We spend time with Sam Barlow’s investigative drama, Her Story
writer reveals his intimate investigative drama,
How are drinking straws made? An innocent enquiry from Sam Barlow’s children was answered swiftly: within seconds of a Google search, he had found a video of a factory in China which demonstrated the entire process. It was a reminder of how much more informed we now feel with a wealth of information at our fingertips. “When I get an email from someone I don’t know, I can go online, look at Wikipedia, their posts on Twitter, find out more about them,” Barlow says. “Being a detective in a very loose sense is embedded in everything we do now. That [process] is intrinsically interesting, so having that as the main mechanic for how you interact with a fictional story is interesting, too.”
If you know how to use Google, you know how to play Her Story. Your job is to sift through archived footage of several police interviews, in which a woman is questioned by detectives about her missing husband. The computer system has segmented the interviews into short clips: entering keywords into the database brings up any associated footage. But there are limits. The woman’s husband, Simon, is referenced in 61 clips – the database can only retrieve the first five, presented in chronological order. “It is slightly contrived,” Barlow concedes. “It’s my one wave of the wand. [I’m asking you] to go with it and let’s agree that this is just how it works.”
It’s a smart gambit, as it forces the player to invest a little more effort in uncovering the truth, much as a real investigator would. It’s the kind of work, Barlow says, that would be dealt with in a montage sequence in a TV drama. “But you will always get that sense of the detective having been there all night plugging away, digging into this [case] until they’ve found that nugget of insight. So while we’ve abstracted you one layer from actually being present in the interviews, [ Her Story] gives you that metaphorical sense of playing detective.” Given the popularity of dramas like True Detective and the media obsession with the Oscar Pistorius trial, it’s perhaps surprising that games haven’t often explored subject matter that clearly has mainstream appeal, whether the crime is real or fictional. It’s something that’s frustrated Barlow for years: he’s pitched ideas within the genre to publishers several times with no success. “Someone in the Steam Greenlight comments echoed something a publisher once said to me: ‘I get my fill of police shows on TV, I don’t need that in my games’. Which is weird to me. I mean, you wouldn’t launch a TV channel without your cop show or murder mystery. But the core of that – the human drama, the contemporary setting – is the sort of thing games have struggled with.”
Her Story’s narrative is nonlinear, though at first it’s more of a puzzle to crack, requiring you to make certain deductions before later clips are unlocked. Having read through several real-life police interview transcripts, however, Barlow began to realise such restrictions were unnecessary. “The setup became more about [feeling] empathy or sympathy towards the woman answering these questions, rather than someone trying to solve a crime or put [her] away.
“Rarely in life do you get the opportunity to sit and talk about yourself, tell your life story”