No Wrong Way To Play: Her Story Review

This review was originally published March 6, 2016.

Linearity is one of the most fickle elements of modern game design. With very few exceptions, every other narrative form ever devised — from film, to literature, to simple verbal storytelling — begins at one point and ends at another, with every detail in between arriving in the same order every time. As long as you’re still reading or watching, the story proceeds in exactly the way the author intended.

Videogames make this technique almost impossible. Players can miss details in a game by not approaching something from the correct perspective. They can get stuck in a certain area if they don’t know how to find the key to unlock the next area. And, most importantly, they can push against the motivations the designer is giving them and play the game in a different way. The challenge for designers who want to tell a narrative with their game is finding a way to tell that story despite player interaction.

Her Story takes a simple yet radically different approach to that challenge. At its core, the game is simply piecing together a video that’s been fragmented into different pieces. But, even though the story is viewed out of order, the experience still follows the emotional arch that a typical, straight-line story would provide. It spills out hundreds of puzzle pieces onto a table, and even though all you do is line them up in a random order, they still form the same picture every time. The secret is that the narrative isn’t the content of the videos, it’s the story of you watching the videos.

The game begins by dumping the player directly in front of a glare-ridden CRT monitor connected to a loudly humming computer running a 90’s era operating system. The view and controls simulate the perspective of the person sitting at the machine: the fictional monitor takes up your entire real monitor (or iPad) and your mouse and keyboard work normally (or as normally as running Windows 98 on your iPad would be). A text file on the desktop explains that, thanks to a Freedom of Information Act request, you can now access a database of digital video files that were transferred from videotapes in 1999. Another text file explains that these clips are from the “Homicide and Serious Crime Archive at Portsmouth” and that the only way to search the database is to search for words that appear in the transcripts of each clip via text box. The first search is made for you. “MURDER” returns four results.

Each new query returns up to five videos of a woman being interviewed by detectives. The clips are scattered. Timestamps show different dates between June and July of 1994. The woman’s clothing changes from clip to clip, as does the setting of each interview. After the first few queries, it’s obvious someone close to this woman has been murdered. The questions are “did she do it?” as well as “why should the person you’re controlling care?” Answers begin to appear slowly as you uncover more video clips and learn more of the woman’s story.

With 288 different clips, the number of possible viewing orders is almost infinite. If you were to graph everyone’s search terms, certain paths would probably be more popular than other (most people would watch the 5 “murder” videos first) but the game never forces videos on you. Nothing’s locked; you can view any video at any time.

As others have noted, the process of searching for videos makes you feel as if you’re authentically piecing together a mystery. Unlike many mystery games, the game isn’t handing you directions to the next part of the game and calling it a “clue,” nor is it holding your hand and telling you what to do. Refreshingly, it lets you do the work.

What makes that experience even more amazing is that despite the unavoidable inconsistencies of that process, Her Story still maintains a consistent emotional progress arch. Although the order in which you view the clips is random, the roller coaster of watching them is the same every time. Each time you play, small moments of discovery will accumulate until a climactic moment ties together the significance of what you’ve spent the last few hours doing.

The trick here is that certain elements bracket the actual process of searching for videos. Often those moments are as simple as transitions in the background music, but sometimes they are extremely apparent, like when a new program icon appears on your screen. Even though they are separate from the videos, they’re intertwined with the experience of the game. Everything feels cohesive.

If the game has one weakness (and this is a major weakness) it’s that even after seeing all 288 clips, the video clips still leave some questions unanswered. Certain details may feel odd or out of place. The game will not wrap up everything neatly for you, it will only wait until you’ve (literally) decided you’re satisfied. That moment may never arrive. But the point is not to construct a bulletproof timeline from the details provided. The point is the experience. And the experience is riveting.

As videogames collectively seek out ways to tell stories and convey ideas that aren’t tied to the thousands of years of in-line narrative, Her Story provides a perfect template of one way to do that. Instead of trying to shoehorn a narrative into an interactive experience, this game draws a narrative out of an interactive experience. And the emotion that experience concocts is more tightly controlled and manipulated than almost any other type of game.

Imagine if each of these clips were a single level in a much larger game. You learn bits of story that are then connected by a timed cue or event. Instead of forcing you to do something, the game gives you the freedom to do whatever you want. You receive the story no matter what you do. That’s the path Her Story is paving. If those hypothetical games are as successful this one, the future is looking very bright.

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Chris On Videogames

Chris On Videogames

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Videogame criticism that’s short, sharp, and insightful. New reviews every other Friday.