I wrote a review already about Her Story, and that is what you should read if you are trying to decide whether to play it.
But lately I’ve run into a strand of criticism of the game to the effect that the central mystery is very trope-driven and highly implausible. (Here are several: Claire Hosking, Jed Pressgrove, Soledad Honrado.)
I read these critiques, I see what they’re getting at, and I think: yeah, but I liked it anyway. Why? Fundamentally I believe stories need to contain some measure of human truth to be worthwhile. Was I just distracted here by how much fun the mechanic was, or did I see a truth in it?
So I want to talk a bit about the actual story that is uncovered here, and about why I personally responded positively to it. This will be very very full of spoilers and also really heavy on the personal reflections, so if you are not interested in those things, bail now.
So let’s get this bit out of the way: yes, the thing is crammed with tropes. It’s a Gothic story, fundamentally, the bones of Radcliffe and Bronte still visible under the wrappings of more modern genres. The duality of persons, the midwife, the poison, the significant pictures that are usually kept covered up; the obsession with mirrors and fairy-tales, doppelgangers and disguises, the forbidden places within the home, the family secrets preserved by servants, the false parentage. No, of course it’s not plausible. This kind of story has never been plausible. It never made sense that Mrs. Rochester could hang out in the attic that whole time without Jane finding out, either.
The Gothic is a way of talking about irrationality, darkness in the soul, and the fact that people aren’t consistently just one thing or another. Though the Gothic is full of women who might, in the words of some of the reviewers I linked above, fall into the “crazy bitches” category, it was also often written by and for women, concerned with domesticity, and touching on family loyalty and family perversion.
“These tropes are really old tropes!!” is obviously not an excuse of any kind: I don’t think the mere presence of recognizable tropes is an automatic artistic demerit, but what is harmful or derivative remains so regardless of length of pedigree. I am really glad that I was finally able to conclude that Her Story wasn’t a multiple-personality story, because I think that particular trope is not only seriously played out but also damaging to our understanding of mental illness.
What I am saying is that a lot of the weirdness of the mirrors, poisonous mushrooms, attic-dwelling children and 1970s midwives became in a sense transparent to me once I recognized the genre I was dealing with.
Instead I was attracted by the character of Eve. There is something really engaging especially in her final interview, the combination of self-knowledge and highly disciplined self-presentation, and the depth of the love-hate-identity relationship she has with Hannah. Her loyalties may be perverse, but they are clear. She is possibly sociopathic, but I did in some way sympathize with her. Here is a woman who has gone through her life willingly being, for instance, punched in the face in order to maintain the illusion she has to maintain. It is bizarre and twisted, and it is also loyalty and self-defense.
Hannah I liked quite a bit less. She seemed more closed and self-deceiving as well as less capable. She was constantly using Eve to make up for her own deficiencies, even long before the murder.
So what truth did I see in all this? I think: the social mutability of self, which is something that everyone inevitably experiences. It has been especially present in my life the past few years. I travel more and have increasingly non-overlapping social circles, so that I’m playing the role of native and foreigner, novice and expert, relatively rich and relatively poor, depending on environmental factors that change sometimes many times a day. And for reasons of career, I’ve also needed to give more thought to actually managing all this, rather than just observing it in a bemused way.
Here’s a thing that happens to me pretty frequently. I’m at a game-related conference. I may be wearing a speaker badge. A young man comes up to me; often he’s a student, sometimes a bit older. He asks me what I’m into, game-wise, and I say that I work in interactive narrative. This is the starting gun. He begins to tell me all about interactive narrative. He has deep theories about interactive narrative, in fact, which are usually grounded in having played a couple episodes of The Walking Dead, or maybe the end of Portal or Bioshock.
Typically the insight he wants to share with me is something like “it’s really hard to have both story and gameplay” or “it ruins the story if you let the player make important decisions” or “twist endings, man, whoa”. There isn’t really a stopping point for me to say anything. Sometimes he may transition from telling me his insights to giving me some advice about how I might “break into” the field, e.g. by working in QA, or maybe teaching myself to program a bit. Gently, he may tell me that I shouldn’t be scared of code and it might really help me out to learn some. If I somehow manage to get a word in and mention that I do code, the fact that my language of choice isn’t C++ inevitably entitles him to blow this information off again.
Sometimes at this point I excuse myself from the conversation and go find someone else to talk to, or the bathroom, or a drink, or just the nearest exit. Just occasionally, the incident gets an alternate ending: someone Student has heard of and respects — his professor, an older dev, a journalist — comes over and says, “HI EMILY! It is great to meet you! I love your work!” Student becomes confused, then silent. Professor and I have a conversation instead.
Right now you may be thinking that I find the latter ending a very satisfying experience. And I suppose at some level I do, but on another it is disorienting as hell, a Hitchcock dolly zoom, a bite from Alice’s eat-me cake. I may be aware that the student is demonstrating a heavily gendered set of assumptions that says more about surrounding culture than it does about either of us, and that he’s probably talking mostly out of insecurity and his own severe need to show that he knows something, because he is worried about whether he can “break in”. I may also take the professor’s praise with a grain of salt, because sometimes people get more expansive in their enthusiasm at three beer PM on the fourth night of a conference.
But it’s really really hard not to feel like there’s some way that I am different. As though I turn into someone else in the moment that I’m recognized, and both the before and the after person are uncomfortable and not me.
And it’s also hard not to wonder, what am I doing wrong here? Women get told a lot – maybe men do too? – that people will treat you the way you let them treat you.
A whole other story. On a packed train a week or two ago a fellow standing-room passenger started describing how I was, inevitably, going to be raped one of these days, how we’d be seeing each other again, I couldn’t protect myself, women like me get destroyed.
Along with “how do I get away from this person and make sure he doesn’t follow me when I get off?” and “is he about to touch me and if so am I going to scream?” I had a lot of thoughts along the lines of “what did I do that made this person think he could say this to me?” Thinking, also, about how if I told this story to people, they would ask me: did I encourage him? make eye contact? smile? Did I show any scrap of treating him as a human being at the beginning of the interaction, because, if so, that right there, that would be my mistake, the thing that opened the door to what followed. And of course I had: finding myself crowded into the train next to this guy, I’d smiled and tried for a sympathetic “yes, doesn’t it suck we don’t have seats, it sure is hot in here” face and didn’t make anything of the fact that he was breathing liquor fumes at me.
I was trying to show respect, trying to demonstrate courtesy even though lots of other people were ignoring him. Maybe that’s exactly why he thought I couldn’t protect myself.
Never mind. Back to Student, who is merely condescending and clueless and not offering any Jack Daniels-scented prophecies of sexual violence. But this too feels like my fault. How to get him to change the terms of the conversation so that we could have a dialogue that might be more interesting and productive for both of us?
I can think of a few ways to attempt to communicate “you have made an error in assessing me”, but most of them are dominance plays. I don’t want to pull a dominance play. If it fails I’m embarrassed, and if it succeeds, they are, and I don’t like either outcome. And what could be grosser or more ridiculous than a DO YOU KNOW WHO I AM?? speech? I’m not the president, I’m not entitled to special levels of respect, and there’s no reason they should know who I am. I just want to be allowed to have a conversation in which I’m not treated as a feckless novice about my own life’s work. In practice, when confronted with someone like Student, the fastest way to get that is to walk away and talk to someone else. And I don’t have a lot of confidence that even the Professor ending of this scenario really teaches Student any general lessons, like maybe “the next time you meet a woman and she tells you what she does for a living, allow for the possibility that she started longer ago than yesterday.”
Trying to find ways to moderate this I’ve become increasingly conscious of, if not actually good at, subtler forms of self-positioning. How do I stand, what tone of voice do I use, do I adopt a low status position in the conversation just out of instinctive mirroring. How to deal with being interrupted, which happens a lot more in this world than in my last one. What I eat and drink in front of people. What I wear! Oh my god, so much about what I wear, since I started interacting more seriously with the world of games.
Academia allows a wide range of eccentric takes on professional and business casual attire. I had a poorly fitting suit that I wore to interviews, because grad student stipends don’t buy a lot of custom tailoring, but for other occasions there was very little in my wardrobe that would have been weirder than what other people were wearing. Tweed and brogues? Fine. Jeans and a turtleneck? Fine. Long hippy skirt and a flowing top? Shift dress and a statement necklace? Puffy ski jacket? Totally fine. Somebody probably would’ve complained if you severely violated hygiene norms, but otherwise the parameter space was very broad and there was that one Physics professor who’d been wearing the same purple flannel every day since 1993 and no one seemed to care.
At game industry conferences, the target area is minute. I feel like what I wear has to be: not too sloppy, not too formal, not prudish, not sexy, not cutesy, not uptight; not so business-professional as to seem clueless about gamer culture, but also not carrying game-related brands or slogans because then there’s the whole “fake geek girl” thing to contend with. Neither denying nor emphasizing femininity. Not looking like I want to attract anyone, while still obeying some of the demands of the male gaze because you will get backlash for sure if you genuinely disregard that. Also, ideally, hitting these requirements while looking like I didn’t spend much thought or money on the problem, because caring about clothes is feminine-marked in a negative way and not very gamer-y. Some people have solutions to this other than mine, of course. Very colorful outfits, striped tights and whimsical hats, work for some women, but I’m on the far side of 35 and I would feel foolish dressing like that. I don’t have the body type to pull off androgynous, or the personality for unusual costumes, much though I sometimes appreciate other people’s. Me, I’m just trying to minimize vulnerability to the standard modes of attack. I plan outfits like it’s tower defense. I still lose a lot of levels.
These things I’ve had to think about a lot more in the past few years. It’s not lost on me that I’ve needed to learn a lot of traditionally feminine-coded and traditionally less-valued skills (I pretty much never wore makeup before a couple of years ago) precisely in order to navigate an environment where I was shown less respect as a result of being female.
I don’t think all this is about discovering how to be fake or how to deceive people, but how to be myself in a way that other people will best connect with, and that will draw the least negative feedback. Even if it’s not fair to have to think about these issues, what happens when I don’t think about them gets in the way of doing my job. When Student is talking down to me like I’ve never read a CYOA or opened a terminal window, he’s not having a conversation with me as I am, but with a projected imaginary version of me that I’ve failed to dispel. Maybe it’s not really my fault as such, but we’d both be having a better time if I could change that.
The more authentic self, in other words, is sometimes also the more deliberately enacted and performed self. And this is the point (finally!) where we get back to what I liked about Her Story. Eve is both the more false and the more true member of that pair. She knows what she is doing and why she is doing it. She is more confident, braver, a superior liar. Hannah is less competent at being bad, without being a better person. Eve, one feels, would not have lashed out and killed Simon by accident. She might have killed him on purpose at some point, if she felt she had to, but not by accident.
As exaggerated as the story incidents were, as much as the virginity story squicked me out, as little as we have in common in circumstance or (I hope!) personality, there was still something about the deliberate self-making of Eve that spoke to me.