Her Story, video game, box art, interview, police, lady

Review: Her Story

After interviewing the developer at Rezzed in March, Kim has spent some hands-on time with Her Story. Is it a worthwhile experience or just a tall tale?

Title overview   |   Initial impressions   |   Plot   |   Gameplay   |
Visuals and audio   |   Replay and innovation   |
Screenshots and videos   |   Final thoughts   |   Review round-up

Title overview

Name: Her Story
Developer: Sam Barlow
Publisher: Sam Barlow
Release date: June 2015
PEGI rating: Not listed
Platforms: iOS, Mac, PC
More information: Official website

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Initial impressions

After working on Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, Sam Barlow spent several years concentrating on an ambitious, big-budget epic which was ultimately cancelled mid-development. This gave him the push he needed to leave Climax Studios in 2014 and set up as an independent developer in order to tell, according to his website, ‘the types of stories that are neglected in the mainstream games industry’. The result is Her Story: an innovative crime-fiction game full of live-action video footage, that’s very much different from anything we’ve ever played before.

There was quite a bit of buzz around the title early this year and it was the subject of a number of articles from the major gaming journalism websites months before its release. When I discovered the developer would be showing off his project at the Rezzed event back in March, I persuaded the 1001Up lads to spend some time at the stand with me and we weren’t disappointed; in fact, we struggled to pull Phil away from Barlow’s area and he chose the title as his ‘best of’ for the expo. In his article he wrote: “This one could be classed as more of a casual crime adventure due to its design but it feels much more personal than that.”

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During the summer of 1994, Hannah Smith reported her husband Simon as missing to Portsmouth Police Station. Unlike other crime games, it’s not up to you to interrogate her, gather evidence or even insert yourself as a character into the narrative; instead, it’s a number of years after the event and you’re given access to the historical interview tapes. These are held as video clips in an archive database on an obsolete computer within the Homicide & Serious Crime department, and it’s up to you to use them to assemble the woman’s story and answer the question: did she murder Simon?

Each revelation manages to be effective despite each player discovering them in a unique, unplanned order.

As you unearth information, two separate timelines begin to take shape: the sequence of events in her life from her childhood to the disappearance of her husband, and the order in which the account was told to the police over twenty years ago. It’s extremely difficult to say anything more for fear of spoiling the title for other players as uncovering the plot yourself is one of its major highlights. But what I will say is that the revelations revealed throughout Her Story change the way in which you view everything heard before them; and what’s more amazing is that they manage to be effective despite each player discovering them in a unique, unplanned order.

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When we had the opportunity to interview developer Barlow at Rezzed, he told us: “This is a game in which you get to interact with a very old police database full of video footage. This footage is of police interviews with this woman talking about her husband over seven different interviews. Very simply as a player, you get to search through this database, sift through it, and uncover layers of story by looking at these different video clips.” You can take a look at the full interview here if you’re interested in hearing more.

At the start of the title you find yourself sitting in front of an old monitor, showing an open database with a search term of ‘MURDER’ already entered. Hitting enter pulls back a handful of video clips that set the mystery in motion and watching these inspires the player to search on other words also. For example, typing in ‘husband’ will return a clip in which the woman talks about meeting, marrying and fighting with her spouse; when she reveals his name, searching on this leads to another set of clips in which she mentions that he may have cheated on her; and this may then cause you to enter the word ‘cheat’ or ‘affair’ or ‘lie’.

Players need to listen carefully to what’s being said and use their intuition.

The mechanic is extremely easy to grasp and will instantly feel familiar to anyone who’s ever used Google to research a topic. However, it’s not as easy as you think. The database may be able to search on any word spoken during an interview but it only displays the first five results; so while entering generic words used in everyday conversations may return sixty results, you won’t be able to view all of them in one go. Players instead need to listen carefully to what’s being said and use their intuition: did the woman reveal a name that could be searched on? Did she mention a new location? Has she contradicted herself?

But you also need to pay attention to what displayed onscreen as the visual-element of the videos also reveals important clues. The clips are taken from seven different interviews and the woman’s appearance changes between each of them: in one she may be wearing a buttoned-up shirt compared to her previous low-cut blouse; in another she may now have her hair pulled up; and in one of the more unusual videos she’s singing a song while playing a guitar. There’s much more to her behaviour than initially meets the eye and due to the disconnected nature of the clips, it can be easy to miss the bigger picture.

The game itself is simple at first and typing in terms such as ‘Simon’ or ‘alibi’ pulls back a myriad of results, but it gets harder the further you progress. Towards the end of Her Story I found myself entering random words in a vain attempt to source as-yet-unwatched videos, indicated by a yellow eye icon, and such gameplay could frustrate some players. On the other hand however, it does encourage you to think like a detective at work and you have to get creative with word combinations, interpret actions onscreen into search terms, and see the connections between details revealed. You’ll likely end up with a page full of notes and stomach full of butterflies when you hit on a new clip.

The player has to come up with their own ideas about the questions asked, and thus their own interpretations of the woman’s answers.

The videos themselves are completely one-sided, in that they only display the woman’s responses and not the questions directed to her. This is cunningly explained in a readme.txt file on the monitor’s desktop: “I couldn’t find the server with the detective’s footage on – possibly those tapes got damaged when the old archives were flooded in ’97 – but figured this would be enough.” It’s a clever limitation to the gameplay which causes the player to come up with their own ideas about the questions asked during the interviews, and thus their own interpretations of the woman’s answers.

The title depends entirely on your curiosity. It’s possible to become stuck when a key phrase is forgotten and you’re left at a dead-end – something that could happen very easily if you’re not invested in the story or uncovering the truth. That being said though, there’s no ‘lose’ status and it’s entirely up to the player as to when the game ends, even if they haven’t yet watched all three-hundred video clips. Partway through you’ll see a chat pop-up appear on your monitor in which an unknown person asks whether you’ve seen enough. Answering ‘yes’ results causes the credits to roll and you’re able to go back in to search for fifteen clips at a time rather than the initial five. In effect, it’s up to you to decide when Her Story is finished.

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Visuals and audio

During my research on Her Story, I came across a forum where a number of players were complaining about how ‘clunky’ the mechanics were. I don’t entirely agree with their arguments: a database of video footage from 1994 on a PC over fifteen years old is going to have some limitations and these fit the gameplay style – and visuals – perfectly. Your screen is an obsolete monitor in which you can see the glare of overhead fluorescent lights, as well as your reflection when police sirens go past the window, and it’s a big part of the atmosphere.

Everything has been designed to feel old and fuzzy, and is infused with an unnerving sense of nostalgia.

The video clips themselves resemble VHS footage and flickers, scratches and visual glitches suggest they’ve been watched a number of times over the years in the search for truth. Everything has been designed to feel old and fuzzy, and is infused with an unnerving sense of nostalgia. It’s almost as if this is an old case file which hasn’t been touched in some time, full of long-forgotten intrigues and guilty ghosts, and you’re scared to touch it in case of what you might uncover.

Aside from the noise of your key-presses, the flickering of overhead lights and ambient background music, there’s no audio throughout Her Story other than the voice-acting from an excellent performance by Viva Seifert (actress and one half of the band Joe Gideon and the Shark). The omissions in her character’s answers are highlighted through small slips of the tongue, repeated phrases and awkward body movements, and each revelation will leave you switching between sympathising for the woman and hating her. There are some slightly uneven moments where it’s necessary for Seifert to repeat the content of a question whilst trying to sound as if she’s having a natural conversation. But when her character finally reveals the truth about her husband, the speech is delivered with such an unnerving calm that will cause the story to stay with you long after you’ve finished the game.

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Replay and innovation

There’s some incentive to uncover all of the interview clips and get the associated Steam achievements: a ‘tracker’ can be opened by double-clicking on an icon just behind the database window. This displays the videos you’ve already viewed as green squares so you know how many are still missing, but unfortunately it’s not possible to click on one of these to view the video in question. While this may add a small amount of replay value it won’t necessarily be enough to make players dive straight back in as the game’s charm hinges on its story. Once you’ve uncovered enough revelations to arrive at your own version of the ‘truth’, the feeling of mystery which was once so appealing is no longer there.

Barlow’s creation is like putting together a visual jigsaw puzzle in which one woman’s soul is laid bare.

But it’s that version of the truth which makes Her Story so innovative. Not only does it make use of a gameplay style we’ve never seen before, it does so in a way which makes every person’s playthrough unique. There’s no defined pathway through the narrative and the story is told differently depending on which keywords are entered: one player may find a clip in their first minute that another won’t see until their last hour. You’ll see something in a video which will leave you desperately searching for one viewed way back, and each revelation will make you question everything that has come before it along with your opinion of the woman being questioned. Barlow’s creation is like putting together a visual jigsaw puzzle in which one woman’s soul is laid bare.

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Screenshots and videos

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Final thoughts

So would I recommend Her Story for inclusion within future 1001 lists? It’s such a unique release that the answer has to be ‘yes’. An usual and intriguing storyline, a standout performance by Seifert, use of an original gameplay mechanic and an eerie sense of nostalgia result in a title that’s very likely to be one of the highlights of the year. I wouldn’t be surprised if Barlow’s first solo project earns him numerous awards and possibly spawns a new genre of video game (keep your eye on Steam Greenlight).

That being said however, it won’t be for everyone. Gamers who like a bit of action possibly won’t find much here to keep them interested for long and the possibility of uneven pacing – as a result of uncovering revelations early on or getting lost within a myriad of search terms – could lead to frustration. It also won’t appeal to those who like a definite conclusion as there’s no cutscene or explanation to explain what you’ve seen, even if you manage to unlock all three-hundred video clips.

Her Story is a remarkable and progressive game despite its faults.

But if you like narrative-based releases with simple gameplay mechanics, Her Story is definitely worth picking up. It’s a remarkable and progressive game despite its faults and is sure to inspire many discussions amongst its players – no two of whom will have shared exactly the same experience.

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Review round-up

Reviewed: PC
Source: We purchased the game from Steam for £4.99
Positive: An intriguing story communicated through a unique and inventive gameplay mechanic
Negative: The ability to uncover revelations early on could result in uneven pacing for some players
Score: 42 out of 60
Grade: Worth a look
Her Story, video game, review, graph, Worth a look

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