No Story Without Rules

Her Story isn’t just a story but a game, even though it’s the narrative that is the game; that is, it isn’t the interface that will drive most players. Despite the hints and intricacies hidden beneath the surface of Her Story’s simplistic system, players will grasp all the game has to offer in terms of mechanics relatively quickly. What challenge is offered, then, what carrot is dangled before a player, beyond that of a narrative end? Debates about what is and isn’t a game may have grown tiresome over the years, but here it does seem prudent to interrogate Her Story’s very un-gamelike focus on narrative—its dramatic and emotional story, its female focus, its harmonious blend of story and mechanics, its lack of a fail state, even its use of live-action video. All of these qualities have been been decried at one time or another by scholars, pop culture critics, and players alike, but here each is an integral part of the game. There are many definitions of "game" that should exclude Her Story, and yet it is those game-defining frameworks that are part of what makes Her Story so unique and innovative. Whatever "rules" Her Story brushes against are broken; Barlow’s game acknowledges the boundaries and definitions, and promptly proceeds to transcend them.

The narrative, though, is at the forefront of Her Story and its inherent challenge to contemporary boundaries in gaming. Without the fragments of narrative and their connection to mechanics, Her Story doesn’t succeed. Many game scholars, such as theorist Jesper Juul and designer Raph Koster, have repeatedly interrogated the role of narrative within games. In Half-Real: Video Games between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds, Juul (2005) offered the following criteria for storytelling, within games and without: "fixed outcome, no player effort, no attachment" (p 44). Similarly, Koster (2005) fully separated traditional narrative from game narrative. In his Theory of Fun for Game Design, he laid out the distinctions in a series of comparisons intended to demonstrate differences between "story" and "game" (and, in doing so, creates a strict separation between the two):

  • ■ Games tend to be experiential teaching. Stories teach vicariously.
  • ■ Games are good at objectification. Stories are good at empathy.
  • ■ Games tend to quantize, reduce, and classify. Stories tend to blur, deepen, and make subtle distinctions.
  • ■ Games are external—they are about people’s actions. Stories (good ones, anyway) are internal—they are about people’s emotions and thoughts.
  • ■ Games are generators of player narratives. Stories provide a narrative. (Chapter 5)

But also in Chapter 5, and throughout, Koster put forth the notion that "games are about teaching underlying patterns, they train their players to ignore the fiction that wraps the patterns" (p. 80). The intimation here is that stories can’t do all that games can, and that games can’t just hinge on story. But Her Story, of course, is all about empathy, emotions, and patterns—patterns in clues, in clips, in dress and presentation of the main character at different moments. Her Story is, at its heart, about discovery and classification, as any good detective story should be on some level, and it’s for those reasons this game, despite working against those defining qualities and boundaries, successfully bridges the gaps between mechanics (game) and story set forth by Koster and Juul.

In Half-Real, Juul asks whether or not game rules and game-fiction can ever match, and if they even should, but little such dissonance is evident in Her Story; the mechanics of searching, watching, and interacting all fit the narrative situation as presented by the limited evidence available to players, and even the limitation of five video results per search seems in keeping with the old files, aging interface, and destroyed database in the background of the onscreen narrative. Juul framed "novice players" as struggling more with game worlds that do not match game rules than do more experienced players (p. 195), which may go a long way in explaining Her Story’s popularity with nontraditional players as well as self-identified gamers.

This opens potential for Her Story as an entryway title for new players and positions the game well for pedagogical use and wider study, as well. In the classroom, an accessible title such as this carries great potential for instructors: the search structure, for instance, can help prepare students for digital research, the ambiguous ending offers potential for discussions about how students’ experiences and backgrounds feed into the ways that they read a text, and the fragmented nature of the narrative can serve as an entry point for student discussions of the natures of narrative, symbol, theme, motif, structure, and character. Gee (2003), again on good games and how players enter them, said, "Good games… are crafted in ways that encourage and facilitate active and critical learning and thinking" (p. 46), and not only is Her Story a good game, but it’s a game rife with potential for facilitating critical thinking by its very nature: players must piece the story together to get anywhere at all. Thinking and engaging must occur for success, and the game is structured in such a way to encourage seasoned and new gamers alike to take immediate and active ownership of the narrative.

It is because Her Story is such an innovative title, breaking ground in the space between narrative and game, that it’s been a commercial success as well as critical, lauded as Game of the Year in 2015 by the mainstream gaming website Polygon, and has received or been nominated for a number of awards recognizing the game’s narrative, Seifert’s acting, and the overall direction. Creator Sam Barlow recently teased a follow-up title, hinted as an entirely new story, but despite the focus on and importance of narrative in Her Story, it may be game, rather than story, that sparks the most interest in a spiritual successor. Can Barlow produce another feat of innovation, continuing to stretch and expand the definition of games, all while bringing new audiences to the table, with an all-new title? And, if so, what might such innovation look like? What new definitions of games will this add? And how do such innovations impact the way we think about our roles as audience members and players? It seems that questions like these are what matter when considering a game like Her Story (and its forthcoming sequel), for such questions highlight the significant role that innovation—both narratively and mechanically—plays in the ways that games continue to be constructed.