Her Story is a highly innovative and experimental game that deserves respect and praise for pushing the boundaries of the medium, even if I felt that the actual experience of playing it was, to me, subjectively underwhelming.
Her Story is, in its essence, a game in which narrative is used as a commodity. There is a story at the heart of the game, and the player’s task is to piece it together. There is a database of transcripted fmv videos dealing with a missing persons case, and the player’s task is to piece together the story by entering in relevant words and phrases into a search box. If the video contains that word or phrase, it can be viewed, and from there, the player slowly accrues a greater understanding of the underlying plot, as more videos reveal more relevant words and phrases to enter.
It’s a short game, clocking in at about 2 to 3 hours at the most – the length of a film once all the gameplay elements are stripped away. It doesn’t take very long for the main mystery to reveal itself, as it were – but more interesting is the why. The game straddles between offering players certain answers and letting them draw their own interpretations from the evidence presented before them. It is this flexibility of narrative, this fine balance between one or the other, that is Her Story’s strength. It is the engine that powers much of the buzz the game has created.
Her Story’s design is compact but surprisingly elegant, and the simulacra of free-form database searching really gives the player a sense of agency. This is one of the vanishingly few mystery games in which the mystery isn’t telegraphed for the player’s benefit in order to maintain the pacing. In Her Story, the player needs to take the initiative to unravel the story – and that is much more rewarding than going through the motions and fulfilling scripted objectives unrelated to the sleuthing, in order to get to the next narrative bit. This is pure sleuthing – down to its raw essence.
That said, the game’s brevity and surprising lack of difficulty are the main stumbling blocks to its value as an experience. The gameplay after solving the essential mystery – the whodunit – is followed by diminishing returns. Once the player gets a good enough picture of the content, it is necessary to continue until a certain percentage of the content is accessed. After a point, the effort taken to fill up those missing videos comes down to trying out combinations of words and phrases in a haphazard manner. And once the player feels like they’ve figured it out already, which can come quite early on due to its lack of difficulty, that impetus to do so dissipates. The thresholds for different players differ, of course. Some players are content knowing only the framework of the story; others must obsessively find and watch every detail. Personally, I lean slightly more toward the former camp, and when I reached my own personal point where I was satisfied with the answers I’d discovered, I still hadn’t found enough videos to trigger the endgame, and thus, I began to feel a little underwhelmed trying to access the remaining videos I needed.
But that really is a subjective measure of engagement, and different folks will have different ideas over how much the narrative means to them, and whether the quality of the narrative is worth plumbing for every detail, no matter how banal. With Her Story the accomplishment is in Barlow’s ability to write and script scene snippets that work so well in the context of the game – careful writing was needed to ensure a smooth narrative flow, and that is no easy feat, given player agency and their propensity to try to break the game.
I’d say play it. It’s short, sweet, even if ultimately, it’s not feted because of the story it told, but because of what it meant to the medium – a game that showcased what games were capable of narratively: the ability to get the player to do work in unravelling the intricacies of narrative as a gameplay challenge.
I give this game: 4 out of 5 tattoos (that may or may not be a key word)