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