Her Story (Sam Barlow) is a difficult thing to classify, because it’s premised on a clever hop across medium boundaries. We’re used to talking about interactive fiction as a near-synonym of interactive literature; and we’ve had, so far, over three decades of interactive literature in various forms. But Her Story is an interactive film, maybe the first thing of its kind, using cinema to the same ends that parser fiction uses prose.
It is designed as the experience of sitting down at a mothballed computer in a police station in Portsmouth, paging through a searchable database of police interviews concerning a murder that took place just over 21 years ago, in 1994. The constraints on the database are somewhat contrived – though realism isn’t really the point here – but calculated exactly to work as a game mechanic: You only have access to the interviewee’s answers, divided into individual clips that are often no more than a few seconds long. You can search for words found verbatim in the transcript of her interview, so that searching for a character’s name will only turn up those clips where they are mentioned by name. The database is limited to producing the five first results of your query, chronologically.
Beyond some embellishments, this is the extent of the gameplay of Her Story. The live-action clips contain all but the entirety of the story, and the player has almost total control over what order to view them in. Live-action video has a long, and not so illustrious, history in games. But Her Story uses video not as a sort of fetish or gimmick, or as an idiosyncratic form of cutscene. It uses video as the native language of its storytelling.
Editing is the grammar of film, and Her Story puts editing in the hands of the player, very explicitly. As a player aid, it even supplies an empty roll that the player can fill with clips they find interesting or relevant, which will eventually assemble into nonlinear a narrative of not just the game’s story, but the player’s route to finding it. And this process of editing the raw footage, which is collected from glimpses opened up by coming up with new words to search for, constructs a unique lens through which each individual player reads the underlying story. A lot of interactive stories give players control over plot or story events, but Her Story allows manipulation of the primitive unit of discourse: sequencing individual shots. Unlike in a conventional interactive text, in Her Story, the player is actively constructing meaning, piecing together a context where the clips can exist as a coherent narrative. This construction of context allows individual clips to be read very differently, depending on what the player knows when they arrive at them, and which clips have been seen before.
In a way, it turns the entire debate surrounding choice in video game stories on its head. Her Story’s search box is a sort of statement of radical, quasi-authorial player freedom: You’re sitting at the editing room of your own true crime documentary. At the same time, the very nature of the story being told is that it’s static, unchanging. The events of the story have already taken place; all that control is only over how the story is framed and constructed by the player. The game’s own story touches on the idea of choice existing in how we represent and narrate what happens, and not only in changing what happens.
It’s impossible not to go back to Sam Barlow’s own Aisle, a short 1999 piece that became one of the classics of parser interactive fiction. Both Aisle and Her Story are built around a text box where the player can type almost anything within a certain context. But where Aisle treats that text box as an inflection point around which varying pasts and futures can be assembled, Her Story treats the text box as a window, a way of peering into different cuts of the narrative. In that way, it’s more like a puzzle, though much of that puzzle takes place inside the player’s head.
Her Story is not, however, about meticulously writing down the times and places of events to piece together a chronology of the crime. The murder mystery underpinnings start to unravel almost immediately, into an altogether different Gothic fairy tale about identity and narrative. While I was definitely on board with the game’s apparent genre (I have some extensive notes about who was where, when, doing what), I didn’t feel cheated by the shift in tone and focus. Her Story detaches elegantly from reality to discourse on story, on our own reading of stories, and in particular on stories involving actors.
I was worried about the somewhat mannered line readings that Viva Seifert had on the clips chosen for the game’s trailer, but as it turns out her performance fits the format and the story quite well. Part of Her Story is the experience of staring into blown out, grainy VHS footage and trying to discern motives, identities, or truth out of that performance, and the heightened way in which Viva plays her character helps to sell, not undermine, that sort of playfulness. It’s a performance designed to be dissected by the viewer, one that very much goes out of its way to show the cracks in the skin where the player might want to start peeling.
Consistently, the game resists the temptation to make a mechanic out of this sort of facial reading – no “press A to doubt” here, no quiz at the end asking the player to prove their understanding. Instead it relies on the allure of the images themselves, and on the pleasure of reassembling them, looking for revealing cross-sections of the footage. There is no real requirement that the player understand the story, no unlocking of content, no puzzle beyond the overarching puzzle of trying to understand the events of the game’s narrative.
Her Story is, in many ways, about the assembling of narrative from the blunt happenstance of life, which dovetails nicely both with its structure as a narrative-assembling game and its police procedural conceit. It puts the player several steps removed from the events of the narrative, in a position of enormous editorial control.
That it all manages to function as an engaging narrative consistently, in spite of the radically different paths that players can take, is an almost incomprehensible achievement. It’s not, after all, simple hypertext; players can guess arbitrary words, and trying out likely candidates for words related to the subject matter is a very valid strategy. Its success rests on the fact that the story is not about a singular twist, or about a resolution to the mystery; the very structure of the story resists a simple whodunit. Instead, it’s a small goldmine of ideas, story moments, and plot. Some nuggets are bigger than others, and the player can stop when they’ve dug up enough.
Overall, Her Story comes out as a very successful experiment. It feels very much like a sui generis thing, like a brilliant device that could launch a whole genre if it wasn’t so exhaustively complex to design a story that way. It stands out as one of my favourite games of the year so far, if not the favourite. And while I’m loathe to brand any work as “important” so soon after its release, anyone who pays attention to narrative in games can’t really afford not to play it if they can.