Her Story: The Basics

An image of Her Story's opening screen.

Figure 1: Her Story's opening screen, with the first keyword pre-seeded for players.

Her Story is a relatively straightforward game: This is a narrative-driven mystery in which players are tasked with building the story—or solution—from short video snippets revealed by keyword searches. Anyone familiar with search engines can master the interface; a single typed word, phrase, or punctuation mark word yields new results, up to five at a time. The game tracks search queries and the number of results, available or not. It lures players in by seeding the first word, murder, so that all a player must do is hit the search button. James Gee (2005) told us that effective learning in games is a give and take: the player does something, and the game responds. Her Story, in providing that first search term, irresistibly invites players into its story by offering a familiar portal that opens a path into a new world. The combination of an unfinished search query and a tantalizing word like murder drops players directly into the action, in media res, and begs immediate interaction. The continued popularity of crime and detective narratives (Franks, 2014), from fiction to television to film, probably doesn’t hurt here either, in terms of drawing in new players. We understand hunting for clues in this way; we’ve been doing it alongside multiple iterations of Sherlock Holmes and while watching dozens of police procedurals throughout the proliferation of popular media.

The game’s search function is thorough, too, pulling players further into the potential of experience through the way the videos are indexed and the queries are structured. In-game text explains that every video clip in this interview series has been processed so that players can search for every instance of any word in the interviews, however innocuous—though this also means the search terms may match the character’s speech patterns more than the context or content of what she says. The videos are short, some only a couple of seconds, while others stretch to a few minutes, and all feature a woman’s interviews with the police in the wake of a missing person report. The interviews span several days, as evidenced by the interviews’ date stamps and the woman’s changing outfits and hairstyles, and while the interview subject answers questions and handles objects, we neither see nor hear the interviewers. Everything hangs on the straightforward mechanics, Sam Barlow’s writing, and Viva Seifert’s performance as the titular her.

An image of database visualization from Her Story.

Figure 2: Database visualization.

Because players are presented with an entire mock computer desktop, the search tool isn’t all that populates the game window. A few icons linger in the background, like text files yielding clues about the search and its larger context, and there is a visualization of the video database hidden behind the main search window. Each green square represents a single video, as shown in Figure 2, and as each video is played, the sections are rebuilt, giving players a sense of what remains unwatched and how close they are to teasing out the entire narrative. Players can interact with any of these items as though they were sitting at a real machine, opening and closing files, keeping the visualization open, and they may even pull Mirror, an Othello clone, out of the game's Rubbish Bin for a minigame distraction. These items all call our attention to what Johanna Drucker (2014) called the "constructedness" of the graphical interface of the computer—the ways we often "look at interface as a thing, a representation of computational processes that make it convenient for us to interact with what is ‘really’ happening" (p. 138). By allowing players to confront the constructed nature of the interface’s visuality (its text files, its icons, its search windows), the game is ultimately able to explore how such constructions work through the idea of the interface as "a mediating structure" (p. 138). In other words, Her Story’s interface mediates our experience of its narrative and the ways we interact with it, and it alerts us to this mediating function through the items that populate the game window. In this way, the game makes use of the interface’s constructedness to then construct its narrative—to, ultimately, tell its story.

But while the extras like Mirror are fun (and may fit into the story in a surprising way), it’s the database visualization that can become particularly important as players wend deeper into Her Story’s narrative maze. While early videos come easily enough, the last quarter require more careful consideration and creativity in searching to discover, and it’s those more difficult-to-find pieces that unlock essential fragments of story. The visualization tool serves as a live update alerting players to how much of the story they’ve uncovered and how much remains, which can be a cue to change tactics and consider new angles. In a sense, it’s Her Story’s version of a status bar.

These tools and extra functions help players with cues and also help establish the game as existing in a fully realized (or at least suggested) world, but the meat of the game is found in the video clips—and each video returned for a particular query can yield surprising results. The first game-seeded search for "murder" returns four video results. Those four videos yield potential keywords of their own, and in this way, clues are uncovered and the narrative begins to emerge.

A visual chart showing potential keywords resulting from the player's initial search.

Figure 3: Potential keywords resulting from initial "murder" video search.

Each video can be tagged and filed away for later retrieval (or not) as players choose, and any video can be repeated. Anything said in the videos may be a potential route to other clues, and these clues don’t always follow from obvious hints. Sure, searching "Simon"—the name of the victim—yields numerous videos, but other obvious moves, like "weapon," return no new information, nor does "lawyer." Seemingly innocuous words like "help," however, pay off with videos that lead further into the narrative. While there’s no sure way of knowing why these design choices were made, they seem aimed at encouraging players to pay close attention to the fragments of narrative and to think about how stories are built, by considering what might be said in the interviews and what details of memory might be unlocked through careful and critical thinking. Since players have to focus on the character’s speech, memory, and personality, they are tasked with thinking as she would. Is "crime" more likely to return results, or should a player try something more visceral, like "blood?"

In Her Story, players don’t level up, and there are no rewards to be earned except more videos. Thus studying the patterns becomes its own reward, pulling players ever forward. This design approach, too, adds a level of difficulty to the game; if all the videos were unlocked with obvious search terms, players could guess without even digging into the story, the game experience would be greatly lessened, and it would be over much more quickly. This may be seen as a layer of artificial difficulty, but from the angle of constructing narrative, what might otherwise be a flaw becomes a benefit.

A visual chart of potential keywords arising from the 'help' video set

Figure 4: Potential keywords from the "help" video set.

While the game does feature the aforementioned tagging system, taking notes can be helpful in identifying narrative patterns. Tracking patterns within the game shapes how players experience the narrative, as viewing the clips in different sequences may yield entirely different impressions of what really happened, a detail that feeds into the game’s ambiguous ending.

Her Story is a game about layers, a quality reflected even in the aesthetic of its interface, designed as it is to look like a mid-90s PC running an outdated database. The result is familiarly unfamiliar, asking players not to embody an onscreen character, as in so many games, but to enter the world, to sit at that artificial computer, and interact without buffer. But even that interaction, much like the interface, isn’t quite as simple as it seems at first: just as each search reveals (or obfuscates) another piece of the puzzle, the occasional flicker or shift in the screen glare reveals a glimpse of you-the-character, separate from you-the-player. The first time this happens, it feels almost like something imagined, or as though it’s your own reflection. But there are more moments throughout the game when sirens sound outside an unseen window and the avatar’s outline becomes more clear. This changes everything; a game that felt like a first-person experience becomes something more distant, and this shift inspires questions that further expand the narrative. Who are you? What role are you playing in this mystery, and can your impressions be trusted if the narrative shifts mid-play? Ultimately, Her Story is a search for truth, but it’s never a static, single truth. Instead, it’s something constantly slipping between layers and stories. Her story, yes, but which story? Which truth?

A screenshot from the game that shows the outline of the player-character watching videos revealed through the game.

Figure 5: When the game’s glare setting is enabled, the outline of a player-character watching the videos is slowly revealed, with hints at greater detail as the game progresses.

But the interface, even considering what it adds to the narrative and the world, is only the packaging; Her Story’s magic happens in the videos themselves, in the performance of the unspooling story. Live-action video might have been a risky move—full-motion video (FMV) games enjoyed short bursts of popularity in the 1980s and 1990s but have fallen distinctly out of fashion. (However, despite a distinct lack of popularity in the gaming sphere, web-based interactive movies have continued to crop up over the past decade, which may have helped inspire 2015’s horror-movie-styled game, Until Dawn). Early FMV-based games, which first seemed like revolutionary innovations designed to situation games in an adult space, suffered roundly from problems with quality: the acting was bad, the writing was worse, and due to limitations with both budgets and storage capacity, the games that resulted were half-realized messes that made B-movies look like solid investments (Cobbett, 2015). Better-made efforts like 1994’s Wing Commander III, with more than two hours of original footage and a cast that included Mark Hamill and Malcolm McDowell, were not enough to save a genre riddled with failures, like Crime Patrol, and controversial efforts, like Night Trap, which was caught up in 1993 Congressional hearings on video game content. Live-action FMV became an idea to be mocked, and designers turned to animated sequences instead, while bigger contemporary releases rely on motion-capped animations of famous actors in games instead of live-action video, as with the performances of Willem Dafoe and Ellen Page in Beyond: Two Souls.

In an interview with PC Gamer, Barlow justified his return to the technique by saying that there’s a simplicity to video now; the ubiquitous quality of our day-to-day interactions with video has moved what was once an innovation into a different sphere, a quality he relied on to promote players’ connection with the narrative in Her Story:

There’s something about interacting with the "reality" of video that is more intimate, disarming. It’s everyday, whereas so much of video games is fantastical and special. There’s no barrier to empathizing with the fictional character on screen, the player is free to read the performance as if it’s just another human sat across from them. (Cobbett, 2015)

Barlow’s use of FMV becomes then just another, surprisingly simple, way to reshape the boundaries of what games can do, and how they can be built. Live-action footage is easier to create and incorporate than animation or motion-captured footage; no sprawling studio was required to make this game a reality.