There’s lots of ways to tell a story, and many video games are just experiments in that conquest. Some stories are straightforward and open, and others require digging and guesswork to really figure out what’s going on or where to go next. The latter is the case in Her Story, an interactive fiction game released in 2015 by Sam Barlow. Much like the narratives of Gone Home and Return of the Obra Dinn, Her Story has the player acting as a detective, watching a series of interviews in a police database to try and piece together the titular story and discern what’s going on. But things aren’t that simple: you need to search the tags to find the clips, and they will not be in order. So how do you pace a story without knowing the order in which players will experience it? And how does a story like that even work?
The main premise for Her Story is that you have been given access to an old archive of police interview footage on an ancient desktop somewhere in the station. With just the simple search term of ‘MURDER’ to start players off with, players are given 4 video clips to start with, from vastly different points in the overall story. Your main means of exploring the 60+ video clips in the game are through the use of these search terms, which search the tags of each interview clip. Since the word ‘murder’ appears in only those 4 clips, those clips are displayed to be viewed and saved. “Now Rachel,” you may say, “why don’t I just search for a very common word like ’the,’ and then I’ll have all the clips?” Not so fast. The game will only show you the first 5 clips with that tag, forcing you to find new tags to discover all the clips. And the story goes piece by piece in this manner, feeding you dreadfully short clips with one or two new facts, new avenues to pursue for more sides of the story, and more information.
The freedom of this method is that players aren’t particularly limited in where they can search. From those first clips alone, you can pick up on the tags ‘Simon,’ ‘weapon,’ or even ‘coffee.’ You can even make educated guesses about future clips based on what you can see in the videos themselves, inquiring about the tattoo that the woman has in one clip or the offscreen detective through it all. The satisfaction of seeing the little lights come on in the Logic Database tracker is immensely satisfying and helpful in seeing how many you’ve found and how many are left. Also, giving players the ability to add their own tags for tracking can help them track suspicions across many different videos or keep track of the days involved, as it appears this woman was interviewed on several different occasions, given the security date in the corner and her varying outfits.
The downside of this method, from a creative standpoint, is that it can be incredibly time-consuming and tedious to plan and implement. Every single video, ranging from a couple seconds in length to upwards of a couple minutes, needs to be tagged for every single unique word said. Every interview clip needs to be checked for what words are said to see if there are enough unique words to find it in the small 5 video windowframe. And that’s without touching some of the pacing issues that may arise from players who uncover certain plot points before others. It’s a tricky balance, but one that Her Story handles quite well, drawing players into the deeper and deeper mystery while still allowing a great deal of control over how they explore that mystery.
This kind of game and this level of effort is to be applauded. It’s an unusual game for sure, but a satisfying one for our inner detectives and an amazing one to look at from a storytelling perspective. If all you know of a person is a series of clips, how well do you actually know them? What can you glean from these disjointed snippets, and what can you learn? You might not be able to know the person fully, but at the very least, you can understand Her Story.