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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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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Some Heartbreak is Inevitable

Dec 22, 2014 by

Animal Crossing: New Leaf screenthos, featuring my villager with Apple, a hamster.

Animal Crossing: New Leaf screenshot, featuring my mayor with Apple, a hamster.

After playing almost daily for 18 months, sometime around six weeks ago, I said what have unexpectedly become the last things said to my villagers. You see, I haven’t played Animal Crossing: New Leaf in a while and I know that some heartbreak is inevitable. It’s a strong word, but in a game so dependent upon relationships, those pixels find ways to embed themselves in you.

I’m not sure why the pause that became a much longer break. I really enjoy visiting and talking to all my villagers and fought to keep as few of them as possible from leaving town. Once in a while one would slip through my protective grasp, never to return. Most of my town is made up of original villagers from my starting group, or was – I’m not quite sure who remains now. I’ve nearly turned on the 3DS more than once to peek in there and find out whose farewell letter might be at this moment gathering dust in my yet unfinished house’s mailbox. Perhaps more than one? As I prepare to do that very thing, restore power to the vessel, the impartial device, and give myself over to the loss of power that even a mayor can’t retain. Villagers, I’m coming back. I wonder if I hope things will be the same.

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Assassin’s Creed: Unity Reveals What’s Valuable

Jun 11, 2014 by

Assassin’s Creed: Unity Reveals What’s Valuable

Ubisoft has the work of nine studios behind Assassin’s Creed: Unity, but that isn’t enough to include any female characters. The game is set around the time of the French Revolution, and that period was no stranger to women working to help bring about change and even as famous assassins. The game will also feature co-op multiplayer, but you won’t find women there either.

Personally, artistic vision is something that I respect. So I’m not looking for people to start shoehorning in token women or minorities anywhere. One of the reasons people that care about diversity talk about diversity is for visibility’s sake. If people are visible, and in your everyday life, maybe it won’t take a stretch of the imagination in order to include diverse characters and portrayals from the start by default. For now, engaging in discourse is one tool that technology allows us.

While it is arguably true that games with female protagonists sell fewer copies, they’re also granted less marketing support. So it’s a little bit of a ‘chicken or egg’ scenario. Since a studio must balance profitability with creativity, it’s easier to simply keep pumping out games starring men. Even in the face of approaching gender parity when it comes to gamer demographics and the demographics of game buyers, these things continue to repeat themselves.

What struck me about the Ubisoft position was not that it happened with Assassin’s Creed (it’s nothing new for the franchise), but how insensitive the remark came off in the response. “It was on our feature list until not too long ago, but it’s a question of focus and production,” tech director James Therien told Videogamer “A female character means that you have to redo a lot of animation, a lot of costumes [inaudible]. It would have doubled the work on those things. And I mean it’s something the team really wanted, but we had to make a decision”. The message comes off as ‘men are default – women are part of an optional “feature list”‘.

Therien went on to insist this was not a decision based on “philosophy or choice” and that the team really wanted to include some women. Yes, it’s “a reality of game development” that some features get cut, plots dropped, work trimmed to fit deadlines, and other forms of scaling back. I’m not calling any of this malicious or a deliberately exclusionary decision. It was likely a simple business decision as stated, yet one which shows what is valuable to the studio. Not for the first time and likely not for the last.

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