In recent years there have been many games that have pushed the boundaries of what it means to be a video game. Games such as Gone Home, Flower and Journey are more interactive art than game and it begs the question of whether or not the term is insufficient in describing the wide range of experiences that currently fall under the banner of video game.
Her Story is a new release from Sam Barlow (Silent Hill: Shattered Memories) and is probably the perfect example of an experience that doesn’t fit the typical video game label. When you begin the “game” you are sitting at an old computer logged into a police department video archive. You are given no commands or objectives when you begin, no hint of who you (as the player) are or what your motives might be. Just the word ‘murder’ already typed into the search engine. When you click search you are presented with a series of video recordings of a woman being interrogated by the police. It’s actually multiple interviews over the course of several months back in 1994. The women in the videos is being questioned about the mysterious disappearance of a man named Simon. From there it’s up to you to find your way to the center of this mystery by searching the database using keywords that may be relevant to the case. You need to pay close attention to the words she says and piece together the truth from the out of sequence snippets of video that they lead you to.
Each video is short, ranging from just a few seconds to perhaps a minute. But with each one that I found, I would analyze every frame. Watching her behavior, studying her mannerisms, and most importantly listening to every single word. Creating new searches for each new name or location that she mentions. Any word spoken in the video is searchable, but the game cleverly limits you to only 5 search results at a time. So you can’t just search “the” or “and” to unlock every single video. I began to feel like a detective as I saved videos that contained what I hoped was an important piece of information. Not many games have made me feel like such a part of the narrative. Immersing me in this investigation filed with twists and turns.
The entire game (which doesn’t last more than a couple of hours) is presented in this way. Just you at your computer searching for more files. That is the entirety of what the gameplay consists of in Her Story. But it becomes so addicting and immersive that it’s hard to quit. I kept searching and searching waiting for the next new video in the hopes that it would contain a stunning revelation that would reveal what really happened to Simon. And as you peel back each new layer to discover the truth underneath, it becomes apparent that this is a much more complicated story than originally thought. And then after finding a certain amount of these videos, the game simply gives you the option to either log off and be finished or stay on and see what other details you may not have found yet. One of the more brilliant aspects of the game is that when you do decide that you’ve seen enough, your version of the truth may be different from someone else’s depending on how many of the videos you’ve seen. It’s a wonderfully unique experiment in storytelling and is pulled off remarkably well due to smart writing and a great performance from actress Viva Seifert.
In an industry that can be so obsessed with doing what’s predictable and safe, Her Story is wonderfully unique and different. It’s not about winning or losing, it’s not about racking up a high score, and it’s not even about reaching the “end” of the game. It’s just about experiencing this story. I doubt that any other game this year will be as intriguing and captivating as this one. It challenges what a video game is supposed to be and makes me excited for what Sam Barlow has in store for us next.
Her Story is available now on PC, Mac and iOS