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.

read more