Last year I wrote about the way Gone Home is mostly backstory but doesn’t yield to thematically directed exploration. I talked then about wanting to see more games of research, pieces where the player could make guesses about where things were going and then test them out.
Sam Barlow’s Her Story accomplishes that nebulously-framed wish of mine, and brilliantly so.
The idea is apparently straightforward: the protagonist has access to a database of video snippets taken from the interrogation of a woman involved with an apparent murder more than 20 years ago. The video snippets all have searchable subtitles, which means that if you look for a word that is spoken in one of these snippets, you can bring it up. What you can’t do is watch all the snippets in order; and if more than five snippets are associated with a particular keyword, then you can’t access those after 6. (This prevents the game from being too easily solved by someone who latches onto key names early on.)
As a police filing system this is perhaps not very practical, but it makes for a highly engaging game. One starts with a prompt, “murder”, which turns up several snippets with which to get started. From there, it’s a matter of thinking of new keywords to enter. Sometimes the keywords are names or places mentioned in one video that are obviously important. Sometimes I reached them by association or guesswork instead: if one hears about a death, it’s reasonable to want to know what happened at the funeral, for instance. And, of course, the same snippets of video may be reached by several different routes, so there’s less of a premium on exhaustiveness than in something like Toby’s Nose (but perhaps more than in the intentionally unmappable daddylabyrinth). It also feels less controlled and gated than Analogue: A Hate Story.
The game also has a second level of robustness, namely, it’s not necessary to see absolutely every snippet in order to work out what happened. 80-90% is probably sufficient. Personally I had a pretty good idea of what had happened by the end of a couple of hours, though I kept playing for a while longer in an increasingly quixotic mission to find the last remaining bits. I failed to get them all, but I reached a point where I felt pretty satisfied.
It’s massively daring to tell your story in whatever order the player happens to stumble upon — and yet my experience and the experience of every reviewer I’ve read so far was that the narrative order they experienced was compelling and memorable. After playing through this myself, I brought it along to an interactive fiction meetup and watched another group of people play: they saw the story unfold in a totally different way than I did, but it still worked. (They were also so fascinated with the game that we stayed on that for two hours and never moved on to other activities.)
There are a couple of features of the snippets themselves that make this scheme work. First, they’re telling a story that is very complicated (so there’s quite a lot to find) but differently shaped from what you might initially expect (so you’re not just filling in some sort of Motive/Opportunity/Method chart).
Second — and this is a reflection of both writing skill and the quality of the acting — they contain multiple kinds of information. In the earliest phases of the game, the player is just trying to get a sense of the key people and places in the story, scanning the snippets for names to build up a who’s-who. Then one starts comparing new snippets to old ones, looking for factual discrepancies and implications. Later, after the shape of the story has started to emerge from the mist, they start to be readable for emotional hints as well. There are details — visual details, verbal details, tones of voice and choices of imagery — that only take meaning after the player knows quite a lot about what is going on. And that is why the same snippet can still function well in the building of the narrative regardless of whether you see it as almost your first pick of the game or not until quite late.
I’d like to talk about the actual content a bit; however, any discussion of the story itself is of course massively spoilery, even more so for this work than for most games. So I’m going to put that behind a tag.
However, if you’re reading this review to find out whether I think it’s worth playing: yes, absolutely. If you’re a parser IF fan from the old days, you probably remember Sam Barlow from Aisle, a one-move game that is still one of my go-to pieces for introducing new players to parser IF despite the fact that it was written in 1999 — and you may find that the game has more in common with parser IF than you might have thought possible. If you’re a student of experimental narrative forms, this is a smashing example that people will be discussing for some time, and you should know about it. If you’re more of a mainstream indie game enthusiast, you’ve probably already seen the collection of positive reviews Her Story has racked up elsewhere, but in case you haven’t: this is not only a fascinating experiment, it’s also a solid, suspenseful gaming experience that kept me on the edge of my seat.
And the disclaimer: I bought this game in preorder, but Sam then sent me an advance key so that I could play early and review it.
Go play it before you read anything else I have to say. PLAY IT PLAY IT.
There were several points in Her Story where I found myself in serious doubt about what genre it belonged to. It emerges, over time, that there are actually two women, Hannah and Eve, identical twins, both involved with Hannah’s now-deceased husband Simon. But Hannah’s parents didn’t seem to be aware of Eve’s existence, which seemed so extraordinary that I played with the hypothesis either that Eve was in some way supernatural or that she was a secondary personality of Hannah’s. The secondary-personality hypothesis made me flinch a bit, since multiple personalities are so often used in stories that misrepresent and glamorize mental illness, and I was really hoping this game wasn’t trotting out that old trope again. But it wasn’t.
The sense of semi-unreality is heightened because both sisters are rather infatuated with fairy tales and tend to draw on fairy tale images and tropes to tell their stories: princes and princesses, magic mirrors, witches, Rapunzel.
But no, I concluded that Hannah and Eve actually did manage to deceive their parents for many years, living as one person while the spare hid in the attic: a story that is bizarre and gothic but not supernatural. There are several points where the story demands that one of them be in one place while another is elsewhere, and eventually there’s enough evidence to work out when it is Eve we’re seeing in the testimony and when it’s Hannah.
(The first eight years of Eve’s life, she was hidden by an odd, possessive midwife named Florence, which explains how a parent could have twins but be unaware that one of the twins had not actually died in childbirth as commonly thought.)
The other genre fakeout was about how puzzle-y and forensic the game was going to be. There were a number of portions where the video clips cover things like timings and alibis, when various characters were in various locations; there’s another place which includes a bit of apparent code; and so these initial indications made me think I was going to have to work out that material quite systematically. In the end, though, I didn’t have to do that — I did decode the code, out of curiosity, but it wasn’t critical, and neither did I need to make a big time chart. Likewise, you can get a bit CSI about working out which interviews are with Hannah and which with Eve — pay attention to their beverage choices, along with clothing and tattoos and bruises — but you can start to get the point even without that. My notes for the game consist chiefly of a very long list of words to try searching for, and checkmarks indicating whether I found anything as a result.
I was grateful for this. I think, had Her Story been significantly more rigorous as a puzzle, it would also have lost some of its emotional impact, and some of its mechanical focus. I like that you really can find out a satisfying amount without ever diverging from the main mechanic the game offers you at the outset.
It’s a story with a lot of disturbing portions, and though we eventually do find out how Simon died, we don’t learn for sure (or at least I didn’t feel certain) what happened to Florence, who “fell down a flight of stairs” when Eve was eight, or to Eve and Hannah’s parents, who died of death cap poisoning despite being, supposedly, expert mushroom pickers. It seemed to me highly possible that Eve had killed Florence — there’s something just too chilling about the way she says that Florence died after Eve learned Florence wasn’t her true mother — but it was less obvious to me which of Eve or Hannah might have poisoned the parents. Perhaps Eve, out of resentment that she was having to eke out this horrible lonely existence in the attic? But I’m not sure.
At times I felt that the twins were definitely a pair of sociopaths, and at other times I felt sorry for them, despite knowing that they almost certainly traded on pity.
At the core of the story is this question of the relationship between the two sisters: Eve the more confident and sexually adventurous one, Hannah a bit more shy, a bit more prudish; both fascinated by their pairing and at the same time resenting it profoundly. I wanted access to the part of the story that came afterwards — how did Eve and Hannah feel past this point? Did they ever come to resent the choices they made together? — but of course the mechanism of the story doesn’t allow for telling that, so I’m left to imagine it for myself.
The final twist establishes that we’re in fact the daughter who came out of these events, which explains our relationship to the story. I can’t decide if I like that outcome or not: isn’t it too late, now, to establish such an intimate emotional connection to the events we’ve just been watching? I’ve gone through the whole game up to this point without regarding the present-day investigator as much of a character at all; she’s been pure AFGNCAAP, an avatar for myself, and I have a hard time belatedly fitting her into a new narrative position. I almost felt intrusive, suddenly having an assigned role here.
The surprise revelation does at least answer one key question about how the story ends, however, and I’m happy to have that.