Whose Story, Whose Role?

As a game that not only reshapes the boundaries of what games can do, Her Story also works to reshape how games tell stories. The questions we may ask ourselves as we play the game—whose story is it, what is the role we ourselves play in its telling—are only a few of those that drive the narrative of Her Story forward. And the narrative, the manner in which the game tells its story (or, rather, the manner in which it tells her story), matters a great deal. To be sure, the basic premise is seemingly simple: as we search through the game’s database interface, we watch through the recorded interviews of a woman named Hannah Smith (played by Viva Seifert), a woman whose husband Simon, she tells us, has gone missing, although we later come to find that Simon has, in fact, been murdered. As we piece more and more of the interview videos together, we come to understand what exactly has happened to Simon, what role Hannah played in his death, and who we are in relation to the events unfolding on the screen in front of us. Or, at least, we come to understand some of these things, for the game’s resolution is fairly open-ended and up to the interpretation of those playing it.

The structure of the game’s narrative—the manner in which it presents its story to us—helps to shape the ways we each interact with it and the ways we each put the narrative pieces together. This structure is one that relies on fragmentation, telling its story through a collection of short clips, each of which reveals only a small portion of the story. And, of course, the order in which we encounter these clips depends on the keywords for which we search and when we search for them, which thereby results in each player encountering these fragmented clips in different orders and sequences. Such a technique, it may be argued, seems to draw on postmodern literary conventions—namely, conventions such as fracturing, lack of a clear resolution, metanarrative musings on the processes involved in interpreting and solving a mystery, deconstruction of the police procedural genre, and an ability to make us question truth and knowing (and the fact versions of both may exist at the same time). As Linda Hutcheon (2002) argued in The Politics of Postmodernism, postmodern techniques such as these allow for "an exploration of the way in which narratives and images structure how we see ourselves and how we construct our notions of self, in the present and in the past" (p. 7). The fact that Her Story allows us to consider all these things affords us the agency of interpretation as we play, for it allows us to draw our own conclusions about its story; it allows us to explore the ways in which its narrative constructs the self.

This construction of the self seems especially important when considering, as the game’s title directs us to, the fact that this is her story and she is the one telling it. This focus on the narrative as being hers to tell has feminist implications regarding whose stories are often told (and who gets to tell them), whose stories construct the self, and whose modes of storytelling often become privileged. Thus, the feminist interrogation of a game like Her Story may allow us to, as Lorraine Code (2008) put it in her discussion of gender and knowledge production, unpack how it is that a game such as this produces "new scripts...that can unsettle and disrupt story lines that are apparently seamless, unable to admit of unexpected or novel twists in the plot" (p. 298). The fact that the storyline of Her Story is not seamless but is, rather, fractured and non-linear in presentation may, then, highlight the function of the game’s disruptive storytelling techniques as one that has the ability to enact a feminist project, one that complicates the normative ways stories are often told and the normative narratives conveyed through such tellings.

A screenshot from Her Story with the protagonist delivering testimony in an interrogation room.

Figure 6: The main character speaks in an interview.

Who tells the story of Her Story, then, also seems to matter in the way it is told. To be sure, Seifert’s role as the woman being interviewed drives much of our experience, for hers is, for the most part, the only face we see for the majority of the game. And her voice, certainly, is the only one we hear in the telling of the story surrounding Simon’s murder; indeed, we never see or hear Simon, just as we never see or hear the police who, we assume, are interviewing Hannah and asking her questions. Rather, all we see and hear are Hannah’s responses to the questions being posed. Or, more accurately, this is most of what we see and hear, for there is also the (fictional) glare of the screen, a glare that allows us to see the flickering of (fictional) fluorescent lights and the shadowy outline of the character that we, the players, occupy as the person navigating the database’s interface—an outline that, occasionally and briefly, gains clarity.

These modes of characterization matter because of the manner in which they work to affect those playing the game. To be sure, the very fact that we see Seifert for the duration of the game—the fact that the game makes use of recorded video files, or full motion video (FMV)—adds a different dimension to the way we engage with the game and with Seifert’s character, because it causes us to keep in mind the fact of her embodied role in the game. And the screen glare that allows us to see the character through which we play results in a similar awareness, for it enacts in us a metafictional introspection regarding our roles as players, as people interacting with the world of the game.

Thus, the narrative framework of the game is vital to the way we play it. From the database interface to the keyword-driven encounters with the fragmented video clips, from the FMV presentation to the screen glare, from our reflection in the screen to Seifert’s performance—we must put all these parts together to make sense of the whole. Having to do so causes us to take a more active part in the ways we engage with the game and its fragmented narrative components because it asks us, through such fragmentation, to question what it is we are viewing and interacting with, to think more deeply about it, and to understand what it is Her Story is trying to tell us. Our active role in all this allows us to become immersed in the story the game tells and in the part we play in its telling.