Indie games certainly never fail to mix up traditional gaming structures and genres, but I can’t say I’ve played anything similar to Her Story before. The best way to put it is that it’s an experience. Her Story is a game that asks you to listen.
A woman was interviewed seven times by the police, and the tapes date back to 1994. A few years after that, the player has gained access to a database with the recordings, which are broken up into hundreds of clips. The woman’s husband has gone missing, and she doesn’t even know if he has run away, or is dead. The intense interviews done over a span of a week or two peer deeply into her personal life, her childhood, marriage, job, and personality. Could she have something to do with what happened to the husband?
The amount of clips sounds daunting, but many of them are shorter than a minute; some are even as brief as 15 seconds. The database is old-school, with an archaic framework that’s just been introduced to the police (i.e. digitization of data). As the gameplay entirely takes place in this computer interface, the player must view the clips to make sense of the story told by the woman. While the search function is a bit clunky, the terms entered are checked through the subtitles of all of the clips for easier access to information. Unwatched clips are marked, which turns out to be very important.
The beginning sets up the tone right away; the first word, already typed in the search bar, is “MURDER.” The clips all show the same woman (played by actress Viva Seifert – in the interest of avoiding spoilers, I won’t reveal the name of her in-game character). A middle-aged woman from the UK, she speaks with a strong British accent and displays a large range of emotions: Utter dismay and shock at being accused, a certain matter-of-fact attitude when retelling events and answering questions, and painful reveals of her intimate life are all part of the performance. She occasionally comes off a bit too forced in trying to be natural, but the game never committed the crime of boring me. Seifert inserts emotions into every line, making it obvious that the interviews were often strenuous on her psyche.
With a large blank slate and little direction, every little discovery feels momentous, even stumbling across the introductory clip where the character reveals her name (the game doesn’t otherwise give you such basic information). Following these breadcrumbs in the videos, I felt more like a detective than in many other games, which seem to limit investigative action to “press X near the highlighted spot.” While some clips make it a bit obvious – not that it’s a bad thing (like a clip that ends with “Have you met Diane?”) – it still feels compelling to pick up on new characters and begin searching for an entirely new topic.
One of the most interesting things is Her Story‘s non-linear approach to finding out details. As I mentioned about discovering characters, there are about 60 featuring the main character’s husband’s name, but only five clips visible on-screen at a time. Rather than scrolling through dozens of clips, the player is invited to try different search terms. Even if one doesn’t find the clip that specifically introduces Diane, she’s mentioned several times in other videos, along with the main character’s husband and other people from the “supporting” cast. This simulated, very specific computer search limitation is actually what should keep any player sane in this game; if I were to type a very frequently occurring phrase that outputs 50 results, it would be fairly tedious to go through the whole list. Small batches are more digestible and keep me interested by leaving key words to look for, later.
Sifting through the smallest details in order to get to the juicy ones takes a fair amount of time and perseverance. Perseverance is especially important for when a trail runs cold, or when you’re looking at the screen and have run out of terms to search. When the names and other proper nouns run out, sometimes a generic word like “job” might get you on the right track, revealing more aspects of the woman’s intricate background.
Thankfully, there’s a little database checker which shows how many clips have been watched. The clips reveal a good variety of performances and sometimes even humorous situations. At one point, Seifert throws up, nauseated. At other times, she gets up, outraged, ready to leave. She spills her coffee. For many of these “special” situations, there are achievements, enhancing the feeling that out of over 100 clips, I’ve accomplished something by stumbling into an atypical one.
My thoughts on the case kept shifting and aligning like a rotating Rubik’s cube in my head. Seifert took me on a kaleidoscopic journey of the main character’s childhood dreams, certain obsessions with fairy tales, and her teenage adventures. Her attire and hair change with each interview, which not only helps with tracking the different occasions, but again shows her acting range. In addition to the old-looking videos, the computer interface has the distinctive glare and look of a CRT monitor. There are subtle buzzes of the florescent lights. These details add to the atmosphere and pull players into a different time and setting, even though it uses a small set of tools to do so. The applications on the desktop warmly remind me of the 1990s, when computers seemed very basic, but still extremely useful.
I purposely tried to be as vague as possible in the review as to not spoil anything, but in summation, Her Story drew me in with a unique, compelling experience. It’s a bit tough to keep the story straight at times, and it’s definitely the type of game where you should take notes, but I wouldn’t get intimidated over that. If you’re wondering if there’s any point to listening to Her Story, yes, there is, and it’s much more personal than it seems. This is one game not to judge hastily by its enigmatic trailer.
Her Story is out now on Steam (Windows and Mac).