While to some extent the draw of illuminating the unknown is an underpinning for all stories – be it externally to the reader, or internally within the framework of the tale itself – no genre draws on it as explicitly, nor dangles the prospect of discovery so tantalisingly before the audience, as crime fiction. It co-opts the simplest narrative question of ‘What happens next?’ into the complex mysteries of how, why and when a foul deed was committed, conventionally in service to pointing the audience towards the grand unveiling of whodunnit. In works of traditional media, we tend to accept such fiction as ‘good’ when its twists are both well orchestrated and impactful, the plot’s arc elaborately crafted to deploy its surprises at key moments, or to spike expectations set up by clever framing. Her Story (written, developed and directed by Aisle developer and Silent Hill: Shattered
Memories scribe Sam Barlow) hits many of the beats of and touchstones for a good crime story, but it is far from traditional, abdicating a generous measure of authorial control by allowing you to dictate in which order you experience this tale’s twists and inversions.
Barlow finds tremendous power in this simple act of surrender. His is a detective story that asks you to deduce, rather than just to listen. It’s a game that requires you to examine statements and use your interpretations of the information presented to intuit your way through the tale. Consequently, it is among a handful of interactive investigations that truly deliver on the foundational fantasy of detective work, an elusive concept in a medium prone to highlighting and handholding. It’s the antidote to games that would rather have you ‘press X to investigate crime scene’ than trust you to exercise the art of deduction.
You’ll do so within the bounds of a taut tale that benefits from a tight focus and exemplary framing. Presented with a pastiche of a Windows 95 desktop, you’re cast as an observer trawling through archived footage taken from seven different police interviews from 1994, each conducted with the partner of a missing person (portrayed by actress Viva Seifert in full-motion video). The intervening years have not been kind, however, and so the tapes have been fractured into clips and jumbled up in a computer database.
New snippets are summoned through a search bar, and while obvious starting terms such as ‘murder’ will get you going, what you enter and where you let that carry you is entirely your choice. The one obstacle is that you’re dealing with a simulacrum of an archaic police system: the LOGIC database will display only the first five results of any query. That means you’ll have to get specific with your searches if you want to recover every last one of the hundreds of shards of the story. While seeing everything isn’t necessary to understand the gist of what went down, part of what makes the process of unravelling this nonlinear tale so engrossing is how happening across fresh information recasts the old. As such, tracking down every second of missing footage quickly becomes a compulsion as you grow ever more absorbed in the tale.
Your progress doesn’t matter for any reason bar your satisfaction – Her Story’s only win condition is understanding the tale being told, and its only fail state is to walk away before you do. Still, you can track it via an abstracted database app on the desktop that displays found footage as blocks of green and unseen data in dull red. You can also add tags to clips to make them easier to find again, and sort key scenes into a user queue for perusal later. You’ll be presented with an in-universe way to leave the terminal quite early on as well – another gentle subversion in a game full of the things.
It’s unlikely you’ll want to. Barlow’s devious pen and the answer-only format of the footage throws up plenty of material to deduce from context, a robust web of peripheral detail filling in the unseen world beyond the interview room. And this is the kind of story that videogames rarely care to tell, one based on thorny emotions, irreducible problems and people. Seifert, meanwhile, successfully carries off a nuanced role that demands she combine raconteur, object of suspicion and charismatic lead in one. A few scenes may lack easy credibility, but not everything is meant to be natural – police interview rooms must pay witness to far less watchable performances every day.
What’s most enticing, however, is the joy of picking apart an open-ended tale for yourself. Working theories will be assembled carefully only to be shattered by a gesture, a half sentence or a left-of-field new word, upending your version of events. Even at the end, when you’ll have a fairly firm grip on events, ambiguity still surrounds many of the details. Like a great thriller or TV show, it’s the kind of storytelling that will leave you wanting to swap notes and ideas with others.
The mood is heightened further by a batch of filter effects, and subtly manipulative music, the latter of which builds on the unease of prying into the case and gently amplifies the most powerful story beats when they arrive. While optional, by default the recognisable bulge and scan lines of a CRT monitor adorn the screen, noise and aberrations riddle the video clips, and bars of fluorescent tube lighting hang before your eyes. It’s far from discreet, but it adds a good deal to the distinctly ’90s vibe in which the entire game is grounded.
That mood, and the things you learn through your two to five hours in the cramped interview room, will stick with you long after. Affecting and profoundly different, Her Story is a superlatively told work of crime fiction, and one that deserves to shift the conversation around interactive storytelling.
Her Story’s only win condition is understanding the tale being told, and its only fail state is to walk away before you do