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.
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.
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.