Her Story

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!)

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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.  Her-Story-Screenshot-Desktop-B

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.

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The Cure Austin and Houston May 2016

So The Cure is my favorite band.  I inherited them as my favorite band from my 12-years-older brother.  Sort of inevitably, since he played them ALL THE TIME, I eventually realized this band was really good.  I was around 13-14 at the time.photo 5(1)

I’ve seen The Cure play 4 times before this year.  In 1996, I saw them on the Wild Mood Swings tour at the Summit in Houston.  That was a GREAT show, with a very upbeat and happy band and some rare songs.  In 2000 I saw them on the Bloodflowers tour at the Woodlands pavilion.  That wasn’t as good, since it was outdoors.  I was at the front of the grass hill, but still, pretty darn far away.  The show was good, though, and I really like Bloodflowers. In 2004 I saw them on the Curiousa festival tour in Dallas.  Again, an outdoor venue, but I had seats.  Still not the best, and there was this drunk chick being really annoying in front of us the whole time.  Mostly what impressed me at that show was Mogwai.  Then I saw them in 2008 in Houston at the Toyota Center with my brother, his best friend, and my mom.  My husband was in the hospital at the time so my mom was a last minute substitute.  It was an AMAZING show (and my mom was really impressed.)

After that 2008 show, I promised myself that the next time they toured, I was going to follow them through Texas.  And then the standard 4 years passed and…no tour. I became convinced that I had seen the Cure for the last time.  And then, 8 years since their last North American tour, they announced one.  I determined to get all the tickets I could.  The first to go on sale was Austin, and I got upper level tickets.  Then Houston went on sale, and we really didn’t have to money to spare.  But we got tickets anyway.  Lower bowl, halfway up.  We literally had no grocery money for weeks due to those tickets.  And ok, we stopped buying.  Two nights in a row and over $200 was enough.

So Friday night, May 13th, Justin and I drove into Austin.  We were pretty high up, but we had seats in a row of 3, with no one else in the row, and no one in front of us.  Which was totally nice cause we could just relax and watch the show.

The opening band for the tour is The Twilight Sad from Glasgow, Scotland.  I hadn’t heard them before, but they were really good.  Very reminiscent of Cooper Temple Clause and I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness.  With a Scottish brogue.  They were also adorable because they were pretty much freaking out that they were in this huge arena in Austin.  “We’re not used to this!” the singer squeaked.   Their performance wasn’t noteworthy in any way, really, but they sounded good and I want to pick up an album cause it’d been nice to listen to.

Anyway, the first thing to note about this Cure tour is that the stage ephoto 1(1)ffects are REALLY GOOD.  They have 5 LED screens behind them that are really well used.  Sometimes they play normal filmed images that fit the song, like a barren landscape during “Prayers for Rain” or an opening rose during “Bloodflowers.”  Lots of trees the camera moves around in for “A Forest.”  But what’s cooler is the times when they do live projections/images of the concert onto the screens.  Shot from the front, the video turns into a series of infinitely repeated pictures-inside-pictures so the light show is infinitely repeated and it looks really cool.  They also project shots of the crowd from behind the drummer during one song.

This is the first time I’ve seen The Cure with Reeves Gabrels in the place of guitarist.  Previosly I’d seen Perry Bamonte in this role, and the last time Porl Thompson was in that role, and was AMAZING.  (Also last time there wasn’t a keyboardist, as Roger O’Donnell had left for a while.  I’m a big fan of Roger, so I’m glad he’s back.)  But I very much missed Porl, who was the best guitarist I’ve seen in that role.

I know Reeves Gabrels is a good guitar player and I’m familiar with him from when he worked with David Bowie and saw him in 1995 with Bowie.  But I have to say, I don’t like him much as part of this Cure line-up.  He has a very aggressive, solo-flashy guitar style, and as much as I’ve always said The Cure is a guitar band live, I don’t think Gabrels works very well with the rest of the band.  On a couple of songs I really felt like Robert’s guitar parts and Gabrels’ parts were working against each other in a disharmonious way.  I felt like Robert also ceded a lot of the interesting guitar work to Gabrels which makes sense in a band sense, but I would rather see Robert really bring his guitar skills which are underrated by lots of people.  I thought the band worked really well with Porl because without a keyboardist Porl was playing lots of the keyboard parts with the guitar and otherwise doing a lot of atmospherics, with Robert in more lead guitar role.  Whereas on this tour it feels like Gabrels is supposed to be lead guitar and Robert is more rhythm or secondary.  This stuck out to me more on the Austin night than the Houston night, though so it may have been a quirk of the sound.  I felt Gabrels’ guitar was not as high in the mix on Saturday.

Quickly, a look at everyone else generally.  Simon Gallup was his quintessential Simon self: playing amazing bass parts and making them look childishly easy, while strutting and literally bouncing on one foot around the stage.  I don’t think that man is aging at all.  Roger played his keyboard parts without attracting attention.  I have huge affection for him after the 1996 show I saw when we were on his side of the stage and he was dancing goofily through much of the show, and waving to us.  But he was in serious-gloomy mode both nights, trying to look cool standing there not moving.  Jason was Jason, which means drawing no attention but playing really good drums.

Robert.  Robert looks to have lost a little weight, which generally seems to be a good thing, but on the other hand he looks older.  His hair pouf is looking a bit thin.  And more than anything, he seems tired.  This is very early on in the tour, only the 3rd and 4th show, and he was visibly tired both nights.  Friday night in Austin, he looked tired by the end of the main set, with his voice seeming tired as well.  The last two songs of the main set were Prayers for Rain and Bloodflowers, both vocally demanding.  Prayers for Rain was sung really well, but for Bloodflowers it felt like he was really holding back and not going for it in the places he normally does.  For the encores, though, he seemed to get things back together and things were good.  (In case you don’t know, Cure shows are usually about 3 hours long and feature a LOT of encores.  Both shows had 4 encores, though I would have called Austin 3.5 cause the last one was really short, like take a sip of water and we’re back.)

On Saturday night, however, Robert’s voice seemed weak for most of the night, to me.  Justin only turned to me towards the end of the main set and said “His voice?” but I noticed it on the 3rd song or so.   It got worse as the set progressed, but it seemed to me like he was holding back a lot, and not very loud.  At first I couldn’t tell if his vocals weren’t high enough in the mix or it was his singing but it became pretty clear it was his voice.  Now, I don’t know if this is something someone not me would really notice.  But this was my 6th Cure concert and I’ve listened to lots of bootlegs.  And I have done enough singing to see the signs of someone not feeling well.   There were lots of lines where whole syllables weren’t audible, and instead of singing out he kept it low, instead of extending notes he cut them short, and eventually he was almost talk-singing through songs.  Obviously, I don’t know why this is.  It’s possible he has a cold or something, or maybe it’s a sign of getting older, or just being out of practice since it’s been a while since he sang night after night.  It does concern me a little.   And it took something away from that night’s concert, which otherwise might have been really high up there in terms of Cure shows I’ve seen.

Ok, let’s do some comparing of the two nights.  In general, I’ve always known the Cure generally have two broad setlists on any tour that they alternate.  They generally have one of two “feels” to them: one is more popular and one is more obscure/darker.  Broadly, cause invariably both sets have both of those moods.  Historically Houston has gotten the “better” of the two setlists, i.e. the one meant for more “real” Cure fans.  Less singles, more rare stuff.  More rock, less pop.  I was disappointed with the setlist I got when I saw them in Dallas, compared to the one my brother got in Houston.  (This is another reason I wanted to see multiple shows.)  If you had asked me to predict which town got which set I would have said Austin would get the pop and Houston would get the rock.  I would have been wrong.  Sort of.

I could go on and on about the setlists, but I’ll just link them:  Austin and Houston.  Austin was very heavy on Disintegration and Head on the Door, where Houston was much more balanced, with equal representation of Disintegration, Wish, Head on the Door, and Seventeen Seconds.  The Austin show definitely felt more down, slower.  And they played A LOT and I mean A LOT of rare and obscure stuff.  And not normal-level “not a single” obscure stuff.  Songs I didn’t recognize at all and that only appear as single b-sides or in the b-side collection.  And, while that kind of thing is cool for a Cure nerd, it doesn’t do much for most of the audience and leaves people in their seats just kinda hanging.  I mean, the songs were good.  But when you don’t know them there isn’t a lot of excitement.

And that’s not even counting the stuff that I don’t count as unknown or rare but your average concert goer would, like stuff released after 1996.  I always enjoy “Want” from Wild Mood Swings live, it’s a great song.  And “Us or Them” from the self-titled album is good live.  And very surprisingly, they’re playing “Wrong Number” on this tour which was essentially a one-off single from the late 90s.  It’s REALLY GOOD, too.  The Cure are really good at finding which album songs really work live and playing just the ones that are interesting in that context.  I don’t care about “Wrong Number” in its original version, but live it’s great.  The biggest news of the night was that they played “Screw” and it was amazing. They’ve only played that song 4 times since 1985.  (Not the rarest song played on Friday.  “This Twilight Garden” has only been played twice EVER.)

So anyway, the Austin show was really good, but it was really aiming at the kind of Cure fan who would KNOW how rare the stuff being played was.  And overall, I felt like the crowd at that show wasn’t that kind of crowd.  They didn’t strike me as being all that big fans of The Cure.  The only songs that really seemed to excite them were the poppy singles.  The Houston crowd had a lot more Cure fans, to my perception.  There was a lot more “dressing up” for the occasion and what sounded like a LOT more singing along.  With every song.  That may have been a perception issue because we were a lot lower and surrounded by more people, but somehow I don’t think that was entirely it.  It may be my Houston bias showing, but while Austin has the rep as the music town, shows in Austin tend to be full of blasé hipsters.

The Houston set list was the poppier one, but I have to say I liked it more.  I felt it had a better flow, and kept the energy of the crowd up better.  But it still had it’s share of moody, non-singles.  How can you beat a stretch of “At Night”,  “M”, “Play for Today”, “Want” and “Shake Dog Shake”?  And then “From the Edge of the Deep Green Sea”, and “One Hundred Years.”   “One Hundred Years” is one of my favorite live Cure songs because it’s just a huge guitar fest.  (My favorite rare live Cure song is “Shiver and Shake” which wasn’t played either night. Also “Piggy in the Mirror”, which I’ve only seen once, at my first Cure show.)

The encores for the Austin show had themes.  The first encore was introduced by Robert saying “Someone has written’Rock’ on the list for this one.”   And indeed it was rocking.  The Cure in heavy guitar mode is my favorite.  The second encore was “the more popular, pop” set according to Robert’s near-unintelligble mumble.  (At one point in the Austin show he let off a long string of words that I’m pretty sure no one in the audience understood, and then followed it with his impression of what he probably sounded like…and he made a bunch of gibberish noises.  I think that’s what happened anyway.  I consider myself pretty good at understanding Robert and I catch maybe every 2nd or 3rd word and just extrapolate from there.)

The third set in Austin consisted of “Burn” from the Crow soundtrack, which they’ve played at every show on the tour so far, and had never played before as far as I know.  It’s a great song, so it’s awesome they are playing it finally.  And there was a new song.  And the last encore was “A Forest”, which is the song which traditionally ends every Cure show.  But this time they followed it with “Boys Don’t Cry.”

The Houston encores were similar, but shuffled a bit.  First they started out wth “Burn” followed by the new song “It Can Never Be The Same.”  This is a good song, melancholy, but not boring.   Then we got an identical “Rock” encore as the previous night.  The next encore was again “Pop” but with different, RARER pop songs.  “Lovecats,”  “Catapillar,” “The Walk,” “Let’s Go To Bed,” “Why Can’t I Be You.”  They were less “singles from the 90s” and more “singles from the 80s” and therefore less frequently played and more to my taste.

And then can the final identical two-song pair of “A Forest” and “Boys Don’t Cry.” To explain the deal with “A Forest,” as I said it’s the song that’s always played last at Cure shows.  And it got longer and longer over time.  The original is a trim 5 minutes or so, but for a while the average live version was about 15 minutes.  In 2008 I think it was 21 minutes at the Houston show.  (Yes, I time it.)  There is an additional verse that gets added for the longer versions.  Both nights I saw them on this tour, however, that verse was left out and the song was a very short 8 minutes and change.  So it was essentially the album version with some extended guitar at the end.  I felt he Austin show’s version left a little to be desired, while I felt the Houston version was fantastic.  What was the difference?  Probably nothing.  Just energy, and how it felt to me.  In Houston, I was down in the crowd and everyone was clapping in time with the bass, AS YOU SHOULD.  So I thought the energy of the Houston performance was just better, and connecting better with the crowd.

Having “Boys Don’t Cry” as the final song feels weird to me, as someone so used to the ritual of “A Forest” but it serves to end on a happy note, everyone goes out singing and dancing.  It works, and I’d guess that’s why they’re doing it.  I would also guess they got bored with 20 minute long versions of “A Forest.”

 

-So anyway this post has sat for a month because I wasn’t happy with it, and got distracted.  Justin has been bugging me to just post the damn thing.  So, ok, there you go.