Her Story

EDGE - - GAMES - Pub­lisher/devel­oper Sam Bar­low For­mat iOS, PC (ver­sion tested) Re­lease Out now

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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

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