Monday, July 4, 2016

Her Story

Since I'm not working on a novel right now, I took the opportunity to play through a few PC games that had been on my radar, one of which is Sam Barlow's Her Story. I have some quibbles with it, but on the whole I found it very engaging as a piece of experimental storytelling.

The premise is that you have been given access to a series of police interviews from the 90s, which feature a young British woman. You type in a search term and the database returns up to five videos with that search in it. You are prompted with the first search term: MURDER. Who died and why you are investigating a decades-old murder (a clock in the game establishes that it takes place in the present) are mysteries to be unraveled.

The fact that this is more-or-less a game-ified version of Alta Vista is interesting in itself, but the deftness of the game is in the way it guides the player towards certain revelations. The first videos that come up give you a number of details that send you chasing down details. Because the results are always chronological, and the juicier details about the story will obviously come out in later interviews, the challenge becomes finding ways to narrow your search. The character has strikingly different outfits in every interview, which helps gives the player a timeline. Since you don't get the interviewer's questions, only detached answers, everything feels a little disjointed and context-less, which adds to the puzzle element. And, of course, there are many juicy details to be revealed.

It was interesting. Not great as far as game-play is concerned, but it was a very different way to experience a story, and I enjoyed it quite a lot. But I also found it frustrating. After about two hours I had uncovered all of the relevant plot points but only about three-quarters of the videos. But the game doesn't end until you tell it you're done--at which point it will roll credits (and then give you some cheats to reveal anything you've missed). What this means is that you essentially keep playing until you are so frustrated that you have to stop. And there's a sequence of videos in the middle that seems designed to troll completionists, so a game/story that I enjoyed quite a lot left me with a bit of a sour taste in my mouth.

I must also quibble about uneven production values. There are a bruise and a tattoo that feature, and neither of them look good. The bruise is barely noticeable, and the tattoo looks fake. Considering the effort that went into recreating 90s-era video artifacts, I had to assume that the fake tattoo was supposed to look fake, and that had some story implications. It ended up being a distraction, when it was supposed to be a supporting plot element.

But I still overall liked this game, and considering the price point ($6 on Steam, but frequently discounted--in fact, it's on sale for $3 right now), I definitely recommend it.

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Below are my spoilery quibbles. Don't read them if you want to play the game and be surprised:

SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS Highlight to read.

  • The fake tattoo supports the fan theory that Hannah and Eve are the same person. But nothing else does. I don't buy that theory, but it took up a lot of brain space while I looked for clues around it.
  • I've had Eve's traditional folk ballad stuck in my head for days.
  • Seriously, what the hell was up with that polygraph sequence!?
  • I got seriously confused keeping track of all the pregnancies. So when I exited and it's revealed that you're playing as Sarah, my reaction was "Wait, is she even alive?"