Simple Mechanics to Tell a Complex Story in “Her Story”

Last month I spent an evening playing Her Story on my iPhone. (It’s also available on Windows and OS X.) I’d read about it and had it recommended to me by a coworker, so as soon as I had a couple hours to myself, I dove in. (No big spoilers, but beware if you want to go into the game totally blind!)

At first, it’s a simple game in which you play detective, watching police interviews with a woman about a murder. Your HUD looks like a computer from about 15 years ago. The videos are recordings, featuring actress Viva Seifert (who is phenomenal). Up until your last few minutes with the game, your entire interaction with it revolves around typing words into a search box to see if any new videos come up, as you try to figure out what happened in this murder case.

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When you first load the game, the first videos are already up for you: the search term is MURDER. After that, you can type a few notes beside videos or tag them for future re-watching. Using whatever information you gleaned from an interview segment — a name you haven’t heard before, something that sounds like a clue — you enter a new search term and see if there’s a video match.

Some videos are as short as three seconds, while others are one or two minutes long. There are even a couple that have the woman playing guitar and singing a rather long (and gruesome) song. Some videos seem to contradict each other, which is when you realize there’s more to this case than you thought.

One of the interesting limitations of the game is that only five videos turn up when you search a term. For instance, enter a name and you might get 12 video results, but it will only display the first five, no matter what. You can’t see the others unless you happen upon them via some other search term, or by putting two words together to narrow your search results.

You also soon learn that the case is less about the murder itself and more about the characters who may have been involved. The motive. The backstory of this woman being interviewed (the murdered man’s wife), who doesn’t seem like a totally reliable narrator.

So the game has you watching tidbits of several interviews with this woman. That’s it. Developer Sam Barlow’s storytelling hinges on such simple mechanics yet manages to be totally riveting. The acting is so great and varied — even coming from just one actress — that you never get bored. And just when you think you’ve heard everything, you come across some little clue you haven’t heard before, and you search it. It’s a labyrinth of a story.

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What really intrigues me is that the game ends when you want it to. There are 271 videos you can watch, but who knows how you’ll find them all by hitting on the right search terms. After you’ve watched quite a few (I spent about two hours), you’ll receive a message from someone asking if you are done, if you know what happened. You can say “No” to keep watching the videos, or “Yes” to end the game. But how do you really know if you solved the case?

You have to look online. For real. Minutes after completing the game, I was already scouring the internet for forums and comments where people were discussing their theories about what happened in Her Story. That’s the beauty of ambiguous endings.

Ashley

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