I have a lot of video games I want to play. Some I even own and haven’t gotten around to playing yet. But one has been top on my priority list for a while now, but I’ve been waiting to get a really good deal on it. Luckily, the Humble Bundle put out a “narrative-heavy video game bundle” and I snatched it up. Mostly for “Her Story” but with bonus other games! (This bundle is still available, so you can get this game for $1!)
And last night my back was hurting, and Justin was working till 3AM, so I played the game. Yes, all of it. And yes, I mean 100% of it. (That’s totally a thing. I’ll get there.) And then I spent the last day reading analysis and discussion of the game. I have now spent more time reading about the game than I spent PLAYING the game, and that should tell you something.
First of all, let me say this is a game where it’s very possible to be badly spoiled and it’s not going to have the same effect if you go in with spoilers. I’m not going to talk about any major spoilers here, so it’s ok to keep reading. But if you’d like the most pure game experience, and you like games that play with narrative, you should just go play it.
It’s funny, and again says something about the game that so many sites and blogs I’ve visited seem to have up one unspoilery review and then come back later and have a place where they talk about spoilers and theories and analysis because they can’t stop thinking about it. Maybe I’ll have to do the same, just to think things through for myself. This is a game that stays with you. I’ve been thinking about it all day, in the back of my head, while having conversations and stuff, I’m still turning it over.
Anyway, so what the hell IS it? I went into the game totally unspoiled. The only thing I knew about the game was that it was a narrative-heavy game in which you watch FMV (full-motion video, an antiquated gaming term that means actual video of a person) of a woman being interrogated by police. And I knew it was well-reviewed, though I didn’t actually read any of the reviews.
So I had no expectations going in. You turn on the game and are faced with a computer terminal desktop. It seems dated, with CRT lines and even fake glare and reflection. (Luckily you can turn the glare off, which I did after a while due to eyestrain.) So it’s clear the gamer is put in the role of SOMEONE, who is using this computer. The desktop is pretty bare. There’s an open database of video files, two readmes, and two other files in the “rubbish bin”, one of them a minigame. It’s explained in the readmes that you’ve been given access (by someone, for some unspecified reason) to an old police database. The way the database is explained.
The interrogation video has been separated into tiny little files of individual statements. They range from as short as 5 seconds to up to a minute or two long. You can enter search terms to pull up video segments. If your search terms are used in the witness’ statement, it’s a match. So entering “murder” pulls up all the videos where she says “murder.” (That’s the first term, already in the box.) You can also enter multiple words or exact phrases in quotation marks. So this is essentially the entire game. Enter search terms and watch the videos that come up. Keep trying terms to get new videos and more of the story.
All the videos are of interrogations of a woman that take place over a period of weeks. You only see her and only hear her responses to questions, not the questions themselves. It becomes clear pretty quickly that someone has died and she is a suspect. That’s honestly all I’m going to say about the plot.
So the obvious, but in my opinion boring, questions is “Is this even a game?” You can read other articles that answer this question but I’m going to just say “Yes, of course, are you dense?” I mean, ok, the main action is watching videos, which sounds more like a movie than a game. But actually, it does get challenging if you want to reveal ALL the videos (100%, as mentioned above) with search terms. I had some real times of near frustration from trying to think of new things to type.
But more than the question of challenge is the fact that “Her Story” is very clearly placed in a fairly new genre of video games that doesn’t REALLY have a name but could be called “narrative games” as Humble Bundle has. These are games where the primary goal is storytelling, with the interactive element of games. Visual novels from Japan fall into this category, but not all games in this category fit the conventions of the visual novel genre. It’s very much a growing genre, fed by the indie PC game boom fueled by Steam and GOG as distribution points. I’m a fan, though I often lament the over-thought grimness of many offerings. Like, I get it, you’re a film student and life is dark and bleak. Except in game form.
But “Her Story” is one of the strongest entries in the genre, in my opinion. (I’d name it next to “To The Moon”.) It isn’t complicated at all, the mechanic and graphics are simple, and the settings are basically a woman in an empty room sitting at a table. But it’s not amateurish and feels something like a masterpiece, honestly. An indie masterpiece.
So, why? Well for one thing, the story is very interesting and totally absorbing. I think it would be pretty darn absorbing if just seen as a film, viewing in order. But in game form, you don’t experience it in order. You experience the story in tiny little snippets, all out of order. And everyone who plays it will experience it in A DIFFERENT ORDER, depending on how they enter search terms. It’s interesting to see how varied people’s opinions about the story are, and I think some of those differences are due to the order people experience things in. The clips you hear early color the conclusions you draw, which color your viewing of the entire piece.
And the mechanic makes an interesting story even MORE interesting, because you are active in pursuing it. A clip may mention something and you go “What? WTF?” so you enter THAT as a search term and you find out a little bit more about that, but you lack the full context, so you keep searching and trying until you think you know what’s going on. But DO you know what’s going on?
Because ultimately, there is a central mystery. A central question of the story. And it’s not explicitly answered by the game. Or possibly even implicitly answered. It’s left very ambiguous, but interestingly some people say it’s very ambiguous and some seem to think there’s no ambiguity at all. But that totally depends on how you interpret the story.
This is why I’ve now read at least a novel’s worth of text picking apart LITERALLY EVERY SINGLE LINE of the game to determine the ultimate truth. Basically it’s either Scenario A or Scenario B or possibly scenario C. I finished the game pretty sure it was scenario A, but much reading has reluctantly convinced me it’s Scenario B, but I’m currently thinking of a way to make Scenario C be the truth because I like being contrary. So much vagueness, but I’m pretty sure anyone who has played the game will know exactly what I mean.
Like I said, I found the act of playing the game gripping, and rather eerie. While it’s not a horror story by any means, there’s something decidedly unsettling about the whole thing and I had a hard time going to sleep afterwords. There is some confusion to the set-up, in that the player is given basically no instruction or guidance other than “enter search terms and watch videos.” You have the ability to save videos in a list, so I think most players mess with that to see if anything happens (spoiler: it doesn’t). And you keep expecting something more video game-y to happen. For the most part it doesn’t.
There IS an ending, sort of, in that at some point when you’ve viewed enough videos something happens and if you then do something else, you get an end video and credits. But after that you can still keep watching videos until you get to 100% and have seen everything. (There’s a database scanner that shows what percentage you’ve seen.) But that’s it. You’ve seen all there is, and you have to decide what it all means. Which is why there’s forums full of speculation, theories, and arguments.
I have the feeling this game will stand the test of time, and will go on to become a cult favorite. It’s been out almost a year and the forums are full of recent posts and passionate arguments. (And personal insults, because gamers.)
What I like about gaming has very little to do with puzzles, or violence, or strategy, though I like some examples of all of those things. I like STORIES, and I like the way that games let stories be told in completely knew and untried ways. I love discovering a narrative style that would be impossible in another medium. The games that manage that are my very favorite games. And this one is totally right up my alley. A murder mystery isn’t new. Unreliable narrators aren’t new. Ambiguous endings aren’t new. The tropes used in this story aren’t new. But the presentation is entirely new. The format MAKES the story new. And that’s exciting.