgun considered to be an FMV game with great quality video – strung together with ropey gameplay. I can imagine in other hands we’d all be talking about Her Story as a brilliant idea with poor execution.

But we're not.

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Comments (20) Trackbacks (0)
  1. Very interesting read. Loved the game, it’s been a long time since I was drawn into a game like that!

    ALT. SPOILERS: It seems to be the consensus that there are two people. I’m not convinced at all, in fact my vote is on the split personality, backed by a) no one has seen them together, b) tattoo is (too) obviously fake, c) Eve’s statement that Hannah will not be coming back (very large plot hole if they are twins), d) the mention of Sarah’s mother’s act being understood now: Eve is supposed to be her mother, so what is this “act” if not the murder of her husband (as Hannah)? e) the many mentions of fairy tales supports a child making up her own fantasy world/sister f) the mention of the broken watch as alibi being a smart move, in other words being fabricated evidence (why, if she, Eve, didn’t kill him?) g) the fact that they are (too) opposite—from sexual behaviour to driving. Twins are usually similar, not opposite.

    I guess most of those things could fit in the twins scenario but it just feels more natural to me as a split personality case… Did I miss something? Maybe, I’m bad at paying attention in games lately… Anyway, it’s been my two cents :)

    Again, great read!

  2. I kind of really like that you can make a case for either “they’re really twins” or “it’s a split personality”–a lot of it depends on how you choose to read the bruise and the tattoo: Obviously in real life, it’s makeup, obviously Viva Siefert has neither, and I think there’s a degree where the case depends on whether or not we think they’re real in the world of the game.

    I like that dualism to the interpretation–there’s a degree to where Sarah is unable to get a straight answer as to her mother’s (and aunt’s, if both women exist, and there’s an open question as to whether SB only asks about Sarah’s mother because that’s her focus or because she’s the only character who really exists) motivations, for whatever reason (jail, death) Eve and/or Hannah are not around, and so she has to come up with her own framework to interpret these events.

    And I like that all of the options–a split personality, secret twins, an elaborate ruse–are equally ridiculous, but this isn’t a game that fits in a realist world. There’s something heightened and expressionist about it–if it’s impractical that a child could hide in the attic for close to a decade without anyone noticing, that’s the plot of Flowers in the Attic and the improbability of it only adds to the fun. In a way I slot it in with a lot of those gay cult movies like The Bad Seed or Baby Jane, movies which feature a tortured, complicated, larger-than-life woman in extraordinary, heightened circumstances–I for one would be thrilled to see Siefert become gaming’s Joan Crawford. There is something expressionist in the plotline, and if we can’t literally imagine this situation playing out in real life–although stranger things have happened in real life–its a very good tool for getting these extremes of emotion in order to isolate and examine.

    For the record, I’m of the opinion that they are indeed twins. Largely, it’s an Occam’s Razor thing. While the secret twins possibility is somewhat ludicrous, it’s oddly enough easier for me to accept than Hannah faking a bruise and tattoo in such a way that the police wouldn’t instantly know. I think we’re supposed to read the bruise and tattoo as genuine, personally.

  3. Okay let’s continue with the road to spoilers. Nervous some of these comments might get too exposed in the sidebar, so I’ve removed the commentary sidebar temporarily.

    Like Richard says, the game does not really pose indelible proof that it isn’t a split personality thing. There are several awkward facts presented that would not sit well with one each hypothesis.

    Chris, you’ve presented the case for the split personality. And I could mention that Hannah became infertile, Eve was apparently in Glasgow when the murder occurred, the “fast healing” bruise and generally the high level of detail we get from both “protagonists”.

    Also consider your statement “twins are usually similar, not opposite” and put that against multiple personalities don’t work this well in real life either.

    The idea of a second twin hiding out for such a long time is another point in favour of multiple personalities. Also the strange question from SB, “do you know why your mother did it?” Considering our mother is Eve and Eve is unlikely to be doing as much time in jail as Hannah for the crime, some might conclude SB is telling us that Eve was put away for murder.

    If I had to believe in split personality I think I would be forced to like the game less. As I said, the weakness of Her Story is that it has something extraordinary at its heart which of course is going to blow everyone away in terms of figuring out the story. Because no one expects the Spanish Inquisition. I was expecting it to be more mundane and it cheapens it a little in my eyes. Like Gone Home kept pushing ghost stuff in our faces, I would’ve been upset if the ghost stuff was real.

    “My sister is gone” is an extremely ambiguous statement and I’m torn over it’s meaning. It could easily mean their relationship has been stretched to breaking point and they are no longer capable of being the team they used to be. Or that she ran off. Or that the police are about to put her away.

    One thing we can agree on is that Sam Barlow ensured a good deal of the story was left open to interpretation, our imagination – our belief.

  4. I’m thinking that “what your mother did” was helping your father’s killer escape justice.

  5. Well, here’s a question: Who raised Sarah?

  6. That one’s obvious. “SB” is Sam Barlow.

    Yes, you got me. I have no idea.

  7. Since mirrors are so relevant to the thing, I’d like to point out how uncharacteristically straightforward a title “Her Story” appears to be.
    Well… Here’s spoilers, I guess?

    HS || SH

    Sam B worked on a game you might have heard of that involved a trick player avatar working through the story of their father to gain a measure of understanding. Since nobody would ever buy a Nintendo Wii to play Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, I feel confident that I’m not an asshole for spoiling that.
    IT’S A SILLY JOKE I TELL YA

  8. What I find really fascinating about Her Story- even beyond the game itself- is the fact that even though everyone who’s played it has access to the exact same information, there are such wildly different opinions on what happened. Even more fascinating, some people are uncertain about it and others are absolutely certain one way or another.

    I can’t really understand how anyone can be certain about it, personally- pretty much all the theories have glaring flaws. I myself started out thinking it was twins, then thinking it was split personalities, then thinking it was twins again, before swinging back to split personalities.

    I might dive into the source files and watch the interviews in order just to see if that reveals anything…

    (Also: When I first came upon some evidence that it was twins/split personalities, I remember assuming that it was just a false lead or a metajoke about how ridiculous such plots are. I was at first pretty disappointed to find out that wasn’t true, but after a while I came around pretty much to the conclusion that you did- that ultimately it’s in the best interest of the player. Still, I have to wonder what the game would have been like with a different plot…)

  9. Hey ♂nemo♀ – thanks for dropping by! I think Richard (above) was banging on a bit about Shattered Memories on Twitter and saying there was definitely a parallel in terms of the late viewpoint shift in that game and what Her Story achieves. And I’ll have you know we decided to beat him on Twitter about spoilers because it seemed like the right thing do. But no one else pointed out HS || SH though. That’s just uncanny!

    @Ayslia – I think I concur with Richard above who said the game refuses to nail down the one true interpretation. I found it maddening that some facts seem to suggest a dual personality and others two people. When I tried to argue with Chris above (musician for The Sea Will Claim Everything, Risk of Rain!) I realised that he could be quite happy with his interpretation and there wasn’t really much I could do about it.

    I think we take should take Sam Barlow out for a few drinks, get him a little drunk, then beat the truth out of him. That may seem a bit extreme but fandom knows no bounds.

    It’s possibly we’ll see some more FMV games of this type. I could easily see Her Story spawning a genre, the “video jigsaw”, which will not be able to rely on a similar trick. It would really be interesting to see what other developers and writers could do with the idea.

  10. I haven’t played Her Story yet but discussion of the game makes it look really interesting. It reminds me a bit of Analog: A Hate Story and Hate Plus, both of which have you piecing together what really happened from a series of different perspectives.

    Harbour Master, you do a fair amount of video work yourself. Did you find that playing Her Story began to feel laborious because you looked at it from a video editor’s perspective, or were you able to compartmentalize? FMV content has always had the drawback of making me begin to feel like I’m playing a game of After Effects.

  11. I didn’t want to read this article until I checked the game out and I’m glad I did (and that I waited). Though I saw apparently less than 50% of the clips before I’d gotten the gist of the story. I wonder if this says anything to my detective skills.

  12. @Steerpike – Brave of you to wander into this thread without playing the game! I temporarily removed the comments from the sidebar as a result of the spoilers leaking out. I didn’t look at Her Story from a video editor’s perspective but… the truth is that the FMV sections are just made up of a sequence of interviews which have chopped up into bits – there’s no real crazy video work going on there. (Although I know Barlow post-processed the video by recording and re-recording the video over VHS machines to get the mid-90s video effect.)

    @Amanda – I think it’s the same for most people. There’s “more than enough” footage for players to work it out, but also make them feel their detective work is very unique.

  13. Having now played through the game, read the original article and the subsequent discussion, I don’t have much to add beyond: I wish we’d played the game a little quicker so I could’ve gotten involved. :)

    Beyond that:

    “I think we take should take Sam Barlow out for a few drinks, get him a little drunk, then beat the truth out of him. That may seem a bit extreme but fandom knows no bounds.”

    Your mad ideological crusade for “truth” will be the end of you, Goodwin!

  14. Shaun, doesn’t everyone tell me it’s never too late to talk about a game? :) Seems the Offworld article about Her Story takes the multiple personalities interpretation as the One True Interpretation and then uses that to attack the game as misrepresenting mental illness. I think this is uncharitable because this is sorta the reason I went for the twins account, that I couldn’t accept a smart game making that kind of dumb play. But there are plenty of people who are sold on that regardless. I’VE SEEN SOME OF THEM IN THIS VERY THREAD AND WE HAVE THEIR NAMES.

  15. Well, yes! Which is a sentiment I agree with.

    What I should have said is that I don’t have anything to say that hasn’t already been said. My personal interpretation was that the two sisters/personalities were a deliberate fiction, but I wasn’t particularly committed to that.

    To expand on why: there is very little that one can fundamentally trust in what the game puts in front of you; you may feel like you have answers, a story that fits the patterns, but it’s all baseless speculation at the end of the day. You can take it all as literal honest testimony from two different people, complete fabulation or anywhere in between. I felt like that was the point (and something that the distance in time, 1994 to 2015, was intended to emphasise).

    I suppose my other main observation is that I am filled with admiration for the cleverness of Her Story’s design. I hugely admire how it permits various interpretations and these feel equally valid based on available evidence (I suspect this will be argued about for years to come), as well as how cleverly the game doles out information to keep the player suspended between different, often directly contradictory interpretations, pretty much all the way through the game – and this despite the fact that the player can search for whichever terms they wish. I’m sure you could ‘break’ that organic flow if you wanted to; my point is not that you can’t, but that the videos available to you are cleverly written and suggestive / leading in just the right way.

    There are problems; it certainly felt to us like it stalled once we had unpicked all our current threads and still had 20-25% of the videos to discover. Relatedly, the messaging around the ‘endgame’ is really unclear; we didn’t end the session when contacted by SB because we clearly didn’t feel like we had the answer to what our mother did, plus I was also concerned that answered in the affirmative might wipe all our progress (I discovered that helpful option quite early, so was subsequently paranoid about data loss).

  16. “What I should have said is that I don’t have anything to say that hasn’t already been said.”

    …in the discussion on this page. FFS, Shaun!

    Oh, and I didn’t try and write down every assertion / claim / piece of apparent physical or external evidence to try and rigorously test a hypothesis. I expect few did. But I’d be interested to see the working and findings of anyone who did!

  17. Shaun —

    Funnily enough, I never thought of that option, that the twins are just a fiction. It’s interesting because in the comments we’ve obviously been poking around it with the suggestion that neither theory really accounts for everything. I guess the reason I didn’t think about twins-as-lie is that it becomes a wheels-within-wheels plot: aha, but that’s exactly what I WANTED you to think, Mr. Bond. But it doesn’t mean it isn’t (e.g. ‘Hannah’ easily giving up her attempted drowning of ‘Eve’ when she was younger.). I’ve watched Sam Barlow’s Twitter feed and he’s retweeted a few reviews but seems to avoid retweeted anything featuring analysis (e.g. this piece, the Offworld criticism piece, others).

    It had occurred to me that, unless we were presented with additional evidence, all we had go on was “one person’s” interview testimony which is a lousy way to solve a murder. But I assumed that the journey Barlow wanted to go on was to travel to the heart of the mystery through these words and not necessarily question its conception – viewing the game as constructed work rather than a simulacrum of a real case. It’s also framed with Sarah trying to figure out the truth, so I dismissed my concerns.

    “I think therefore I am” is just about all we can trust, though.

  18. I’ve done some thinking about it over the past few weeks since I’ve played it and actually I’ve come to the feeling that they are unambiguously literal twins–it’s neither MPD nor the performance of it. Largely it has to do with my trust of Barlow having played his other games (Shattered Memories is a *little* more successful and straightforward in its execution than Her Story is, I would say, but not in a way which diminishes Her Story at all.) Frankly, throwing MPD into the equation brings up a few sloppy things that Barlow is too good of a writer to let slip. This is a very carefully-constructed narrative, and there’s plenty of stuff that doesn’t fit or doesn’t add up in the MPD interpretation.

    For one, the bruise and the tattoo–I think we generally agree that yes, it’s not possible for the bruise to appear and disappear in the timeframe, and that one character is decidedly sporting a tattoo and one is decidedly not. In order for the MPD interpretation to hold water, we have to assume that the tattoo and the bruise were fake, that either as part of a deliberate ploy or the throes of madness, one woman applied makeup to create the illusion that she was two separate people.

    Now, I could honestly accept the Seifert character being able to put on this makeup show for the benefit of a witness–the one in Glasgow saying “oh yes, I saw a woman with a tattoo on her arm…”, but in the video, she is sitting two feet from a detective or two, she is under interrogation in a brightly-lit room, she’s speaking openly about both bruise and tattoo, pointing them out, not hiding them in any way, and focusing their attention directly on it. Now, yes, it’s theoretically *possible* to do an outstanding makeup job that can even fool a pair of suspicious detectives who are scrutinizing every detail of her story for holes, but that would require a very high level of skill–and it’s not at all established that the Siefert character has those skills. If, for example, she worked as a makeup artist, or the Eve persona mentioned using costumes as part of her act, I could accept that, all right, she’s able to pull this off, but accepting that involves essentially having to assume things that are not at all present in the text.

    Frankly, it’s true: A simple MPD (or even performance of MPD) interpretation turns this into a schlocky “psychotic woman” story, and that’s cheap and uninteresting. The twins interpretation is much more thematically rich. It picks up a ton of resonances from a lot of bits that don’t otherwise make sense–the song, the fairy tales, the mirror imagery. If you’ve read Emily Short’s piece on the game, she expounded on the game as leading her to some thoughts on constructions and affirmation of one’s own identity as a woman. There’s a line that talks about Simon being “two different people”–i.e., dramatically different when he’s with Hannah as opposed to with Eve–that’s a sophomoric bit of dramatic irony in the MPD interpretation, and a fairly chilling bit of contrast in the twins interpretation.

    I guess it’s just very clear to me that this was a work that was written and rewritten and thought about from every possible angle. Barlow’s a careful writer, and Shattered Memories demonstrates an interest and understanding of psychology, and a very sympathetic one. He’s doing a fairly careful balancing act because, yes, it does intend for us to mull over the idea of whether this is a simple MPD storyline. We’ve seen enough movies of the week that it’s very possible that that’s where we are. There are going to be players who come to that point, decide that the answer to SB’s question is “because she was crazy”, and go home unsatisfied; I think that’s somewhat of a surface interpretation that just doesn’t expect that much from the game.

  19. Well, look at this. Maybe I do have more to say after all.

    “I assumed that the journey Barlow wanted to go on was to travel to the heart of the mystery through these words and not necessarily question its conception”

    It’s interesting that you say that, as I had come to the opposite conclusion. The concluding line about how all the stories we’ve just heard are simply that, stories (I forget the exact phrasing, but I believe it may also be in the trailer) is probably the most thematically telling IMO.

    It’s not just that, though, and nor am I trying to pull some sort of Cartesian doubt handwaving either (not sure if that’s the right term, I am not knowledgeable on philosophy). My point is not “we cannot be sure of anything”, it is that we are explicitly not given pieces of the puzzle. We don’t know what actually happened to the character’s mother – disappearance, suicide, jail time, who knows? We don’t know if the police actually brought a case for murder, or even arrested either of the identities we see. We don’t know how the police detective or detectives reacted to anything that was said, what their questions were (if you find the polygraph test videos, these brilliantly highlight these gaps in our possible knowledge) or who they were. We don’t know which pieces of the interviewee(s) stories they verified and which they disproved, although again we can guess based on subsequent videos. We don’t know what their theories were, what their interpretations were, and although we can intuit possibilities from responses, we also have to bear in mind that a hundred cop shows have taught us that police questioning is intended to eliminate possibilities – so a question being asked doesn’t really tell us anything other than someone thought to ask the question.

    I think it is an extremely cleverly written and highly reflective story about stories and the people who tell them. For such a lot of information, perspective and context to be deliberately excluded from a story that is so delicately crafted is surely not simply to keep us guessing – it is in service to the story’s themes. And this is not a story about who dun a moider.

    Richard, re. the bruise and the tattoo – I actually couldn’t make out the bruise in those videos but I’ll take your word that it was there. And faking tattoos… yeah, I don’t know how easy that would’ve been in 1994. It certainly looks waaay too shiny to be real IMO, but then… what was the production budget for the video shoots. :)

  20. Actually that just proves my point :) if *we* can tell, through the crt filter and the video, that the tattoo, presumably applied by a professional makeup artist, is fake…


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