Watching as Detectives: The Truth Behind ‘Her Story’
We speak to designer Sam Barlow about his divisive and vital new indie game.
Her Story has surprised a lot of people, not least its own creator, Sam Barlow. Reviews have been amazingly positive – "profound" and "gripping" wrote Digital Spy – but players have been split. "This is what I call Polygon bait," comments user reviewer "Tubey" on Metacritic, awarding the game a measly 4/10 and referring to the American gaming website; "a game that site loves to laud as 'artistic', but... it's not actually a video game." Another, "frumps", is rather more blunt: "This is not a game. It is a gimmick to sell to people who don't play video games or know what a video game is." He scores it 0/10.
Out now for PC, Mac and iOS, Her Story certainly isn't a title that gamers of every stripe were ever likely to get behind. The entire thing is presented through a desktop computer-styled interface, fitting its mid-1990s setting. The sole gameplay mechanic is typing in keywords that yield video results from a police database. These clips are of a woman being interviewed regarding the murder of her husband, and the first keyword that the game automatically puts in place for you is just that: "murder". From there onwards, though, it's all down to the player. You piece the story, her story, together from the clips, finding a suitable order for them, learning more about the case with every second of video. Did she do it? The complete picture can't be achieved until every clip has been unlocked, and with no set path to the game's conclusion, such as it is, it's unlikely that any two players will see the story unfold in quite the same way.
Not too long ago, on these very pages, I wrote about how I wanted there to be a digital version of the board game Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective. With Her Story, it's almost like I've got my wish. Not content to just play the game, I wanted to get some more insight into the design process. So I got in contact with Barlow, who previously worked on Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, to discuss (spoiler free) how the game was made, and how he came to some of the decisions surrounding its and story.
"'Kitchen sink drama' is a term that people came up with to talk about a wave of plays and films that we had back in the 1950s and '60s," Sam tells me. "This was a movement about telling stories that represented and dramatized the struggles of ordinary, working-class people. So much of the drama took place around the drudgery of the kitchen sink. This was an important movement because it was about making sure high art spoke for, and also to, the larger audience."
This isn't just a term related to films and plays, however. Sam would often encounter it when he was working in big game development. "It's used as a way of dismissing material that is contemporary, not fantastical. So, you know, it's okay to pitch a game about a cyborg assassin from the future. That's aspirational, it's wow, it's very 'video game'. But if you want to make a game about something that's set in the real world, that is a story on a smaller scale? That's too kitchen sink. And I used to get frustrated at these kinds of reactions.
"You see that lack of confidence with the material in stuff like David Cage's games [for Quantic Dream] where they add in robots and aliens, or cyberpunk VR glasses, when the characters and their drama should be enough to carry the game. I was so lucky, too, with the Silent Hill franchise because, horror and supernatural elements aside, the core stories there are absolutely of that domestic, personal scale. And you didn't have to argue about it, it was part of its DNA."
Now that he's working on his own, Barlow can put as much kitchen sink in as he wants, and he's very glad about it. "With Her Story, I was very excited to have the freedom to engage with material that takes place in a contemporary setting, where the characters aren't superheroes. The stakes are personal and intimate. The details are ones that people will recognise from their own lives, from the lives of their families. I'm not saying every game has to be like this, but we do need more that are."
It's unsurprising that Her Story's reception has included questions regarding whether or not it's even a "game". Interactive fiction? Sure, obviously. But a game? Barlow has a neat answer to this. "I see interactive fiction as a subset of games, so my answer to that question is: it's both. As confusing as the word might be, 'game' is probably the best word we have for these interactive digital things whose experience requires the direct participation of a player."
There is a kind of "game" element to Her Story however, as the database is only able to display five results per keyword at a time, so as you try and unlock more of the story, you have to become ever more clever with your searches. "Yeah, the 'five entries' is my one free-pass: I know this isn't utterly believable, but go with it," Barlow says. "But also, having worked with government computer systems of that time, I know it's not that far fetched." The game's presentation wasn't locked in from the start, though. "Initially, this [interface] wasn't a big part of the experience. But once I'd developed the story I kind of knew it was taking place in the '90s, and once I was in the '90s and started to research police computers of that era, I just got deep into that look and the aesthetic – it became important to make sure it was as authentic as it could be."
The trailer for 'Her Story'
Every now and then the monitor flickers, providing a glimpse of "you" looking into the old CRT monitor, or a solemn piece of piano music plays. The first time this happened to me, I had just watched a clip detailing how the murder victim's body had been found, and was pretty freaked out by it. I wondered if this was intentional. "There's some logic which tracks the emotional intensity of the clips to drive the music, and if it spikes the lights can flicker. So the flicker will naturally occur when you've watched a juicy clip or seen a couple of semi-juicy ones in succession." I have to tell you, it works really well.
With this stripped back mode of gameplay, and player-directed story progression, I had to ask Barlow about games like Gone Home and Dear Esther, to see whether they were an influence on him. "What links Gone Home, Dear Esther, games like them, is that we're all absolutely in love with the idea of video games; we're all in love with the telling of stories. And what drives us is finding new ways to combine those two passions, to tell stories that are truthful and memorable, and to tell those stories in ways that only games can provide.
"Gone Home was very interesting to me because for all that people felt it was a different kind of game, to me it was very clearly in the tradition of the big name games Steve (Gaynor) worked on. It was a BioShock game, but in a domestic scenario. What impressed me was how much the performance aspect drove that title. How key the writing and the voice acting were to its impact. In a way, Her Story reacts to that by focusing in on that aspect to the exclusion of all others, and trying to explore how we make that part more interactive, more involved."
"Dear Esther was a big influence, naturally. Other than the sheer emotional grunt of that game, it hits you in the heart, right? It's a great example of how players can create a narrative in the space between clips. The game has a random selection of audio, which isn't, if I recall correctly, necessarily consistent. But each player draws together the themes and symbols and pieces, and creates something very moving. I think there's a tendency in games to spell everything out, and to not do so might be a User Interface failing, right? But in many ways this utterly compromises the player's imagination. And it's the player's imagination that is driving this. Look at cinema, the medium that's all about pointing a camera at things – often the craft in that medium is about what you don't show."
All the player ever sees is one woman, played by Viva Seifert, in a room, sometimes playing with a cup, sometimes her hair. The game takes place over a number interviews spanning several weeks, so her appearance varies from one clip to the next and, more importantly, so too do her emotions, sometimes wildly. I wondered if each clip was recorded separately, or whether the interviews were shot as one long session.
"We shot for a week, roughly in chronological order, and it was gruelling," Barlow recalls. "At times it felt like we had been stuck in a room being interrogated ourselves! If I remember correctly, we sort of ran clips together, so the flow was there. Viva was reacting to the detectives, who you never hear in the game, but who were fully scripted. That was painful to me as a writer, to consign all those words to the dustbin – but on the other hand, I was acting out those roles on the shoot, so I was quite happy for my performance to never see the light of day!"
As for the writing, Sam had "all the histories, stories and so on plotted out, on paper, and in detail, these long biographies for everyone [mentioned in the game]. Then I had a very loose structure for the interviews: 'The detectives have found this and will ask about this on day three.' But from there, when I actually sat down and wrote the interviews, I was very much in the moment, writing from inside the character's heads."
During my time with Her Story, I found that the writing was almost responding to questions I had in my head. I'd type in a keyword, and the woman on screen would react in the way I'd imagined her to, as if I were conducting the interview. It's wonderfully clever, all the way through.
While he may not have been keen for people to see his acting performance, Sam is overjoyed with how Viva played her character. "Luckily, I'd worked with Viva before, and I knew from that project that I could work well with Viva. She has a very precise control over subtle things – her voice, her gestures, her facial expressions. And that would be key in a game like this. In fact, when I was first thinking about the idea of Her Story, I had Viva in mind. I particularly recall that when she came in to do a previous casting, her initial read was so good, and that memory of her in a plain room, no costume, captured on video, just nailing it... that was definitely in my mind when I was imagining the concept of Her Story."
Finally, I ask Sam how he feels about the reception for his game, so far.
"Floored. I felt like I had something that would appeal to a niche group, and maybe would have some word of mouth, maybe pay for itself over six months or so – so to see that happen within days of launch? Wow. It's hugely satisfying to see the world at large be so receptive to a game like this. So many times I've been told that certain ideas, certain styles, just don't make sense. So to see that in the modern, digital world there's a way to actually reach an audience with a game like this, that's a great counterpoint to some of the discussion around the online audience and the marketplace for games."
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