Review: Her Story

What we call interactive narrative can take two distinct forms: stories that can be changed through interaction by a reader/player, and stories constructed to be experienced in a non-linear, interactive fashion by the reader/player. To give examples:

Interactive narrative
A Choose Your Own Adventure book, in which the reader entirely determines how the story turns out by making choices at given points. This tends to be what people will think of first when the term “interactive narrative” is mentioned.
Meta-interactive narrative
The webcomic Homestuck, which has areas where the reader can choose to read a given set of subsections in a custom order (but cannot control what happens in those subsections) and gamelike segments that basically boil down to allowing the reader to view different character conversations in a custom order. Thus, the interactive part of the narrative is in how it is experienced, one level above its actual events, and thus “meta”.

Games, being all about interactivity and sometimes also about narrative, are obviously interactive narrative’s main area. But it’s generally difficult to classify individual games as one type or the other. In most narrative games, both forms appear, but one tends to dominate.

In Her Story, the new FMV game from Sam Barlow,1 meta-interactive narrative is the dominant form. On a high level, it’s the sort of game we’ve all played before, but usually as part of another, bigger game. Her Story is like a long series of Bioshock audiologs or Fallout terminal entries. But not quite. What makes Her Story much more interesting is its aggressive non-linearity and the novelty of its full motion video presentation.

In this meta-interactive narrative, you play the role of an investigator going through a twenty-year-old database of video clips that record one side of a series of police interviews conducted with a woman suspected of murder. The tricks are:

  1. The video clips are not arranged chronologically, and can vary in length from a couple of seconds to a couple of minutes. To view each one, you must search for words and phrases spoken in it. Which means you need to make educated guesses about what the interviewee is likely to talk about based on what you’ve already seen.
  2. Because the database software you’re using is quite archaic, you can only retrieve the first five results of every text search. Which means that, once you’ve exhausted obvious things like character names, you need to start being clever and combining words in your search queries in order to discover more of the story.

To go with the creaky old database software and 90s-era videos, the game simulates a Windows 95-alike operating system as its main interface. An optionally disabled2 CRT screen-glare completes the experience.

The database software is named Cornerstone, as a tragic inside joke.

The database software is named Cornerstone, as a tragic inside joke.

The game is, as I’ve said, reminiscient of logbook and audiolog backstories in other games, and of Christine Love’s Digital: A Love Story (in which you also experience a story through an old-fashioned computer interface) and Analogue: A Hate Story (in which you also assemble a story through interactive perusal of jumbled, piecemeal fragments), but different from all that’s come before in two distinct ways:

  1. First and foremost, the story is told through full motion video clips rather than textual or spoken diaries. This brings texture and ambiguity to the story, for those paying careful attention, through body language and unspoken visual cues.
  2. Not only are the clips split into much shorter, more numerous portions than your average diary entry or audiolog, but they’re much, much harder to view in anything approaching chronological order – or any other kind of order than one which you yourself create. Immense craft has gone into making a story that’s captivating, layered with meaning and twists, and yet made up of parts viewable in any order. Her Story has been praised in various places for presenting a captivating experience to anyone who plays it, regardless of what order they may view the clips in. And like in any good story, most of the clips you watch in the early going will end up meaning totally different things on rewatch in the context of what you see later.

Although Her Story immerses you in the role of a detective investigating a murder, there’s no need to worry about having to keep a complicated mass of times, places and alibis in mind, and little need to take notes while playing. The story is fairly complex, but not in a mechanical, logistical way, and the game provides an interface for both giving custom tags to video clips so that you can search for them more easily in future and storing an unlimited amount in your “user session” for rewatching.

Coming back to my two categories of interactive narrative, you could argue that a very small amount of the first category is present in Her Story, but it’s almost entirely external to the game itself. You can watch as many or as few videos as you like, and stop when you feel you’ve understood everything. I personally went for 100% completion (which required doing some odd searches), but you can get a fairly complete idea of the whole story after watching only 70% to 80% of the videos. In this way, you interactively craft the story of the investigator, and what conclusions they leave with.

Her Story is not going to be everyone’s cup of tea (two sugars, milk), but if you like interactive narrative of any kind, want to experience a game unlike you’ve ever played before, and enjoy feeling like a detective, there are much worse ways to spend six dollars.

  1. Barlow is known for Aisle, an experimental work of parser-based interactive fiction, and for two games in the much better known Silent Hill series. Now that’s a range. ↩︎

  2. The glare irritates some people, but I would highly recommend leaving it enabled, not just for the atmosphere, but because of a surprising late-game revelation it helps foreshadow (you’ll see). ↩︎

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