Her Story: A Compelling, Fragmented Search History

Jul 3, 2015 by

The following is spoiler-free.

A still from Her Story

A still from Her Story.

Sam Barlow’s Her Story is a game that relies upon a scripted narrative out of sequence and the player’s self-directed discovery of the fragments in a criminal investigation.  A woman is presented in old, grainy taped police interviews on seven occasions after her husband disappears. The mystery is set in 1994, but as presented in its spare lack of directed play (Barlow himself posted a development note saying he wanted to create “a game with no meaningful ‘state’ change”.), it is modern and lean. Indeed, there are no real instructions, no direction, no real goals, and no fixed end, no epilogue, and no easy answers. The only direct input from the player consists of keyword searches that bring up video clips containing that word. This sounds deceptively simple but the best, often most compelling thing about Her Story is that most of the play is not based on directed input, instruction, or even taking place within the game. The work is done by you as a response to the clips you watch, listen to, scrutinize, and finally, begin to stitch together in your head (or on paper – I have seen multiple people work with extensive notes and mind maps).

The clips are time and date stamped, and most searches turn up clips out of order. Putting together which clips come from which day is also helped by the subject’s clothing, as well as words you can search. Survey the scene, figure out what words you think might have some meaning, and then off you go into an experience that will likely be all your own. The experience can be uneven, depending what you decide to search for, with some highly revealing clips possible to reach within the first minutes of playtime. Yet, these don’t dampen the experience as much as whet appetites and open the gates to more clues.

There is one element that definitely reminds you that you’re playing a game, however. When you watch a clip of something highly relevant to the main thread of the mystery, a semi-transparent image of a face accompanied by sound will flash onscreen for a second or two. This means you’re on the right track, but it can also serve as an inadvertent jump scare. It did so for me, even after seeing it several times, because of its inconsistent appearance. It’s helpful as a way to let players know they’re making progress, but it can be startling.

A still from Her Story showing a seated woman in a white blouse.

A still from Her Story

Even after hitting on most of the major pieces, I still felt myself motivated to continue searching, to continue watching more clips. The sense of archived research, of time I spent in tiny microfiche booths, in video labs at school, listening to the voices of yesterday, came back in this experience. The mystery novels and TV shows that I grew up with and I’m still happy to dive right into to this day came back. The narrative here, a past delivered in fragments, sometimes repeated, sometimes strange, surprising, or even subtly sinister reminded me a little of the work of the late Ruth Rendell.

Without treading into spoiler territory, there are several theories as to how it all fits together and  you’ll likely come away with your own idea of how to process what you just experienced. There is a point in the game where you are asked if you’re satisfied, and a message pops up with a final piece if you say yes, but neither saying yes or no prevents you from further investigation. In other words, you’re doing research, you have questions, and it is your choice when you stop. The nature of Her Story means that once you’ve been through it, watched all the clips, and come away with your version of the events, it is essentially spent for replay value. The price, a modest $5.99, is thus, well set.

Her Story is available for PC, Mac, and iOS now.

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Rising Above Gatekeeping: Games Belong to All

Apr 28, 2015 by

FemHype Kiva Bay comic

Humans and other animals enjoy play. Let’s focus on humans for the moment, though. “Playing” is not something you grow out of and it’s not something you have to do in a certain way, at a certain time, or to have a certain experience. More people seem to have realized that video games aren’t something one grows up and magically stops liking as if some prerequisite of adulthood. I like to think we’ve made some progress when it comes to our thinking about games, gamers, and how we participate and interact, as well as matters of access to those games, but this isn’t always clear.

It’s a week where some were confused or disappointed by seeing eSports broadcast on ESPN2, but this is only one symbol of change. Yesterday, FemHype published a comic by Kiva Bay (and Sam Slater) about her experiences with homelessness and how the ability to play games occasionally, plus see gaming Let’s Plays, shows, and coverage, helped her get through the days and feel better about life amid those struggles. Yet, the idea of identity came into play, and worries about not being accepted as a gamer since she didn’t have the opportunity or means to play most of the games she came to care about and experience virtually through others. The comic spoke to me since, while I’ve never been homeless, I did grow up poor with my mom, who has MS. We relied on her disability payments, as well as food assistance and even sometimes the church pantry in order to get by. One thing my mom and I shared were video games.

Yes, we had consoles, but they were often a gift from a family member as a combined birthday and Christmas present that required lengthy periods of saving up. When it came to games, we had a couple for each console. Sometimes we borrowed games from my great aunt, who kept an NES for her charges to come play (she was a teacher). My mom and I would browse used games on the shelves at E.B. and sometimes get one if we could afford it that month. Sometimes, Mom would drive us to an arcade and give me eight quarters. Those quarters meant the opportunity to get out there and enjoy some games, often with other kids. That was multiplayer. Other times, we would manage $2-3 for a rental.

When I began writing about games and even getting people to pay me to do that, there was a voice deep inside that peeped at me about my experiences, that my gaming history was “broken” or that my experiences, my insight, were inferior because of rentals not always giving me enough time to finish games, for missing out on games many consider classics, for having holes where other people’s console or PC gaming experiences were. We had consoles that we held onto for a long time since that’s what we could afford. I pushed that nagging little voice down, but it did undermine my confidence for a while.

In addition to humans liking to play, we also generally like to feel like we belong, that we can relate to others in this vast weird experience we call life. A few billion of us share the planet right now. A shared passion is a powerful thing, and when it comes to gaming, that’s true as well. Yet, it pains me that other people sometimes personify that little nagging voice that I’ve had to deal with –except this time, they serve as gatekeepers, as rule makers, or even as the gates themselves. There’s enough room to listen to one another and not disparage what we each like, what we connect with, or how we play. And even if people can’t access the games others play, they can still be passionate about those things. How about we stop looking for ways to disqualify people or to stop attempting to qualify them in the first place? It is tiring and exhausting to see people attempt to police others’ identities, on any front.

Games are something that have been part of my life since I was about three. A friend recently mentioned that she felt it shameful that she had never played games in several popular series. I told her, as we chatted over dinner, that everyone starts somewhere, and that there was no shame in it. I’m glad to see people discover games, whether that’s through active play, video, or even if someone discovered Heroes of the Storm via ESPN2.  People have different experiences, with many aspects of life, and making others believe it’s shameful not to have played something, it’s counterproductive to connection. Connection, including sharing our experiences, it’s one of the things I enjoy most about the power of games. They appeal to our human need to play, and in turn, give us one way to relate, open our eyes, learn, and care.

Connection is what I saw in that comic, and it reminded me of that nagging voice that even pops up still, once in a rare while. However you arrive, your experience is valuable. Welcome.


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Silent Hills: Silence in the Distance

Apr 27, 2015 by

P.T. game image

The Silent Hill series remains one of my favorites. Once Team Silent was no longer in charge of the development of the series, several Western developers tried and mostly fumbled when it came to producing new Silent Hill games. If you haven’t played Silent Hill through Silent Hill 4: The Room, please get yourself copies and play through them. Silent Hills, announced last year via P.T. (Playable Teaser) as a project from Hideo Kojima’s team and Guillermo Del Toro, looked to have the potential to return the series to its more nuanced, strange, creepy charm.

The nature of which horror games succeed has also shifted over the years to a more action-based crop of challenging games, and even roguelikes. Bloodborne is popular among both critics and players right now, with its concept designed around challenges to players’ skill and habits, and an expectation of many likely deaths before succeding. For a game like Silent Hill 3, dying wasn’t something you were supposed to keep doing over and over, were sometimes mysterious ways you could die, including a push from a mystery entity onto subway tracks and a room with a giant mirror that looks innocent for a moment or two before the room you’re in begins to fill up with bloody tendrils with squishy sounds, as all begins to look like the other version of the world –except in the mirror, where the reflection remains clean, except for your own reflection, which also eventually freezes in place and stops copying your movement. And then you die.

One of the things that initially drew me to the Silent Hill series was the average, everyday person as protagonist drawn into a horrific other world. I played things backwards, since Silent Hill 3 was the most recent at the time, I played that one first and was instantly hooked. Silent Hill 2 followed and became one of my all-time favorite games. While Silent Hill 3 is a direct sequel to Silent Hill and spoiled a few things about the original, it was still worth playing. And still is today if you haven’t.

Silent Hill 4: The Room wasn’t initially conceived as a Silent Hill game, and this is notable, but it still succeeds in keeping key elements like the average protagonist and a sense of creeping dread and horror. After Silent Hill 4, the series went to Western developers that tried to make it more action-oriented, as well as spread to other platforms. It’s not that these were all terrible games. Some of them did retcon or reference the previous games a bit heavily, but there were two main things that bothered me as a series fan. The everyday, average protagonist was replaced by someone combat ready (though in the case of Silent Hill: Homecoming, we find out that the military vet really wasn’t one). Additionally, the developers tried to ape the Silent Hill film. The games began to look like Silent Hill: The Movie: The Game.

An average person, someone without military, police, or other form of combat training, dropped into a mysterious horrible world, having to face a world of creatures he or she is unprepared for, terrified by, and must learn how to survive and unravel what the hell is happening is scarier by default. That sense of helplessness is the best foundation for a horror game, and the series lost sight of that.

P.T. (though I have only watched, not played it myself due to the lack of a PlayStation 4) seemed to toss that aside in favor of something mysterious and, yes, scary, again. While actor Normal Reedus was attached to presumably play the protagonist of Silent Hills (that last S still bothers me), there was no reason to immediately leap to the conclusion that his character would be some combat-ready, trained badass. Despite Reedus being well-known for his role of crossbow-wielding Daryl on The Walking Dead, the actor has shown range in his roles and is capable of playing a character with layers. I hoped we’d get to see that in the mix of influences both Japanese and Western (filtered through a Japanese team) that Silent Hill initially brought to the table and that which made the series special in its first several installments. Having both Kojima and Del Toro aboard didn’t hurt my anticipation levels either.

When P.T. was released last year and players uncovered the Silent Hills teaser, like most series fans, excitement was inevitable. Recently, the game’s fate was put in jeopardy due to an apparent creative fallout between Kojima Productions and Konami. As of this past weekend, news that P.T was being pulled from PlayStation store as well as quotes from Del Toro and his associates seem to indicate Silent Hills will never get off the ground. Konami then confirmed that Silent Hills would never be made. I wonder if those of us who have waited for a return to form for the series might never get it. Although the company claims to be dedicated to the series, at this point, it’s like a fiery love that faltered to embers, found a spark, but is now back to a faint glow.


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Apostate & Seeker

Jan 18, 2015 by

Conversations like this reinforce why Cassandra and Solas are my favorite companions in Dragon Age: Inquisition.

Cassandra: Solas, if you do not mind me asking, what do you believe in?
Solas: Cause and effect. Wisdom as its own reward, and the inherent right of all free willed people to exist
Cassandra: That is not what I meant
Solas: I know. I believe the elven gods existed, as did the old gods of Tevinter. But I do not think any of them were gods, unless you expand the definition of the word to the point of absurdity. I appreciate the idea of your Maker, a god that does not need to prove his power. I wish more such gods felt the same.
Cassandra: You have seen much sadness in your journeys, Solas. Following the Maker might offer some hope.
Solas: I have people, Seeker. The greatest triumphs and tragedies this world has known can all be traced to people.

Courtesy the Dragon Age Wiki.

She maintains her faith, is compassionate and wants to genuinely help others, but she isn’t pushing. He believes in gray areas, grounded, realistic, and firmly in people. They’re two different individuals, with very distinct approaches, but you’d want both on your side with such a devastating series of events happening.

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Patience, Your Characters Will Speak

Jan 12, 2015 by

My Inquisitor, Nirwen, and Solas.

My Inquisitor, Nirwen, and Solas.

This piece contains no spoilers.

I appreciated this piece, “How I Realized My Dragon Age: Inquisition Character is Gay” by Mike Rougeau at Kotaku. It spoke to me, since this is how I play BioWare RPGs. Since the company’s games are full of choices, yet framed by story and circumstances, I create outlines in my head of the type of character I’d like to play and weave more threads into the fabric of her (nearly always a her) existence as events unfold and I make choices. This also includes any character romances I might pursue.

“My in-game alter-egos always romance the characters who I actually feel attracted to. In Dragon Age: Origins that meant I flirted with Leliana and ultimately wound up with Morrigan, her inner darkness impossible for me to resist. Throughout the Mass Effect series my Commander Shepard maintained an on-again/off-again, sometimes long distance love affair with the blue alien Liara. I loved her attitude and her squishy tentacle hair, and I felt a connection with her “

Like Rougeau, I play and let myself simply be drawn to whoever I am drawn to. I usually know who the options are from the start, but that’s all. In Dragon Age: Origins (tiny spoiler warning for those who haven’t played it) my Warden, Amaya, wound up marrying Alistair, newly crowned king of Ferelden, but whom she recalled as an awkward, shy young man with the spiky hair and compassionate, kind personality. It felt right to consider Amaya heterosexual. My Hawke paired up with Anders in the end. In Mass Effect, I too felt a connection to Liara. I related to her, agreed with her much of the time, found her charming, pretty, passionate, nerdy, and again, was drawn to her. If Liara were a real person and I were a single woman, this would be someone I’d be interested in. It felt right to consider my (canon) Shepard lesbian. That wasn’t solely based on deciding to pursue a relationship with Liara (whose people, in lore, are monogender and look like blue humanoid women), but based on ideas, feelings, experiences, and imagination. I built further backstory utilizing the blocks left to me by the Mass Effect writers, my class choice, the two choices for her background (Earthborn and Sole Survivor), and my own imagination. Part of who she was included running away at a young age, struggling to survive, being a bit of trouble early on, being kind to animals, learning she had a sharp eye that was later honed into Infiltrator class training, finding it almost impossible to trust others out of a mix of fear and inexperience, and yes, liking women.

In Dragon Age: Inquisition, I play an Elf I named Nirwen. An elven female Inquisitor who is open to any gender has the most romance options. I chose not to play yet another human because I didn’t feel like playing nobility once more, and in doing so, inadvertently wound up with six potential options (Blackwall, Cullen, Josephine, Sera, Iron Bull, and Solas). This time, I feel right to call my Inquisitor pansexual or fluid. I decided to approach my Inquisitor in a similar manner, to get to know the other characters and see who stood out to me; who I felt a connection with. Ultimately, I decided on Solas. Solas’ personality, who he is, what he stands for, his concern for the world, both material and immaterial, all of those are attractive, even magnetic qualities, to me. He surprises me, the player, with the depth of his experiences and each new fact.

A screenshot of my Shepard and Liara.

There’s something to be said for feeling your characters out, taking your time, and listening to what they say to you. I don’t usually create characters to look like myself, but somewhere deep down, there is a part of me in them all. Each character, even when existing in the same world, as my three heroic women of Thedas do, should have their lives, speak for themselves, tell me who they are. I talk about feeling right, but that’s the best way to describe when details, identities, personalities, even reasons behind decisions slide into place like puzzle pieces. Whether the piece placed is one that will grow out into a whole when others are added or the final element, each brings a certain thrill. What is it worth living multiple lives if they’re all mirrors?

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Down the Unintentional Rabbit Hole at Skyhold

Jan 9, 2015 by

Skyhold mystery object

March Hare meets Mad Hatter in some horrible melding accident in the bowels of Skyhold.

In my last session of Dragon Age: Inquisition, something odd happened. It’s a game bug I’ve seen many times before, but every time it happens, there’s a twinge of excitement in being lost in a hidden place. It’s a bit of Alice falling down the rabbit hole. As an explorer, that’s always going to appeal to my innate curiosity, the desire to look behind, to see the bones, the forbidden. I opened the door at Skyhold leading to Solas and suddenly, the whole thing broke, I saw sky, and tumbled right through the floor.

Pieces of Skyhold were around me, though technically above, with NPCs floating, going about their scripted business. I imagined what it might be like to genuinely be trapped in that spot with full vision of the others around, oblivious to your plight. I laughed at my predicament, since it was a peek into the weird. I turned around, and in the corner, spotted something strange in the otherwise empty area where I found myself. The rabbit hole and Alice thoughts were accurate since this strange item in the corner looked like The March Hare borrowed the Mad Hatter’s hat. Nothing like it exists in the real, complete, Skyhold. Unfortunately, I could not get close to this oddity, since when I tried to draw nearer, it disappeared. When I finally reached the spot where it was, a tune that sounded like a music box began to play. This music can still be heard by the entryway, but fades in and out if I move too far away, just like in the bugged out space between.

Fell through the floor at Skyhold

I managed to get myself back into the game properly by diving off the open side and freezing in place before being left in a hallway that appeared inaccessible from anywhere else. I could select one door that said “Main Hall”, and I was transported, after a loading screen, to the throne.

I’m left wondering if Solas had brought me back to the Fade for a few minutes.

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Serena: Baring the Layers of Human Inconsistency

Dec 24, 2014 by

A screenshot from horror adventure game  Serena.

A screenshot from Serena.

“Hearts and thoughts, they fade, fade away,” goes an old Pearl Jam hit. The refrain sprung back from a corner of my mind as I thought once again about Serena, a free horror themed adventure game. Serena hasn’t left my mind in one manner or another since the credits rolled. The titular character is gone, missing, and her husband (inside their tiny, romanticized, cabin in the woods where the action takes place) is alone with no idea where she went. This is not about jump scares or terror. It has its twists – which I won’t give away, but ultimately, it’s about expectations. We want to put our best selves forward in any situation involving others, whether that is a romantic partner, a boss, or even on our social media profiles. The game does play tricks with perception as a conceit, and what we conceal and what we lay bare are matters you’ll be thinking about after the brief hour’s gameplay is over.

Horror utilizes unreliable narrators well, incongruities cluing us in that something is playing with time or perspective. Exploration is repetitive but compelling. As you piece the story together, what you’re really doing is uniting facades, layers, and the truth. The second and third acts of the game broaden the emotional range in a way that rounds out our narrator. We are not fractured selves, we are whole selves, ones that do believe in who we project outward while sometimes inconsistent with it.

Serena reminded me of Silent Hill 2’s James Sunderland, whose initial impression was the loving husband searching for his missing wife, Mary. Slowly, the layers of James’ personality are peeled back, as we also see some of Mary’s anger emerge. We often deny, sometimes willingly, and sometimes ignorantly, these other sides, our mistakes, and our flaws. Serena applies a veil of horror over these most human of traits, and does so memorably.

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