Re­vis­it­ing a cold case, dis­cov­er­ing a fresh for­mat

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUMMER TV PREVIEW - BY MICHAEL THOM­SEN style@wash­

I was about half­way through “Her Story” when I re­al­ized I had no idea what I was try­ing to ac­com­plish. De­scribed by writer and de­signer Sam Bar­low as a “desk­top thriller,” the game takes place en­tirely within an em­u­lated PC desk­top through which you can watch short videos of a woman be­ing in­ter­viewed in con­nec­tion to a mur­der case. While the setup is fa­mil­iar, its struc­ture as a game is un­usu­ally free of ex­plicit me­chan­i­cal ob­jec­tives. The case has long gone cold, the videos are years old and it’s un­clear un­til the very end who the char­ac­ter is you’re play­ing.

Play­ers are loaded into a mid-’90s-era com­puter with a few Read Me text files, a kitschy trop­i­cal clock, a crude tile mir­ror­ing game and a video play­back pro­gram that al­lows you to search for spe­cific words men­tioned in seven video in­ter­views with the woman, which have been cut into some 200 short clips that can only be searched and played back in a puz­zlingly non­lin­ear way.

The rudi­men­tary pro­gram al­lows only for a max­i­mum of five videos to be ac­ces­si­ble for each search term, even if there are 10 to 20 clips that men­tion the word. What should hap­pen when you dis­cover the truth about the case is un­clear, but the me­chan­i­cal fram­ing cre­ates its own beau­ti­fully bal­anced com­pul­sion to­ward knowl­edge, some­thing that doesn’t re­quire a clear end point. In the clas­sic noir tra­di­tion, each un­cov­ered an­swer leads to sev­eral new ques­tions, pro­duc­ing a manic fas­ci­na­tion with how un­knowns seem to mul­ti­ply with one another the fur­ther one goes.

Why is there a tat­too on an arm in one video and not in another? Where did the bruise on her cheek sud­denly come from? Who is Han­nah? What hap­pened in the at­tic ex­actly? The game’s struc­ture as a data­base query sys­tem is an eerie mir­ror of hu­man con­ver­sa­tion, with each new piece of in­for­ma­tion prompt­ing a ques­tion you would want to ask di­rectly but in­stead can only en­ter as text into a search field. Over time this se­quence of in­puts and out­puts be­gins to feel like an in­ti­mate di­a­logue be­tween peo­ple un­able to reach each other through the dig­i­tal in­ter­me­di­ary sep­a­rat­ing them. The sys­tem evokes a dis­com­fit­ing voyeuris­tic delu­sion of fa­mil­iar­ity.

“Her Story” con­sis­tently steers its way clear of re­duc­tive con­clu­sions and over- sim­pli­fi­ca­tion. “Her Story” doesn’t avoid putting the sus­pect, played by ac­tor and mu­si­cian Viva Seifert, in clichéd po­si­tions — mur­derer, liar, adul­terer, de­pres­sive, ob­ses­sive. But each time she con­vinc­ingly steps out of a prej­u­di­cial char­ac­ter­i­za­tion.

By the game’s con­clu­sion, each of those ini­tial in­ter­pre­ta­tions seems in­suf­fi­cient, like the dif­fer­ing out­fits she wears in each of the seven in­ter­views — some­times a stiff and starchy sport coat and other times what could pass for a baggy wrin­kled night­shirt. Over time, all of the out­fits seem some­how out of place, ar­ti­fi­cial im­po­si­tions that lose their dis­tort­ing qual­ity the more one cuts be­tween them. This is mir­rored in the game’s self-con­sciously ar­ti­fi­cial fram­ing in­side a com­puter desk­top, draw­ing un­usual in­ti­macy out of an en­vi­ron­ment from which one ex­pects only tedium.

“Her Story” is a beau­ti­ful amal­gam of the cin­ema and video game for­mats. It wouldn’t work as a lin­ear film. Its poignance and power comes from the way the in­ter­ac­tive data­base setup cre­ates con­tem­pla­tive gaps be­tween scenes, build­ing a sense of sym­pa­thy for another per­son through the tech­ni­cal il­lu­sion that she’s some­how an­swer­ing your ques­tions even though it’s just the cold byprod­uct of soft­ware.

Although the game is only a few hours long and its sound­track oc­ca­sion­ally re­lies too heav­ily on sac­cha­rine pi­ano melodies, “Her Story” is a re­mark­able achieve­ment in cre­at­ing some­thing which is per­sonal, cin­e­matic and play­ful. It’s a work that’s im­pos­si­ble to imag­ine as any­thing other than a video game, and one of the best I have played this year.

Thom­sen is a free­lance writer.


“Her Story,” which uses video clips to piece to­gether a nar­ra­tive, will be avail­able for pur­chase onWed­nes­day.

“HER STORY” Pub­lished by:

Sam Bar­low

De­vel­oped by:

Sam Bar­low

Avail­able on:

Win­dows, OSX

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