Developer: Sam Barlow
This review is certified spoiler-free!
Her Story is not a traditional game. So it's perhaps fitting that this is not a traditional game review. If you came here to find out how many graphics out of ten Her Story has: sorry, but you'll have to find that elsewhere.
Christmas Day, 2015
It's around 1pm. For my fiancée and me, it's our first Christmas at home together and by ourselves. In years past we'd be travelling around the country, staying with one set of parents or the other: this year we have that still to come, in the hazy and distant post-Christmas future.
But for today, it's just the two of us. The presents have been opened, family members phoned, bacon sandwiches consumed. The rest of the day is wide open. So we light the stove, open a bottle of champagne leftover from our engagement, and set up my laptop on the living room table.
I had raised the idea of us playing Her Story together a few days earlier, planning to buy it in the Steam Holiday Sale. “It's a detective game, based around video interviews with an actress... kind of a murder mystery, I think. What do you reckon?”
“OK, I'll give it a go.”
This was pretty much a win, in my book. My previous attempts to involve her in my gaming hobby have been significantly more miss than hit, so I wouldn't have blamed her for saying “no”. Portal, Trine, a couple of point-and-click adventures... none have really interested her. She is not, has not been, and likely never will be a “gamer”: her gaming habits begin and end with 2048 or Bejewelled on her phone or tablet. And that's absolutely fine.
As it turns out, for her, Her Story is different.
Her Story is a nonlinear narrative game played through a simulated mid-1990s computer interface, complete with stylised CRT monitor effects and screen reflections. Upon starting the game, the player is presented with what you see in the screenshot above: a desktop with a couple of ReadMe files giving some basic instructions, and a Video Database window. At the start of the game, the search bar is pre-filled with the term “MURDER”: clicking the Search button brings up four excerpts of police interview videos which match this term. By watching these video clips, and subsequently entering new search terms, the player has to try to piece together what happened.
The live-action videos are taken from a series of interviews regarding a single case, and feature just one actress, Viva Seifert. We only hear her responses to the police officers' questions, not the questions themselves, and the clips range in length from a few seconds to a couple of minutes.
The accessible video clips for any search term are limited to the first five in chronological order. Adding an extra word to the search term may narrow the results, allowing access to a previously inaccessible later clip, or may yield nothing at all. Search 'hits' are based solely on the words the interviewee uses; however, the player can also enter their own tags to help highlight key clips for later review.
So we begin playing, and slip into roles: she starts taking notes of what we perceive to be important information and listing search terms we might try next, and I'm responsible for typing and clicking. As we play and learn more about the case we discuss ideas and theories, and which direction our investigation should take next. We're entranced, totally drawn in by the writing and performance. We experience suspicion and surprise, puzzlement and revelation.
After a couple of hours we feel like we've reached our limit, at least for today. We've exhausted our search terms for the time being, but have only accessed around two-thirds of the database: if we're going to make progress we're going to have to think about it away from the game a bit. We both have a pretty good idea of what we think happened, though interestingly we don't agree on several key points.
We move onto other activities, prepare and eat our Christmas dinner, watch some TV. Her Story remains at the backs of our minds, but we don't have the energy to play any more today. Turns out investigating murders takes it out of you (though real detectives probably don't drink champagne while interviewing suspects: maybe there's hope for our investigative careers yet).
The next day is filled with visits from our friends and their children. The next, spent travelling down to stay at my parents' house and catching up with my sister and her partner before they have to head off at lunchtime on the 28th. With the house feeling a little empty once they've gone, I start talking to my mum about Her Story, and asking whether she'd like to play it with us.
My mum's in her early sixties, and has similar gaming habits to my fiancée, limited to match-3 or word games on her tablet (though she used to play a pretty mean Toad in Mario Kart 64). However, like my fiancée, she also enjoys crime fiction TV and film, so I thought there was a good chance that she would be interested in Her Story.
And she was. We deleted our progress and started from scratch, letting her take the investigative lead, my fiancée and I acting like consultants if she wanted input. It was fascinating to watch her go on a similar journey to us, from thinking she knew exactly what was going on in one moment only to be completely dumbstruck after watching the next clip, having to adapt and throw out hypotheses to account for the new information she was receiving.
After a time she hit a bit of a wall, having exposed some information that we had not, while missing a couple of things that my fiancée and I considered pretty key. So we caught her up (remembering the search terms we used to come to our epiphanies, mercifully), and pressed on. On this second playthrough we accessed about 80% of the total clips. Although we learnt some new information, we all had slightly (or significantly) different takes on the case. And spending time discussing it together afterwards was fantastic, each of us bouncing theories off each other, proposing and dismissing wild ideas.
One of the things I love about the writing in this game is the ambiguity, but I can see how to some people this could be hugely frustrating. There is no true closure here, no “you won!” screen. The game relies on the player to draw their own conclusions: the developer, Sam Barlow, has stated that he will not reveal the 'right answer' (if there even is one).
Having said that, there is plenty of discussion about it online once you feel you're 'finished'. I pointed my mum towards the “Gamers with Jobs Spoiler Section Podcast”, and she listened to it that night in bed. It was the first thing she talked about to me the next morning as she got ready to go to work. Her Story had wormed its way into her consciousness, and she loved it. We said our goodbyes, and she told me that my fiancée and I should listen to the podcast when we get a chance.
So that's what we did, as we drove the next leg of our post-Christmas tour. I'd recommend you do the same if you'd like some spoiler-heavy, in-depth discussion once you've finished playing. None of the three panellists agree with each other completely, and their theories again differ from the ones we personally settled on: for me, this highlights the brilliance and complexity of the writing and performance.
If it's not abundantly clear by now, I highly recommend buying and playing this game if you have any interest in it at all. Some may argue that it's not really a game. Others would champion it as strong example of why games can be considered art. Probably both of these are true, but I'm not too concerned with that. It's the most innovative game I played in 2015, and an experience I, and the people I played it with, will remember for a very long time.
I absolutely recommend playing Her Story with one or more other people if you have the opportunity: this would even be fairly straightforward to set up online using a livestream and audio communication. It's also a great game to play with non-gamers if they like mysteries or puzzles.
I knew very little about the game going in, beyond its basic premise and that it had released to a generally very positive reception. I was surprised that the game is set in the UK, for example (Plymouth specifically), having incorrectly assumed that it was American in origin. I'm pretty obsessive about spoilers, so purposefully limited my exposure to any discussion of the game: if you're at all interested in the game after reading this review, I would suggest that you just go and play it, without any further information. If you have specific questions I'm happy to try to answer them, but the less you know before you start the better.
One thing to note is that, because the game seeks to imitate mid-nineties technology, the audio quality is not that great. This can mean it's sometimes (though rarely) hard to make out exactly the words that are spoken, even as a lifelong UK resident with English as my native language. Thankfully, there are subtitles available if you wish to use them, though I recommend keeping the only other option ('Anti-Glare Filter') turned off.
Between our two playthroughs, Steam tells me we have played Her Story for 8 hours, which sounds about right, with maybe 1 hour of that spent away from the keyboard on breaks. We still don't feel like we're completely finished with the game, and plan to go back to it when we get the time. For the normal Steam price of £4.99, I'd say it's excellent value if you're looking for an intriguing, non-linear narrative to investigate.
Det. Kurt Headshake, signing off.
Added: Mon Jan 18, 2016 12:00 am
Related Link: http://store.steampowered.com/app/368370/?snr=1_5_