Ten minutes into our Skype conversation, actress Viva Seifert realized she had turned on her video chat, while I was feeding her a blank screen. "So you can see me, but I can't see you?" she said. "Oh my gosh, so you could be picking your nose as we talk for all I know? That's good to know."
I thought she knew—she was the one who turned it on—but I had become accustomed to watching her in a small video box on my computer answering questions at this point. Seifert is the lead role in Her Story, a new, exceptional and voyeuristic full-motion video game in which her character is interrogated for weeks about a missing husband. When I pointed out the similarity between the video game and this tiny moment of humility, she said the key difference is that she no longer has a script to read from.
Her Story is a murder mystery in dozens of parts. While the game is set in the modern day, the player is dead dropped on to a 90s police computer terminal and left to rummage through recordings of multiple interrogation sessions from 1994, surrounding a missing person case. Each clip averages about 20 to 40 seconds, and the only way to search through the database is with keywords. Any phrase or term mentioned during the videos can be searched. When you begin the game, the word "MURDER," in all-caps, is already entered into the program.
"I guess it was naturally dramatic," said Sam Barlow, the game's designer, about the leading, loaded search word.
The game is a virtual rabbit hole. With the ability to pursue any utterance or any gumption in the database, the narrative forms around you. Voids in the scenario can manifest wildly in your head, worse than even the most detached True Detective theory. Every clip and clue is a carrot on a string that can take you in completely different directions. You can play it low to the ground, try to track the woman's verbatim testimonies as it traverses throughout her life, but there are potholes and amazing detours along the way.
Her timeline does not seem to sync, and it's in a way that feels beyond the potential of her merely lying. The web of her relationships are inconsistent. The inability to ask the questions and merely pursue them, and the fact that any testimony lasts a few seconds, creates a tantalizing frustration that forces you to dig. I got thrown into a massive tangent early on about a creepy dollhouse, and while the information was valuable, the fact that Barlow's previous credits included Silent Hill games made me consider even the most outlandishly gothic possibilities.
"It's not just the specific crime that's being investigated," said Barlow. "There are other things that have happened in this woman's history that are explored. There's no one clip that's going to ruin the whole story for you. If this was The Sixth Sense, there's no skipping to the ending just to spoil a big twist."
That was my situation. I discovered the "truth" early on in my journey, but I wouldn't, couldn't feel satisfied until unearthing the context for these actions. You can really land anywhere in the story at any time, but the game's safeguard is that most will seem like nonsense unless you've uncovered its prerequisites.
"This game isn't just a whodunit, and then you're done, is it?" said Seifert, who admits she hasn't had a chance to sit with the game, but still wants to see how lost she can get in it despite knowing every line of dialogue. "You think you have it all until you discover a new part of the jigsaw. When you have a puzzle, you want to fill it all up. Spend hours over this piecing it all together."
There is a lot about Her Story that is unnerving. It's cerebral, and even if there might not be any otherworldly ghosts involved, it's creepy. You can see the shape of someone else in the screen's reflection. Barlow said that one fella who played a demo during an after-party shot up and screamed in terror when he saw it glare. "Man I have a real thing about ghosts," said that player. "That was not nice."
With the various clips, you can end up with a playlist of radically different confessions. Seifert's an elated subject playing a guitar in some bits, but tired, frustrated or vomiting in the next. It's claustrophobic and intimate, both being stuck in this clustered, antiquated interface that's similar to Papers, Please, and watching Seifert confined to a small physical space.
Seifert described the filming process as a very productive kind of uncomfortable: a strange room, talking to no one at length for a week, drenched in soft lighting. The only other person on set was Sam Barlow, there was no crew or stand-ins for the police asking her questions. Barlow wasn't even sitting at eye-level, and had his back flat against the wall during some of the most critical segments. But the most disturbing aspect of this exercise is how familiar it is these days.
For some of us, parsing through a woman's digital cache to create a conspiracy around her history is a video game. For others, it was Tuesday. You can see it in creepypastas, internet ghost stories that nudge audiences to dive a little deeper for the more vivid answers, but you can also see it on Nancy Grace, surrounding Alyssa Bustamante, the Boston bombing and Reddit's incredibly problematic armchair detective agency. Barlow seemed thankful he only tuned in to Serial late in the game's development, but was still horrified to see its fans conjure up theories around the real-life murder with the same enthusiastic glee the public did for Lost.
"It's incredibly voyeuristic, which is definitely where we are at the moment," said Seifert. "You're in charge of it. I don't know if it's anyone's fantasy to be at the helm of these mysteries and solve them, but this is your chance to do so in a very real way. It's ticking that box. For me, it was literally so character led, we had done a lot of research on police interrogations, how strange people can act, especially when police leave the room. Think of Jodi Arias suddenly doing handstands."
Ultimately one of the key themes of the game is: what the fuck do you know?
The Jodi Arias case is a core inspiration for Barlow. In 2008, Travis Alexander was found murdered in his Mesa, Arizona home. Arias, his ex-girlfriend, was found guilty in 2013 and sentenced to life in prison. But where the case infamously inflated was when social media got to participate. Hours and hours of Arias's interrogation can be found on YouTube, and the trial can live on indefinitely in the comments. The strange, aforementioned handstand display is a Google away. (This one upload took the liberty of adding a cop-drama style soundtrack.)
With the footage online, Arias became the OJ Simpson for the digital age, a spectacle and whodunit for the loudest court of public opinion the world has ever known. Barlow, recognizing Arias is guilty, sympathises with her. Arias had no idea she was performing for global consumption during her police interrogations. At one part of the media frenzy, Arias said that she hoped to die sooner than later. "When an audience inhales trial coverage for entertainment's sake and doesn't receive careful instructions given by the judge to a jury, their view could be skewed," wrote Jennifer Quinn in The Toronto Star.
"It's very interesting, but also scary," said Barlow. "That line that's very hard to draw now, between what is real and what is entertainment. We're way beyond reality TV, we've come back on the other side."
One thing that Her Story forces you to do, which would likely stop two thirds of all conspiracy theories in their tracks, is reconsider your conclusions. You can paper-pen logic maps and Excel sheet the shit out of the narrative (Barlow said that he made an Excel file so big during the game's development it crashed his computer), but the moment you encounter something—a word, a detail, a gesture—that negates your dominating theory, you absolutely must second-guess yourself, or you will hit a dead end. Because ultimately one of the key themes of the game, in this digital library of infinite knowledge and the ability to freeze-frame and amplify any millisecond, is: what the fuck do you know?
"Her Story, it has elements of YouTube culture, it has elements of vicariously watching footage, but it is self-contained," said Barlow. "It is offline, it is a personal thing that you sit and do yourself. Something that became quite important to me as we made it was that of the kind of detective, or by proxy the observer. It's very much about solving the crime, establishing the factual thing, the consequence and punishing. "
"As I was writing, watching more of Arias' interrogation videos and starting to feel for these people, my tone started to shift," he continued. "My empathy was with the person in the chair. Something that I liked about the structure here is that by removing the detectives completely, you only hear words that come out of the woman's mouth, it was trying to give some of the power back to her. It's Her Story."