Her Story – PC
Developer: Sam Barlow
Publisher: Sam Barlow
Release Date: June 24th, 2015
Genre: FMV Games
Nerd Rating: 8 out of 10
2015 was a year that saw more than a few innovative indie games hit the virtual shelves. In that year alone, Undertale, Axiom Verge, Ori & the Blind Forest, and Rocket League each thundered their way into the chatter of mainstream gaming, proving yet again that even a small team of developers can produce a solid gaming experience in the 21st century. Among those games, and perhaps the most unique specimen of the bunch, was Her Story, an FMV detective game using live video recordings. Since its release, Her Story has received a hefty amount of accolades and approbations. But what’s the big deal? FMV games aren’t particularly known for being full of action, so how does this one fit amongst the other fast-paced, adrenaline-pumping titles of 2015? Let’s find out.
Her Story is an FMV, or Full Motion Video game. This genre of video games rose in popularity during the early 90s, with titles such as Night Trap, Phantasmagoria, and…Mad Dog McCree? The 90s were a truly lawless time in American history, and the majority of these games were half-assed, hardly playable blunders. The concept of weaving actual video footage into games was a pretty neat idea, but it was hard to make these sorts of games viable at the time, resulting in a lot of products that felt unfinished. More notably, the arcade games Space Ace and Dragon’s Lair featured high quality interactive animations that were similar in concept to FMV games, and they were pretty cool for their time, though they were insanely difficult with esoteric controls and a tight linearity. Again, the biggest flaw of FMV games surfaces: How do you integrate FMV content with engaging gameplay?
Enter Her Story. A story about love and murder. A story that is not quite what it seems on the surface, and it is up to the player to uncover its mysteries. Hannah Smith’s husband, Simon, has been found dead, and the widow is eager to tell the police everything she knows about the circumstances surrounding his death. This takes the form of seven police interviews, all captured through live action footage featuring a performance by actor Viva Seifert. All of the footage of these seven clips is handily stored on the in-game L.O.G.I.C. database for the player to explore and play our their very own detective story. Only, there’s a catch…
While all of the footage is technically available to the player, each of the seven interviews is chopped up into isolated, closed captioned clips that can vary between four seconds to over a minute in length. The player isn’t allowed to casually browse the clips, finding them instead with a search engine using keywords. Take, for example, murder. Searching for this keyword, the player will be shown the first five chronological instances of Hannah uttering that word, but only those five. I don’t actually know how many times murder was said, but let’s say Hannah said it 20 times or more throughout all seven interviews. That means that searching for murder will give the player only a very surface level understanding of what’s going on, without granting any insight into how the story of murder develops over the course of the seven interviews.
So the trick to playing Her Story is to refine our search terms. Paying attention to what Hannah says, listening for the names of places, people, and recurring themes, the player is able to start selecting more specific search terms that will yield more and more fruitful clips. Some clips are entirely benign, and will tell the player almost nothing needed to progress, but every now and then a clip with a little bit more weight will surface, helping the player get closer and closer to the real meat of what went on surrounding the event of Simon’s murder. I felt like I was doing some real detective work sifting through the video clips of Her Story, and the sheer pleasure of uncovering new clip after new clip was unparalleled. There are a few twists that are hidden within the story of this game, and the fact that the player has to work to uncover these secrets for themselves makes it the most rewarding story-based game I’ve ever played.
The story, itself, is extremely well-written. Her Story doesn’t really read like the traditional psychological thriller, where things get ridiculously crazy toward the end or anything like that; its story stays pretty domestic without any overtly incredulous twists like “she was an alien all along” or anything stupid like that. The surprise alone of finding seemingly hidden clips within the depths of the L.O.G.I.C. system possesses a magical quality to it, and the fact that you discovered it yourself goes a long way toward creating the feeling that you are the sole person who has ever viewed some of these clips. Of course, this is definitely not true, but the fact that Her Story is able to create these solitary pleasures on a consistent basis is simply amazing.
The stunning delivery of Her Story is thanks in no small part to the solid performance by star Viva Seifert, who injects emotion and ease of expression into her role, resulting in a set of very believable clips that rope the player in. One of the biggest problems with early FMV games was the acting quality, since most of them were produced on relatively low budgets. I’m glad that developer Sam Barlow went the extra mile to get a good actor, since, y’know, 90% of the game consists of staring at Hannah’s face.
The L.O.G.I.C. interface of the game, through which the player interacts with the video clips, has a very 90s-esque feel to it. The background is that strange, yet oddly calming teal color, the popup windows and shortcuts are very basic looking and not very decorative, and there’s even a neat little .exe game file hiding in the recycle bin. A visual filter is set over the game, as well, to imitate the curvature and light reflections of a glass screen. Typing will result in a very satisfying clacking sound from the speakers, and clicking the mouse sounds just as good, too. It probably took a relatively minimal amount of effort to give the interface of Her Story an atmosphere like this, but I’m glad it’s in there nonetheless, and it accomplishes a lot with very few moving parts.
There is relatively little music in Her Story, since the game consists mostly of trawling through an old 90s computer database. However, little surprise bits of instrumentation will pop up every now and then to help drive home the import of certain clips, helping to build a larger atmosphere while subtly guiding the player’s thought patterns in very effective ways, yet another example of Her Story using its minimalist design to great effect.
Overall, Her Story successfully crafts the most authentic detective experience I’ve seen to date; while there is a linearity to the plot itself, the player is not constricted in the way they explore the mystery of Simon’s murder, proceeding at their own pace and relying on their own intuition in authentic ways that few games are able to replicate. This means that any number of players can have wildly different experiences along their journey through this game, even though they might ultimately arrive at the same conclusion. But that’s what real detective work is about–using varying logic-based techniques that eventually get to the meat of what went down. There is no precise ending point to Her Story. The player decides when they are done exploring its mystery. There is no trophy at the end or some sort of grand cut scene that congratulates the player for their work. The real gift of Her Story is the journey it offers, a journey filled with twisting paths and diverging roads that stimulate the inquisitive mind.
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