Genre: Detective/Visual Novel
Developer: Sam Barlow
Publisher: Sam Barlow
Release Date: 6/24/2015
Full motion video has always had kind of a weird relationship with video gaming; while its original implementation (through games like Night Trap and Sewer Shark) wasn’t great, people have been trying for years to figure out a way to really marry real world footage to gaming in an interactive way, with variable results. One of the most successful methods of doing this was a fairly unknown release, Evidence: The Last Ritual, which came out back in 2006 to a fair amount of critical recognition before fading from the public eye. I mention this because when I first saw trailers for Her Story, Evidence was the first thing that came to mind; while the former seemed to be far less bizarre than the latter, the theme and structures seemed similar enough to give me pause. Looking into the game gave me pause for a different reason, however; as you’ll note above, the game is developed entirely by one Sam Barlow, who has a knack for experimental development, though his work on Silent Hill: Origins and Silent Hill: Shattered Memories imply that his writing talent is… not great. This impression, it turns out, doesn’t entirely inform Her Story; while there’s certainly some experimentation here, the game is surprisingly easily understood, and there’s a strong narrative to back it up, and while the game is not without failings, it’s an interesting game, and one that leaves the player richer for its experience.
Okay. I’ll try my best to remember.
Her Story is a fairly difficult game to describe, narratively, as much of the basics don’t really explain why the story is so interesting, but explaining why the story is so interesting could spoil parts of the plot. The simplest way to explain it without giving anything away is as such: you play the part of an investigator reviewing pieces of seven interview tapes from 1994 that are associated a missing person’s case from that time. The tapes are all of the same person, a British woman who is being interviewed about her missing husband, and each of the pieces you can review comes from one of the seven interviews, each of which is dramatically different from the last. The trick is, the tapes have been archived in segments, and you have to search through the database to attempt to figure out what’s happened and why, and draw your own conclusions about the events. Put simply, Her Story is essentially a bit of a detective story, as you’d imagine, and as you poke through the different videos in the database you’ll come to understand more of just what happened, in detail, to merit these videos being recorded. The story is very good at turning what you think you know on its head, such that in several cases I ended up legitimately questioning the game’s revelations out loud as they happened. The disjointed narrative structure helps a lot as well, as it keeps revelations from coming up all at once, so you’ll constantly find yourself discovering new things, and occasionally coming across random scenes that add a more human touch to the proceedings.
The visual aesthetic of the game helps a lot toward building the world as well. Play takes place in an emulated PC that looks reminiscent of Windows 95, and the game environment does its best to sell you on the idea that you’re sitting at an ancient PC, complete with CRT reflection from crappy overhead lights, while using out-of-date database tools to perform research. The videos you watch are entirely FMV, and look as good as you could possibly expect; they’re not supposed to be high-definition due to their age, but they look convincing of both time frame and quality, and you can pick out the elements you’re supposed to easily enough. There are also some other effects that pop up here and there which add to the experience, which you’ll see as you play, and they help add to the overall immersion nicely. Aurally, the game is also top notch. Frankly, this game is a one-woman show, as Viva Seifert does all of the heavy lifting to get the plot across, and she does so like a champ. Given her background, it’s not a surprise she’s an interesting enough personality to carry this along (seriously; she’s been a rhythmic gymnast and a keyboardist in two experimental bands), but given her lack of acting credentials up to this point, her performance is simply amazing, and if she doesn’t appear in anything else after this it’ll be a massive waste of talent. The game also has a smattering of soundtrack pieces that it plays as you poke around in the OS, which are all quite good, and the game does a good job of replicating OS sounds from the mid-nineties, so again, hats off all around to the production here, as it’s top notch.
A cup of tea would be good, thanks.
Her Story is a mechanically basic experience, such that anyone who has a decent grasp of the English language (or more accurately, UK English) should be able to do just fine with it. You’re presented with a database system that will call up any of the video fragments stored locally on the hard drive based on keywords you type in. The gimmick is, you can’t just watch the videos themselves in entirety; the videos were split up long before they came into your possession, so you can only search for them based on keywords that have been associated to them by whatever archivist came before you. However, the archival tool you’re given is also kind of an outdated piece of crap, and can only handle retrieving the first five entries for any given term, so in the event you find a search term with more than five entries, you’ll have to add modifiers to see if you can find terms that show all the videos available. To be fair, this is a mechanic that could be polarizing; younger gamers might find this system needlessly restrictive, but older gamers who’ve worked on Windows 95 PC’s with such applications can almost certainly attest to the fact that this is a believable enough setup to make it work.
Whether or not you buy into the aesthetic won’t matter so much once you get down to reviewing the videos, however, as the system works quite well for its intended purpose. In the very beginning a term is filled into the database that generates some very interesting video clips, which essentially beckon you down the rabbit hole. Once you start exploring in earnest, you’ll find the core concept of the game engaging; essentially, you’ll want to watch each video for more information and key terms which can be dumped into the text parser, which will unlock more videos, which will unlock more terms, and so on. The system is quite rewarding, as you’ll generally come away with an extensive list of terms after watching only a few videos, and experimenting with different words and phrases often rewards you with some very engaging plot morsels to chew on. Finding our more and more of just what’s going on in the videos provided is quite an appealing lure, as the mystery behind them only gets more and more complex the more you watch, and untangling the threads of the mystery is a strong motive to search deeper and deeper into the archives.
No sugar, I’m sweet enough as it is.
Her Story can generally be beaten in around two hours, as after you’ve seen a specific amount of information in the database, the game will provide you with the opportunity to resolve the scenario and move on to the ending, as it is. However, “beating” the game is far from “completing” the game, and the latter will take around five or six hours, which more than justifies the $5.99 price tag the game has on Steam. There are hundreds of video clips to see through, which don’t just fill in the backstory; there’s some solid world-building in here too that really explains a lot about the people in this story and who they are, and you’ll want to find as much of the clips as you can before moving on. Also, there are a decent amount of Achievements tied into the Steam version of the game, for seeing specific clips, doing certain things, completing the database and other activities, and none of them save for one based around the Othello knockoff included is terribly difficult if you pay attention and think through all the keywords provided. Honestly, you can get about an hour of content per dollar out of the game if you strive to complete it, and that’s a pretty good exchange rate, especially for a game that’s as well executed as this.
That said, the obvious complaints that follow games of this sort are also on display here; to put it simply, if you don’t like visual novels or adventure games, Her Story might not be for you, so there you go. That said, there are three notable complaints one might have about Her Story that are unique to the game itself. First off, unlocking all of the database entries gets annoying once you’re down to the last few, especially since a lot of them are tied to terms you’d never think to search for. There’s this entire sequence of videos tied into a specific activity which are about two or three seconds of nothing useful that you almost certainly won’t find unless you go searching for help online, and while this also contributes to world-building, these twelve or so clips (and several others) seem like padding and are mostly just unnecessary. Second off, while completing the game unlocks an option to view more clips at one time, it would’ve been nice if you could unlock a feature that just let you watch the videos from start to finish to pick up on things you’d missed. You can do this on your own with some work, but having the option in the game would’ve been a nice addition if nothing else. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, while the story being told about events in 1994 is quite good, once you’ve seen everything, the game just… ends. You’re given an extremely limited ending conversation, credits, and that’s it. It’s not that leaving questions open to interpretation is a problem, it’s that the game has absolutely no interest in answering any of the questions the player might have about what happened after, and the plot itself leaves open a massive amount of them. It probably wouldn’t be so bad if this were just a novel or a self-contained story, but the game makes it apparent that this is taking place somewhere in the vicinity of the present. A simple, “this is what happened in the two decades since these videos were recorded” epilogue would’ve been nice, at least.
Her Story is an excellent independent game in the end, however, and one that’s easily worth its asking price, as while it has some minor issues, the story and the experience are well worth it to see. The plot is very well structured and constantly offers up surprises throughout the game, the presentation is top-notch and effectively emulates the exact sort of ancient tech you’d expect from the time period, and Viva Seifert does a miraculous job of carrying the production on her back from start to finish. The mechanics are simple enough to understand but offer enough depth to keep you plugging away for hours just to see more of the story, and there’s a lot to do with the game even beyond figuring out the events. Some of the plot content is structured in a way that makes it annoying to track down and useless to the narrative, a functional full video viewer as an unlockable would’ve been nice, and the plot just ends when the game does without answering any questions about what’s happened in the twenty years since, but much of this can be forgiven. Taken entirely on its own merits, Her Story is an interesting tale that’s well written attached to a game that dispenses the story in an engaging and frequently shocking way, and for the price, it’s absolutely worth giving it a shot, as it’s definitely time well spent.
Short Attention Span Summary:
Her Story is a surprisingly strong, minimalist product that does the absolute most with the absolute least, weaving an intricate and shocking tale into a game based around database searching on an ancient PC and making it memorable and engaging in the process. The plot is quite good and the disjointed presentation of said plot makes for a lot of shocking moments that are well played, which are only complimented by the strong aural presence of the game, the visual style that emulates a 90’s PC effectively, and the strong performance of Viva Seifert in the lead role. The game can be played by basically anyone who knows how to type, and it encourages experimentation to see all of the clips in the plot, while also offering a game that’s easily full of enough content to make it well worth its asking price. Some of the videos require very specific search terms to unlock useless content, it would’ve been nice to unlock some type of full video viewer once you’d done everything else with the game, and the plot ends at a point that it leaves a lot of lingering questions unanswered that it seems to have no interest in. Still, for the price, Her Story is a compelling story and an immersive experience, and it’s one that more than justifies the asking price, as it’s honestly just very well done, and you’d be doing yourself a disservice if you pass it by.