One of game development’s most unassuming polymaths, Sam Barlow is known for blending player choice with his authored stories. In retrospect, Aisle (1999) seems like a statement of intent, a text adventure with a single supermarket scene and many possible outcomes. Later, Silent Hill: Shattered Memories (2009), which Barlow wrote and designed, featured a psychological evaluation that shaped the rest of the game around your answers. After the cancellation of his Legacy Of Kain game, he left mainstream studios behind to create Her Story, and its success has surprised the experimental developer in more ways than one.
You wrote, directed and coded the game. Are you handling the PR side as well? Yeah, I’m doing everything. I’ve now clocked the people who are pretending to be famous YouTubers asking me for a key for them and their friends. They’re very clever. They send you an email, in slightly broken English, that says, ‘Oh, I’m blah blah YouTuber. There’s a link. I just need one key and then five for my users.’ You click on it, and it goes to a YouTuber page, and it’s usually like a Korean or a Russian YouTuber so I can’t understand what they’re saying. All I can see is that they’ve got 20 million followers. So I guess the idea is that you’re supposed to go, ‘Wow, 20 million followers; I can’t read any of this page, so I’m just going to assume it’s the guy sending me the email.’ Then you look at the email and it’s like, ‘That email’s not mentioned anywhere on his YouTube page.’ Maybe these incredibly popular YouTubers are sending me emails looking for keys and I’m snubbing them because I think they’re scammers.
Did Her Story’s instant popularity surprise you? Yeah, I was thinking, ‘I’ll put the game out there; there’ll be people who would be naturally interested, because maybe they liked my other games, or because the Indie Fund are backing it.’ But I was kind of thinking that over months we’d hopefully get some kind of word of mouth, and maybe over six months it would pay for itself. In terms of press coverage and reviews, I was thinking I’d get a few things here and there, but it’d probably be very Marmite. Stuff like Shattered Memories finished on a 79 Metacritic, which is the most painful of all Metacritic scores, because it’s green, but it’s not real green – not as far as the publishers are concerned. The number of bloody meetings in which I heard, ‘Oh, if your team’s last score had been 80, we would have been interested.’ So that was kind of where I thought [ Her Story] was going to be. Some people have asked, ‘Were you deliberately trying to create a big social media thing? Were you trying to be ambiguous to drive the social media buzz? Were you calling it Her Story to create a kind of social justice warrior fracas?’ And all my answers were, ‘I honestly didn’t think enough people would notice or play it for those things to be a big deal.’
What was it like working with just one actor? You directed; did you ask the detectives’ questions too? Yes, so the whole detective side was all scripted out, so Viva was able to bounce off that, and make sure we had the flow. It was very intense, because we were just sitting in this small room – there wasn’t really a point where you could relax. At that point, the script was locked and we couldn’t change words or anything too much, because I’d crunched everything through giant databases to make sure the structure made sense. And because the focus was purely on Viva as well, for her it was super-intense. As an actor, there’s always someone else to come along and share a scene with you, so you can kind of ease off a bit. I think at the end of the shoot, it was just huge relief it was all over and we hadn’t forgotten to record or anything.
Some players have been critical of the acting and dialogue. Does that bother you? As soon as you see anything posted up [online], there’s always going to be someone who says, ‘Oh, this is the worst writing; this is the worst acting. It’s terrible.’ Anything’s subjective, so it’s perfectly possible that’s a genuine response. I’d say in general the reaction has blown me away, because in my head it was a very specific thing… I guess people have an appetite for something a bit different.
Were you ever tempted to gamify Her Story more? I was definitely fighting against all the traditional game designer training I’ve had to not just fill the periphery with stuff. There’s part of me as well that – having written all the dialogue for the detectives, having created props and other bits and pieces of support material – was like, ‘Well, I’ve got all this cool stuff I’ve made. It’s a shame not to use it. I could easily throw this stuff in there.’ But when I allowed myself to think through that process, the part of my brain thinking, ‘Yeah, that’s cool,’ was definitely the traditional game designer bit, and then the other part was thinking, ‘Yeah, but that’s going to dilute it.’ There’s something that’s so simple and focused about this idea of the search and keywords, even to the point where the ability to organise and manage the clips is kind of crappy, and that was a choice. I was definitely aware of wanting to [add more], but then just kind of reasserting myself: no, this is the cool thing that feels really nice, and if I keep the focus there, then, yes, it might turn off some people, but I think it’s going to be truer to the experience.
“It was very intense, because we were just sitting in this small room – there wasn’t a point where you could relax”
Sam Barlow, creator