Illuminated by a flickering, faux CRT monitor, scratched and reflective, I’m typing words into an antiquated database in the hopes of solving a mystery. It’s something I used to do a lot in text adventures and adventure games with a parser: tensely filling out a text box, hoping that this time I’ve inputted the right combination of words so that I can unravel a story that I’ve become fixated on.
Her Story is not an adventure game, though. It’s something new. A subversion of what we’d expect from a game, it’s a simple police database containing around 250 clips, all FMV, of a woman split across a few interviews. A man is missing. No, a man was missing, and now, years later, I’m putting the pieces together like a cross between a detective and an archeologist.
FMV games were always a little strange. Most of the time, you could expect hammy overacting and a weird disparity between the actors and the sets. And just as often, you could expect the game to be a little bit crap. Still, a few, like Tex Murphy, became embedded in my mind; examples of great games that dated oh so very quickly.
Here’s the thing: FMV games wanted to be interactive TV shows and films, but without the big budgets, armies of writers and quality actors. Sam Barlow, of Silent Hill: Shattered Memories fame, is not trying to squeeze a round peg into a square hole with Her Story, though. Instead, he’s created a title that couldn’t work if it wasn’t an FMV game.
There are times when Her Story will make you feel like a detective. You’ll watch short clips, looking for clues – not smoking guns, but subtle tells – in attempt to piece together the mystery. But Her Story is not a game where you’re solving a crime. There is one interviewee and you have no physical evidence to pour over, or indeed any context beyond what is offered in the videos. It’s really about building a story.
Almost every clip provides a detail that can flesh out this muddled jigsaw, but absent context you’ll often not realise you’ve uncovered something important. Clips only appear when you search for them, and the search terms are up to you -- there’s no list. The game starts off by suggesting you type in “murder” but after that it’s up to you. In one of the videos that “murder” brings up, you might hear a person’s name or location, and then by searching for those words, you’ll bring up all the videos where they are mentioned. If there are more than five entries, however, then the rest won’t show up, and you’ll need to find them with other search terms or combinations.
If this was a real database, whoever designed the system would probably be out of a job, but as a mechanic in a game, it’s subtly great. It ensures that you’ll hang off every word uttered by Viva Seifert, who plays the interviewee, listening for words and names that could be important.
At first I meandered, jotting down words on my notepad – what a joy – I collected clues but without direction. Then I made a few breakthroughs, and you can make some massive ones right from the start if you search for the right words, which completely changed what I was trying to get out of Her Story.
Through Viva Seifert’s testimony, people, places and events come to life, whole characters and the tragedies that defined them, all being conjured up in this pokey interview room. Before long, my search queries were focused on finding out more about these people, not just finding out what happened to Simon, the missing man.
For all its brilliant window dressing, the CRT monitor, the authentic looking VHS recordings, what holds it all together, what makes it feel uncomfortably real, is the exceptional performance given by Seifert. If it wasn’t for her control over each moment, then the whole experiment might not work. Her tone, facial expressions, tells that can bounce between authentic and manufactured (by design), all the things that L.A. Noire’s Uncanny Valley faces couldn’t quite pull off, ensure that it feels distressingly believable.
I said before that playing Her Story was like being a cross between a detective and an archeologist, but it is more of the latter than the former. The almost complete removal of the interviewer side of things does make Her Story intimate, at times like a conversation, like she’s talking directly to the player, but there is always a significant gulf between the player and the interviewee. A gulf of years, since the clips are all set in the mid-’90s, and a gulf created by the way the videos are viewed out of sequence.
So you dig around, creating a narrative with whatever’s on hand. Each new clip is like a preserved relic that, on its own doesn’t tell you much about the bigger picture, but when paired with more relics, you can start to get a broader impression. But the relationship is always passive. You don’t ask direct questions, but you do have to put it together, and the story changes and takes you down different, often strange, avenues as you stare at clip after clip.
I worried, at first, that Her Story would spill the beans too quickly, since you can watch the final clip straight away if you put in the correct word, but Barlow has made sure that no clip truly makes sense without others. A massive revelation serves to send you down new paths; it never tells you everything. I watched several big reveal clips very early on, but they made almost no sense until an hour later, when I had watched 50 more videos. And even then, there were more questions than answers, and many more clips to watch.
It’s been strange to go back to videos I watched early on and see them with new eyes. Words suddenly have greater meaning, and I’ve spotted major clues that, without the benefit of foresight, I completely missed. Going back and watching these clips again, even though I’d technically “completed” the game, felt necessary. I needed to try to put things all in order, to follow old threads back to their source and even to compare videos from different interviews. I didn’t feel like I had a full picture until an hour or so after the credits rolled.
Will Her Story give you some closure? It’s hard to say. You’ll figure out what happened, or at least a version of what happened, but ultimately it’s up to you whether or not you choose to believe it. Regardless, there will always be some ambiguity, a sense that there’s still more to learn. Perhaps it will inspire you to go back through the archives again, or perhaps you will be satisfied with what you’ve learned and happy to move on.
Her Story is a captivating experiment in stripped down storytelling and the best use of FMV that I’ve ever had the good fortune to encounter. It’s a story that we get to build, and thus, despite the way that it sometimes keeps players at a distance, Her Story becomes Our Story. By obsessing over clips and trying to put them in order, trying to make sense of them all, we become embroiled in the story and can make it fit our own theories. It’s unique, singular and will take a long time to stop bouncing around inside my head.