June 22, 2015 6:00 AM | Joel Couture
Take a mystery novel and a good pair of scissors. Cut it into a few hundred pieces. Is each fragment interesting? Does each tiny piece drag you deeper into an interesting narrative puzzle? Her Story is, telling a winding, disjointed story through video fragments spread across an old police computer, accessible only through a crude search engine that lets you look up small clips of video via keywords. These clips form seven full interviews that catalogue the mental state of a woman suspected of murder, her husband having disappeared. Whether she is guilty or not soon becomes the least interesting aspect of the game as you draw the story from each shattered fragment, compiling a picture of the woman and her life through your search.
Her Story opens with a handful of videos all marked under the keyword MURDER in the game's search engine. These videos come from seven different interviews with the same woman across different dates and times, and it's up to you to figure out the story behind them. The difficulty is that these interviews have been broken into hundreds of parts, running from a few seconds to a few minutes, and the only way to call them up is through the game's search engine. It'll only show you up to five videos at a time, so you'll need to watch each clip and listen for new keywords to help you on your next search.
These videos may not make much sense at first, but developer Sam Barlow has managed to plant seeds of intrigue in even these small bits. Something seems off about the woman in the videos. What she says doesn't seem to add up, or hints that she may be involved in her husband's disappearance in some way. Even that doesn't quite communicate the sense of unease I got from watching these videos. They brought up a gut feeling that there was something much deeper at work, even from the four initial clips. The more clips that you watch, the stronger this feeling gets.
Barlow has done some incredible writing with these clips. Each one, no matter how small, has this hint of mystery to it. There's something wrong, but you can't put your finger on it. She says something in one video (that you found on a fluke) that counteracts something she said in another clip. The woman acts strangely for a few seconds, and then the clip ends. She talks about something that doesn't seem to have anything to do with the case, or that just doesn't make sense. It's several hundred tiny cliffhangers and hints, all teasing at a meaning that asks you to dig deeper. Keep searching. Several hundred individual clips all draw the player into the mystery, with no throwaway moments or filler content to keep the player busy. This is a complicated story, and Barlow did an incredible job splitting it into tiny, juicy bits of information that compel the player to keep searching.
Each of these bits often has some keyword within them as well. A name, a place, or an item may come up in conversation. A hint of something else on a strange subject you only heard the middle of a conversation about. Who is the other man she talks about? What about the husband's job? Why a certain hair color? Why is she talking about a town? It gives you seeds for further searches with the engine, giving you more pieces of the puzzle with each video. The story slowly forms through this broken search, and it also makes you feel smart for finding the right threads and following them to their conclusions.
Those conclusions don't come easy. The game only allows you to call up a maximum of five videos with a given search, so don't expect to pick a really good keyword and have the game reveal all of its secrets. You need to keep digging through the videos in small groups to find new pieces of information to narrow your search, honing it down using whole phrases or multiple keywords. Finding keywords isn't all that hard at first, but cutting down the number of videos with the perfect search so that you can access them all is a challenge.
You do have some tools to help you make sense of the pieces you find, too. The game's search engine keeps track of every single search you've done and the amount of resulting videos, so you can go back and check to see what you've already looked up. Each video also has its own text box where you can keep notes on the clip's content, helping yourself as you start piecing the puzzle together. You can also save clips to be played later in an order of your choosing, so if there's a particular interview you want to see in full, you can put it together yourself as you find the pieces. Each video is stamped with the date and time, so it's easy to put them in the right order. It doesn't hurt that the woman wears a noticeably different outfit in each one, so it makes it easy to see when a video is from a certain interview.
Saving videos for later is handy in places, but the interface is a bit clunky. You can drag and drop videos anywhere you want in the timeline, but the scroll bar doesn't move when you try to drag the video over in a given direction. This means you have to drop the video around the edge of the screen, then fiddle with the scroll bar and move the video again until you reach where you'd like to place it. Also, the timelines on the videos are so small that it's very hard to see them without reopening the video, so if you want to put something in order, it involves a lot of clicking. It's very tedious and clunky, and made putting some clips together into an annoying exercise.
I'm pretty sure it's clunky on purpose, though, as that's in keeping with the game's early nineties aesthetic. The interface and the video look like technology from the nineties, using colors, fonts, and visual quirks that date it for that time. It's a charming effect that feels perfect for the story, grounding the technical limitations that inhibit your search in the computer visuals of the era. Why can I only look up five small videos at once? Because it's an old computer, that's why. It helps you accept the eccentricities of the interface, and effects like the simulated screen glare and dirt makes the visuals feel like a proper fit for the time it's emulating.
The game draws from this limiting time because its story is not one that could exist in our modern technology. Her Story draws from a time when information was not as readily available at our fingertips. It would be hard to buy into a story where we could only look in on a handful of clips on a computer in 2015. Even the old, Cops-style video clips seem to be much more at home in the nineties visuals, creating a game whose presentation allows its gameplay quirks to be believable. Those limits are what make the game interesting and fun to explore, and that they're captured so wonderfully in an era's computer visual style strengthens the game and makes it feel more realistic.
Viva Seifert does an excellent job carrying an entire game through Barlow's dialogue. Her voice is the only one you will hear for the entirety of Her Story, and trailers don't do her justice. Her delivery in those trailers may seem flat and uninterested, but her tone, one of quiet conversation while unveiling deep secrets, perfectly captures the odd interrogation-style narrative. Don't forget that she is being questioned by the police during the entire game, so her voice, guarded and careful in her responses, works perfectly given the atmosphere. She also switches through several moods in subtle ways, her own delivery giving the story more power than the words alone would carry. She hints at the game's secrets through the way she delivers her lines as much as the story drops clues on its own, and it's her acting that makes every segment feel special, yet mysterious. It's a subtle delivery, but every smile, glance, gesture, and pause, as well as the way she says her lines, make it a stunning performance.
Barlow's storytelling skills are beyond compare, here. Many stories can be made interesting through omission, creating an air of mystery the tale doesn't actually deserve. Any murder can be made mysterious by cutting out details, but Barlow has crafted a winding story that only seems to grow more complex with new information. It's conclusions are staggering, the journey there fraught with constant bits of new information that make you question everything you think you've figured out. Not only that, but the game does this when the player can randomly select any given video in the game at any point. There is no telling what the player will pull first, but Barlow has created a story that is interesting, deep, and intelligent no matter where you start reading.
Her Story tells its tale with no particular order, but through the game's writing, quirky interface, and acting, it draws the player into a web of mystery that's hard to leave. There is an unending appeal in tugging at the threads, chasing down clues through clips of video in hopes that you'll be able to draw some sort of conclusion about the events in the game. Also, what novel could maintain reader interest by having them jump around the pages at random? Barlow has not only written an excellent storyline, but has also crafted it so that it captures the imagination no matter which angle you approach it from. It is a triumph in storytelling, unlike anything I have read or played before.
Her Story will be available for $4.99 from the developer's site, Steam, the Humble Store, and the App Store on July 24th. For more information on the game and its developer, you can follow them on Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter.