To start, all you see is a computer screen displaying a version of Windows from the early 90s. This is the interface for a police archive of interrogation videos, and you dig up the videos by typing terms into a search bar. To start with, the search bar is already filled with the word “Murder” and inputting that search gives you four video clips. They all show a woman being interviewed by the police about a murder. However, the clips are very short and don’t depict the whole interview. You will have to type in more search terms based on the scant clues provided in the videos you’ve already seen, and doing so turns up more videos for you to watch to help you figure out what happened.
This is the setup for Her Story, a new game that has just been released on Steam and mobile platforms. Actually, to call it a game would be a stretch for some people. There is no enemy in the traditional sense, and you can’t even influence events. All you can do is keep entering search terms and watching videos. Can a search bar really be a game? Perhaps in the sense that 20 Questions is a game. In the end, Her Story is an experiment in a novel form of storytelling, and whether it works for you will depend largely on how well you accept its premise and the gimmicks that make it work.
Game designer Sam Barlow paid a lot of attention to details to immerse you in your role as a researcher digging into this case. The game screen looks pretty close to a Windows terminal. You can move the individual windows around, each of the icons on the desktop can be opened (the clock will tell you the current date which reveals how far in the past the videos are), and the logout button closes the game to bring you back to the title screen. There are other neat little touches such as loud keyboard clicks when you type and the occasional reflection from the screen when a car passes behind you, revealing what your character’s face looks like.
I should also say here that the video clips are all FMV. Yes, a technology last seen in the late 90s is back for this game as the subject of the police interviews is portrayed by live footage of a human actress named Viva Seifert. Opinions will surely be divided over how effective her performance is. For my part, I didn’t find her to be outstanding, but after a few minutes, I accepted her and got on with it. I don’t know if the decision to use FMV was an artistic one or made out of necessity, but it does lend a little more authenticity to the game. The footage is grainy and low resolution as befitting the time period, and Seifert’s performance is low key without any flair as befitting the role. When everything else in the game is made to simulate reality, why not use footage of a real woman?
All of this effort at realism makes two of the gameplay gimmicks stand out even more glaringly. First of all, the each video clip is very short, usually less than a minute and sometimes even just four seconds long. You just have to accept that for some reason, the police broke up each interrogation video into tiny little bits and that in order to see everything you’ll have to watch a little over 220 clips. The second gameplay restriction is that each search term returns a maximum of five video clips. If there are more videos that match your search, you’ll have to try a different search or narrow it down in order to see them. You’ll just have to accept that this is how the game controls the flow of information so that you don’t get everything at once and have to piece it all together.
It is certainly an intriguing story to piece together, and mystery aficianados will be taking copious notes, drawing relationships between all the characters revealed in the interviews and putting the video clips in order according to their time stamps. By the game’s very design, you experience the story out of order, jumping around in time as it becomes clear that the interview subject was brought back by the police on multiple dates. And as a suspect in the case, she is inherently an unreliable narrator. The script has been carefully written to make sure you don’t find out too many crucial details in the beginning and will have to do a little digging first.
As intriguing as the premise and setup is, Her Story still hits a few pitfalls in its design even above and beyond the clunky gimmicks I talked about above. For one thing, all the lines are spoken by Viva Seifert’s character and we never even hear the interviewing detective’s questions. That means that sometimes a clip will begin with her repeating the question before launching into her answer. It doesn’t happen often, but it comes across as inelegant and unrealistic each time.
The biggest problem with the game is that it doesn’t present the ending (and the final revelation) until you have seen most of the video clips. You are not required to have seen all of them, but you still need to have viewed the vast majority. Most players will have figured out most of the major facts (including the true killer) long before then, and the game’s design will leave them entering in more search results in order to try to finish the game rather than to try to find out more about the story.
So the game’s not perfect, and it’s arguably not even a game. On the other hand, it costs $4.99 in the App Store. It gave me a good three hours of entertainment. For those reasons, I still feel comfortable giving Her Story a solid recommendation for people who are looking for something a little different.