Post Script

EDGE - - PLAY - In­ter­view: Sam Bar­low, cre­ator

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

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