Published by: Sam Barlow
Developed by: Sam Barlow
Available on: Windows, OSX, iOS
I was about half way through “Her Story” when I realized I had no idea what I was trying to accomplish. Described by writer and designer Sam Barlow as a “Desktop Thriller,” the game takes place entirely within an emulated PC desktop through which you can watch short videos of a woman being interviewed in connection to a murder case. While the setup is familiar, its structure as a game is unusually free of explicit mechanical objectives. The case has long gone cold, the videos are years old, and it’s unclear until the very end who the character you’re playing is.
Players are loaded into a mid-90s era computer with a few ReadMe text files, a kitschy tropical clock, a crude tile mirroring game, and a video playback program that allows you to search for specific words mentioned in seven video interviews with the woman, which have been cut up into some 200 short clips that can only be searched and played back in a puzzlingly non-linear way.
The rudimentary program only allows for a maximum of five videos to be accessible for each search term, even if there are 10 or 20 clips that mention the word. What should happen when you discover the truth about the case is unclear, but the mechanical framing creates its own beautifully balanced compulsion toward knowledge, something that doesn’t require a clear end point. In the classic noir tradition, each uncovered answer leads to several new questions producing a manic fascination with how unknowns seem to multiply with one another the further one goes.
Why is there a tattoo on an arm in one video and not in another? Where did the bruise on her cheek suddenly come from? Who is Hannah? What happened in the attic exactly? The game’s structure as a database query system is an eerie mirror of human conversation, with each new piece of information prompting a question you would want to ask directly but instead can only enter as text into a search field. Over time this sequence of inputs and outputs begins to feel like an intimate dialogue between people unable to reach each other through the digital intermediary separating them. The system evokes a discomfiting voyeuristic delusion of familiarity.
“Her Story” consistently steers its way clear of reductive conclusions and over-simplification. “Her Story” doesn’t avoid putting the suspect, played by actor and musician Viva Seifert, in clichéd positions—murderer, liar, adulterer, depressive, obsessive. But each time she convincingly steps out of a prejudicial characterization. By the game’s conclusion, each of these initial interpretations seems insufficient, like the differing outfits she wears in each of the seven interviews — sometimes a stiff and starchy sport coat and other times what could pass for a baggy wrinkled nightshirt. Over time all of the outfits seem somehow out of place on her, artificial impositions that lose their distorting quality the more one cuts between them. This is mirrored in the game’s self-consciously artificial framing inside a computer desktop, drawing unusual intimacy out of an environment from which one expects only tedium.
“Her Story” is a beautiful amalgam of the cinema and video game formats. It wouldn’t work as a linear film. Its poignance and power comes from the way the interactive database setup creates contemplative gaps between scenes, building a sense of sympathy for another person through the technical illusion that she’s somehow answering your questions even though it’s just the cold byproduct of software. Though the game is only a few hours long and its soundtrack occasionally relies too heavily on saccharine piano melodies, “Her Story” is a remarkable achievement in creating something which is personal, cinematic and playful. It’s a work that’s impossible to imagine as anything other than a video game, and one of the best I have played so far this year.
Michael Thomsen is a writer in New York. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Slate, The New Republic, The Daily Beast, The New Inquiry, Kill Screen, Edge, and Gamasutra. Follow him on Twitter @mike_thomsen.