His story

Two years af­ter Her Story, Sam Bar­low is back with new projects

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Five min­utes into our con­ver­sa­tion with Sam Bar­low, the line goes dead. He calls back and apol­o­gises – his phone was so hot, he ex­plains, it had switched it­self off. That says some­thing for how in-de­mand the cre­ator of Her Story is these days. He’s cur­rently shoot­ing an in­ter­ac­tive film, a con­tem­po­rary riff on ’80s Cold War sci-fi WarGames. Also in the pipe­line is a new game, Telling Lies, for which he’s part­nered with An­na­purna In­ter­ac­tive. Here, he dis­cusses life since his self-de­vel­oped in­die hit brought him to Hol­ly­wood’s at­ten­tion.

What sur­prised you most about the re­sponse to Her Story?

Re­al­is­ing the genre sold it to a broader au­di­ence. The peo­ple that dis­cov­ered Her Story didn’t think, ‘Here’s a neat nar­ra­tive ex­per­i­ment in non-lin­ear sto­ry­telling’. They thought, ‘Oh, I get it, it’s an in­ter­ro­ga­tion. I watch po­lice shows, I know that their sto­ries are of­ten jum­bled, and they have mul­ti­ple lay­ers’. And the in­ter­face is way more ac­ces­si­ble than say­ing, ‘Here are two sticks that con­trol your body and your head, now move around a 3D space where you have no pe­riph­eral vi­sion’. With­out re­ally mean­ing to, I man­aged to make an ex­pe­ri­ence that is ac­ces­si­ble to peo­ple in a way that a lot of videogames aren’t. That quickly be­came a light­ning rod in cer­tain com­mu­ni­ties and al­lowed me to move onto do­ing other cool things.

How did it bring you into con­tact with peo­ple from out­side games?

Show a game to an exec at some ca­ble TV chan­nel and they’re not go­ing to be able to play it – but with Her Story you can show them and they get it. So the first six months af­ter it came out I was hav­ing meet­ings, do­ing fes­ti­vals and shows, and it was such an en­light­en­ing ex­pe­ri­ence be­cause mak­ing videogames is so in­su­lar – you don’t re­ally share what you’re do­ing be­cause you’re pro­tec­tive of your ideas. I felt kind of dumb on one level, not re­al­is­ing all these peo­ple were al­ready mak­ing cool in­ter­ac­tive things. That led to dis­cus­sions with Eko, the com­pany mak­ing WarGames with MGM, and I came in and tried to give my in­sight into how you could tell nar­ra­tive in­ter­ac­tively. I had so many ques­tions. How do I build on this au­di­ence I’ve cre­ated? And where is this au­di­ence go­ing to be in the next few years? Eko’s vi­sion is to have this stuff freely avail­able stream­ing over the in­ter­net in places where any­one can get hold of it. With­out peo­ple re­al­is­ing, you sneak these rich in­ter­ac­tive ex­pe­ri­ences un­der their noses and just have them dis­cover them with­out hav­ing to have some­one talk them through or learn how to use a con­troller.

What can you tell us about your new game, Telling Lies?

I didn’t im­me­di­ately want to fol­low up Her Story, and didn’t even nec­es­sar­ily want to do some­thing like it. I get ex­cited by shiny new ideas. Cer­tainly, the eas­i­est – maybe the most sen­si­ble – thing to do would be a se­quel. But I def­i­nitely didn’t want to do that. I think one of the dif­fi­cul­ties with some of this au­di­ence is that they en­joy Her Story, and then won­der what they can play next. But there isn’t some­thing that specif­i­cally scratches that itch. So I started think­ing: how can I do some­thing that builds on ev­ery­thing I loved about Her Story, but takes it to the next level, and feels as big of a risk as the first game did? It felt like a strong push away from the kinds of sto­ries you would usu­ally tell in a game. This feels like a con­tin­ued push to look at the kind of ma­te­rial we can talk about in an in­ter­ac­tive con­text. It’s the most am­bi­tious, com­plex and chal­leng­ing thing I’ve ever writ­ten, and I’m try­ing to put to­gether the right team to help flesh it out.

What made An­na­purna the right part­ner for the game?

I got talk­ing to them even be­fore they’d an­nounced that they were pub­lish­ing videogames. Their whole mis­sion is to cre­ate rich, cre­ator-driven sto­ries: you look at their movies and it’s an eclec­tic cat­a­logue, but it’s all un­com­pro­mis­ing stuff. They’re very much about sup­port­ing the vi­sion, and the qual­ity bar is very im­por­tant to them. I pitched them this provoca­tive idea, which was like the lit­mus test – I thought, ‘If you start try­ing to tweak that idea, or you have con­cerns, it’s not go­ing to work’. But they loved the idea, and were com­pletely on board.

“With­out peo­ple re­al­is­ing, you sneak these rich in­ter­ac­tive ex­pe­ri­ences un­der their noses”

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