Her Story is a controversial item amongst our staff, and for all the wrong reasons. The same question pops up again and again: is Her Story a video game? Hit up your favorite internet forum and you’ll likely stumble onto the same hornet’s nest, with no conclusive answer in sight.
Luckily, I’m here to provide the answer. Her Story is a video game. It’s one of the best video games I’ve played in ages, and it is as good as it is because it is a video game. It takes elements that we associate with video games (player agency, immersion, interaction) and utilizes them much better than most AAA or indie titles. It’s a beautiful, tragic experience that could not have been tackled the same way in any medium. To deny it its status as a video game is to deny it its greatest strength.
In Her Story, you sift through a decades-old database of police interviews. The only subject is Hannah, the wife of the murder victim. All you see is her; the detectives are never shown, and their questions are never recorded. All you have access to are short video clips of her responses.
What makes Her Story interesting is the method by which you access these clips. Your entire view of the game is a Windows 95-style desktop. Your only means of attack is to put keywords into a search bar. Type in “car” and the game will spit back every video where the word “car” is spoken. Unfortunately, you only have access to the first 5 clips for any given keyword. To get to the other videos, you either need to be more specific (“car crash”) or try a different word entirely.
What this means is that every person who plays Her Story will have an entirely different experience. I stumbled onto one of the later interviews very early on, and then had to work my way backwards to figure out what any of it meant. Every new clip adds a tiny bit of information to a kaleidoscopic final picture.
This is what makes Her Story so beautiful. It takes full advantage of its medium by turning a story into something you control. Even after seeing every video clip, two people will have arrived at different destinations by entirely different routes. It helps that the story is much more than a simple whodunit, though I won’t spoil any of that here. Suffice it to say, finding a definitive answer spread across all of the game’s video clips is an impossible task (but one worth pursuing).
Most importantly of all, Her Story is a ton of fun. I have a huge amount of respect for any game that gets me writing stuff in a notebook, and Her Story fulfilled that role beautifully. Between researching prison code systems and following leads to their logical conclusions, Her Story made me feel like I was in complete control over the experience I was having. Though none of it made a lot of sense most of the time, I felt like it was up to me to figure everything out. The game is a literal puzzle, in a way even the twistiest of movies is not.
It’s worth noting that the aesthetics of the game are absolutely fantastic. You can see your character’s face reflected in the dusty CRT monitor, and somber piano music fills in the gaps between the distant police sirens and buzzing lights of the nocturnal precinct. A few small details create an extremely atmospheric experience. The same goes for the actual interview footage, which looks and feels exactly like taped footage from 1994 should. At a time when so many games are using chromatic aberration and other anachronistic video defects as stylistic tools, Her Story shows how they can be used in a completely immersive fashion.
I cannot honestly think of a way that Her Story could be improved. Everything about it exists in service of the focused experience it provides. There’s no conclusion, no enemies, no levels, no controls. Just a puzzle for you to solve, and the tools you need to do so.
When I first heard about Her Story, all I knew was the title and the price point. Knowing that information, I made a half-hearted assumption that the game was a bite-sized RPG or the first episode of a story-driven game a la Life is Strange or the Telltale games. I was both pleasantly surprised and angry at myself for passing such quick, uninformed judgement when I found out that it is actually a complete murder mystery. I went into the game knowing almost nothing, and I recommend that you do the same. If you like unraveling murder mysteries or solving puzzles, stop reading this and go buy this game right now. There is no excuse not to at the price point. Her Story is an astounding achievement of game design and story.
Her Story is simple yet elegant. You have access to clips of one woman’s interviews from a police database, but you are limited to how you browse these clips. You enter a word or phrase into the search bar and receive a list of clips in which the woman says the word(s) you typed. They start you out with a few clips which, after viewing, immediately had me hooked. I got out a pen and piece of paper and began writing down words, analyzing her speech, studying her facial expressions, and scrutinizing her body language. Any game that gets me to try and find a pen and paper to write something down is doing something right. I had taken my first steps into this case and I didn’t want to leave it until I had cracked it.
Her Story is dripping with atmosphere and immersion. You play the game on a 90’s Windows desktop complete with the glare of the monitor, the visible scan-lines, and a little game in the recycling bin. I felt like I was there, alone in a dimly-lit room with two faintly glowing fluorescent lights above me. I was there and I didn’t want to leave. Few games manage to have such an engrossing level of immersion and I felt like I was doing more than just playing a game, I was actually experiencing something.
Her Story is devilishly clever in its execution. By searching for these clips using key words and phrases, the player is witnessing a gradual progression of each interview in a disjointed manner that will unfold and come together differently for every player. Words and phrases readily present themselves until a timeline and course of events begins solidifying itself in the player’s mind or on the page in front of him/her. They keep you from just using a common word in order to get a large portion of clips by limiting the number of clips you can see for a given search term. This works as a way to challenge and limit the player, but I couldn’t help but feel that it was an unrealistic restriction and did bother me enough to break my immersion for a moment. Fortunately, it is easily overlooked and the advantages that the system presents overpower the negligible drawbacks. Every single time I pressed enter, I waited with eager anticipation for what videos I might uncover beneath the next search while the loading cursor spun. I never got bored throughout the entirety of my playthrough.
Her Story contains some of the best writing and one of the best performances this year. The actress delivers her well-written lines in a manner that kept me guessing and had me watching some clips over and over again. It’s a game that only gets better the more you think about it and which lends itself well to the prospect of various conversations, debates, and theories. Her Story is a game that continues to stick with me a week later and I don’t doubt that it will continue to do so for many years to come. I felt like the story did falter in a few small places, but once again the good far outweighs the bad especially considering that this is a video game story we’re talking about here.
Her Story is a game that should not go unnoticed. It is easily seen that an exorbitant amount of care and time went into creating this game that is so engrossing and is less than $10 per copy. It is another triumphant testament to the storytelling potential that only video games are capable of accomplishing. It’s a damn fun one too.