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Her Story - title

In a Nutshell

WHAT I LIKE

  • Completely novel concept
  • Script leaves an excellent trail of breadcrumbs
  • Driven entirely by player's curiosity and deduction

WHAT I DON'T LIKE

  • Peters out mid-way through
  • Maybe lacks clear-cut answers to certain questions

Overall Impression : B+
The progenitor of a new genre?

Her Story - cover

Developer:
Sam Barlow

Platforms:
PC (via Steam)

MSRP: $10 USD

Original release date:
24 June 2015

Genre:
mystery

ESRB Rating: N/A

Player(s):
single player

Official site:
www.herstorygame.com/

Having a little bit of free time between playing Madden 20 and starting out this year's indie football games, I checked out a couple indie games that I've had sitting around in my Steam library for months. Both are player-driven mystery games about trying to deduce the events of the past. The simpler of the two is called Her Story, which is a game that released all the way back in 2015. So I'm quite a few years late to this party.

Her Story attracted my attention because it was developed by Sam Barlow. Barlow had previously worked as a writer for Silent Hill: Origins and Silent Hill: Shattered Memories. Personally, I felt he and the other writers at Climax had butchered Origins. His work on Shattered Memories, however, which was not bound by the constraints of established Silent Hill canon, went in a more interesting direction. Maybe not as interesting as if they had gone with the initial Cold Heart pitch, but whatever. I was curious to see what Barlow would do when completely free of the Silent Hill namesake.

I was curious how Sam Barlow would handle himself when free of the Silent Hill namesake.

Down the deductive rabbit hole

Her Story stands out because it is a completely player-driven experience. You have almost free access to a database of interview answers from a woman who is a suspect in the disappearance (and murder) of her husband. The game consists of searching through a series of live-action videos of interview questions, in which every word of her answers have been indexed for search. The catch is that you can't simply watch all the clips in order, and the game will only give you (at most) the first five clips at a time (in chronological order). You also don't know what questions are being asked, so you don't necessarily have the context for her responses.

Each response is laden with bread crumbs of keywords that you can pick out and search in subsequent queries in order to find related videos and discover additional details about the suspect's life, the victim's life, and the events leading up to the disappearance of her husband. This is where Her Story really shines. The game starts with the word "murder" in the search bar, and each clip that you watch will reveal new names and places. This should lead you towards going down the rabbit hole of searching for each new name or place until you eventually come to the weirder and more interesting testimony.The scripts is expertly designed to distribute bread crumbs in such a way to dole out the story over the first hour or two in order to build up the mystery.

Pick out key words from her testimony to find related statements.

There's also no hand-holding or guidance of any kind. It's just you and the search engine. It's entirely up to the player to input the words you want to search for. You can follow-up on a particular clip by searching for a keyword in her response, or you can search for some completely different, random word(s) instead. The game doesn't highlight the next words for you to search. It doesn't stop to tell you that you've "solved" some mystery or completed some objective. There's a widget that shows you how much of the database you've viewed, but other than that, there is no in-game progress-tracker. In fact, there's not even a real end goal.

But that doesn't mean that the game lacks other ways to help you keep track of pertinent information. The costumes and set changes do a great job of reminding you when a particular clip occurred relative to others, without having to necessarily look at the time codes. You can also save clips that you think might be important, so that you can reference them later.

You can even add your own custom tags to each clip if you want to link clips about the same subject, but which don't necessarily use the same keywords. For example, I stumbled upon her answers to a lie detector test. Each answer was a separate clip (often with a one-word answer). Since none of those clips contained the word "lie detector", I typed "lie detector" as a custom tag, so that I could always find them again if I wanted to reference them.

You can add custom tags to link videos that don't have the same words in their script.

Am I done?

This openness also means that Her Story is kind of directionless and meandering at times. In fact, it's similar to a walking simulator, except that Barlow has actually stripped out the walking part! As such, Her Story is the kind of game that certain audiences would complain "isn't really a game".

That isn't a problem to me, per se. I don't mind walking simulators when they are good. Gone Home, What Remains of Edith Finch, and Firewatch stand out as gold standards of the genre; while games like Dear Esther, Ether One, and Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs fell flat for me.

One problem with Her Story is that it kind of ran out of steam long before I had uncovered the entire database. By about halfway through, I thought I had a pretty good grasp on what was going on. A message even popped up asking me if I was finished. But I couldn't be sure. I had just finished my first playthrough of Return of the Obra Dinn (review incoming) and failed spectacularly because I had figured the game would let me finish solving the mystery after I'd left the ship. I was wrong, and got a "bad" ending. I didn't want to make the same mistake in Her Story.

I thought I had a clear idea of what was going on by the time I was about halfway through the database.

I was also torn between two possible interpretations of the events, so I continued to dig through the database for the dwindling number of unseen video clips. I wasn't sure if there were more important revelations hidden somewhere in that database, and without a clearly-stated goal or objective, I wasn't sure if I had actually "beaten" the game. The player's identity and why you are interested in her story is implied to be important (and possibly a plot twist), so I wasn't sure if was supposed to keep playing in order to find some other big reveal. So I just went through the motions for another hour before backing up my save file and deciding to just end the game -- figuring that I could save scum and resume playing if I did, in fact, get a "bad" ending.

Without trying to spoil anything, I did not get a bad ending. There isn't really a bad ending to be given. The whole point is that you are free to walk away whenever you are satisfied that you comprehend what happened.

One of my problems with Sam Barlow as a writer (going back to his Silent Hill games) is that he seems to have a habit of leaving things unnecessarily ambiguous. I wanted to keep searching for more clips to try to answer the one big nagging question that I had, but none of the clips that I found concretely answered it. So even though I get the gist of what happened, I'm still torn two interpretations. And these interpretations make a pretty big deal, because which one is correct determines whether or not the actual suspect (whoever it turns out to be) should be held responsible or not. Whichever way I lean, there's testimony in the game that seems to contradict that conclusion. I'm not entirely sure that Barlow has a singular answer to these questions, or if the game is deliberately designed to be open to interpretation.

[SHOW SPOILER] [HIDE SPOILER]

I am currently torn as to whether Hannah and Eve are twin sisters, or that they are the same person with dissociative identity disorder (formerly known as "multiple personality disorder", and often falsely characterized as schizophrenia). Certain testimony definitely gives the impression that Hannah and Eve were in two different places at different times. I also find it highly unlikely that Simon could have been married to Hannah for ten years and not have known she had multiple personalities. So all that makes me lean towards Hannah and Eve being twin sisters who were separated at birth.

Eve talks about swapping places with Hannah, somehow without Hannah's parents ever knowing Eve exists.

But then there's other stories from Hannah in particular that make me question this. The stories about her childhood are weird and incredulous. She talks about her and Hanna switching places and Hannah's parents being unaware that Eve was present. Wouldn't Eve's parents have known that Hannah's mother had given birth to an identical twin who was living across the street? Did I miss a video clip that would answer this? This sort of stuff suggests that Eve was an alternate personality, that the two personalities knew about each other, and that they deliberately pretended to be each other.

There is also one clip in particular in which Hannah puts her head on the desk and begins tapping the same tap code that Eve demonstrates in a later interview. Hannah taps one part of the code with her right hand, and then seems to tap out the response with her left hand, as if she is communicating to herself (or more accurately, talking to Eve inside her own head).

Hannah taps out a code with her right hand, and a response with her left hand.

And then there's the question of whether the police interviewing her knew whether Hannah and Eve were two different people. If so, was Eve pretending to be Hannah in interviews? Did the police not know that Eve wasn't Hannah until the lie-detector test? How did they find out about Eve? Are there other witnesses who identified Eve? The more I think about it, the less sense it all makes.

I definitely get the impression that the "twin sister". explanation is the intended answer, and the "multiple personality" thing is a deliberate red herring. The game seems to be designed to steer the player through a triple plot twist. Of course, not everybody is going to get all of the twists, because any player might jump to the final twist right away. But my stream of thought went something like this:

  • "Seems like Hannah killed Simon because he was having an affair. It can't be that simple though..."
  • "Was he having an affair with this 'Eve' woman? Did he get her pregnant? Maybe Eve killed him because he was going to abandon her and the baby to go back to Hannah?"
  • "Wait,... are Eve and Hannah the same person? These later interviews seem like a totally different person than the early interviews. Is this some kind of multiple personality thing?"
  • "Huh? Are Eve and Hannah actually two separate people (twins)? If so, Eve seems mentally and emotionally disturbed..."

And then I went back and forth between the "twins" and "multiple personality" explanations for the remainder of my play time, without ever really feeling like either makes complete sense. Maybe I wasn't paying close enough attention, and I missed the part where it all comes together. Or maybe it's hidden away in one of the two video clips that I was never able to unlock. Either way, I cannot reconcile these two interpretations, and I can't be sure if this is a fault of the writing, or of the player.

A captivating mystery, regardless of if you "get it" in the end

I guess, it doesn't really matter in the end. The game takes place like 20 years after the actual murder, so we (the player) aren't tasked with identifying the murderer or determining if the woman in the videos is innocent or guilty. Besides, Her Story is a highly experimental and unconventional game. It isn't the revelation that's important in Her Story, it's the player-driven journey to get there that really matters.

So yes, Her Story creates an intriguing little mystery for a short while, and it's worth playing for that. But keep in mind that it might drag a bit if you try to dig through to the end, and the resolution may not be entirely satisfying. Even though I'm not entirely sure that I got it all, I still had a good time trying to get it.

Curious players will find an hour or two worth of captivating mystery.

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