The Last Hours of Laura K is an interactive film and transmedia project, which I’ve mentioned before in my interactive film roundup. It was short-listed for the Kitschies Invisible Tentacle prize, and I was on the jury, so I spent a fair amount of time with it, though I can’t claim that I watched all twenty-four hours of the main footage, let alone got to the bottom of it.
When you start the piece, you’re granted access to many, many hours of footage of Laura K during the last hours of her life, collected from cell phones and surveillance cameras and other sources – the sort of tapestry you might imagine law enforcement being able to pull together either now or in the very near future.
These include, towards the end of the footage, a sequence in which Laura seems to stabbed by an anonymous stranger in a crowded place, and we see her death and the discovery of her body. (This is something you could easily watch as the first two minutes of your play experience, or not think of trying until hours in.)
There’s too much here to watch straight through, though, so you can also access different snippets associated with times when Laura was sending or receiving social media messages.
The borders of the fiction are interestingly broken: characters within Laura K are, on Twitter and Instagram, following one another but also real people. There’s a Tumblr site that’s part of the background on SaturnEye that links into a number of real-world situations and events. At every turn there are bits that reinforce the idea that this story is part of the real world, and its threats (oppression, bad policing, corporate greed, surveillance, creepers on the internet) are the same threats that exist in the real world.
More than that: I ran into a few stilted-feeling bits here and there, but for the most part what I encountered felt very plausible: the body language and the dialogue communicated that these were real people going about a day they were finding stressful, but that their behavior was not being performed for anyone’s benefit. In that sense it is almost the opposite of Her Story, where the main character is self-consciously performing in a way I think is part of the story, but others have mentioned they find rather off-putting.
And yet the scene in which Laura’s sister Jess finds her dead, and we watch this layered with a voicemail message left by Laura’s mother, has a compelling sense of focus and irony that most real-world footage doesn’t. They pull off a neat trick here balancing between the scripted and unscripted feel.
All that said, though, I didn’t get to the end of Laura K, and I did get to the end of Her Story, if by “the end” we mean “a point at which I had seen most of the content, felt I knew who had done the crime, and had my own version of the narrative worked out.” And I think there are several reasons for that.
For one thing, LK has a much larger content playtime. For another, its strength — the naturalism, the lack of curation — is also its weakness. It is genuinely hard to know where to start with this piece. And then, once you’ve started, it’s hard to know how to continue. The creators provide a tutorial session about how to get started and use the selection and discovery tools, but interestingly, the tutorial itself cheats: our tutor admits that he’s hopping to interesting points that he already knows about, and that as players we wouldn’t necessarily have the information to look there.
Progress, too, is less obvious. Her Story provides the gratification of a completion diagram that fills in as you go: the mechanism is silly and anti-mimetic but it performs an important function. With Laura K, there is no such mechanical measure of how much you have discovered, or how much there is still to go. For most of my play time I felt like I was developing more and more dependent questions about what happened, rather than converging towards a set of answers I felt confident about.
One of the clever tricks of a lot of successful mystery IF is that it lets you test your hunches in some way and, when you’re right, confirms them by then leading you to new material as a result. In Her Story, that might be guessing a new keyword to ask about; in Make It Good, it might be setting up the NPCs to misconstrue what’s really happening, in a useful way. And maybe that experience is also even accessible in LK sometimes or somehow, but it didn’t happen to me. When I had a hypothesis about someone (“is she having an affair with X?” “is Y in a fight with her?”), that hypothesis didn’t function like a single, testable key, or even a set of keywords I could test in sequence. Instead, usually what happened was that I then tried to dig in to all the information I could find about that particular NPC… but there was lots, and it was spread all over the place, in other clips of film and on other social media accounts, and by the time I’d exhausted even a portion of what I could find, I’d thought of two or three new hypotheses without actually confirming or contradicting the first one. So I felt lost a lot, and kind of dispirited, and like this was just going to be a lot more work, over a lot more time, than I was really up for. (Maybe real police investigations are like that also.)
At any rate, after a couple of hours of interaction, I went to look at what reddit had to say, which in turn led to some other information sources. And I’m left with some second-hand theories about what is really going on here, which is probably as far as I am going to get. They’re a bit more far-fetched and bizarre than I was hoping.
So ultimately, this wasn’t quite the experience I might have wished for. Still — I do think there’s something a bit magical about the way we can zoom in to particular moments and messages; and also about how the world seems to expand outwards when we try to find more. And, of course, the naturalism of the writing and acting and the huge amount of social media content.