Her Story is a game by Sam Barlow.
First, a quick apology to anyone who expected reviews of Ectocomp 2019 which I promised I would write — it wasn’t that I forgot about it but that I’ve had too much to read this year. (I still do, in fact — it’s definitely true that the more you read, the more you discover how much there is to read.) I may get down to playing and reviewing the games eventually, maybe after this series of reviews of games that are currently on sale. First in line: Her Story, currently 90% off on Steam.
Gameplay involves searching for key words or names and watching the interview clips that surface as relevant search results, in which any new information mentioned by the interviewee opens up exponentially greater search possibilities and areas of investigation. It’s very much like a parser in this sense, except that while parsers generally include elements of gameplay that involve other actions besides examining objects, here examination is the predominant mode of progression. (Caleb Wilson’s Lime Ergot comes to mind — each response gives the player something new to examine, which in turn gives another thing, and so on.) But whereas parsers respond with paragraphs of text that the player is allowed to read as quickly or as slowly as he pleases, here feedback takes the form of second, sometimes minute-long clips which play at a fixed, unadjustable rate, the passivity of which made me grow increasingly impatient. As mentioned, the game attempted to negate this by limiting the length of the clips to a maximum of two minutes, which nonetheless felt like an aeon compared to the amount of information I was eager to look up and learn more about. This was particularly as the game spoon-feeds much of this information instead of requiring the player to puzzle out what to do next; the fact that commands are limited to things to search rather than things to do, as in a parser, already simplifies gameplay greatly. In a parser the player is limited by his reading speed, his typing speed and the speed at which he figures out what to do next; here, because videos cannot be fast-forwarded, reading speed, or in this case processing speed, is greatly reduced, while solving speed, by contrast, is greatly enhanced, on account of the sheer number of synonyms and similar-meaning expressions that can substitute for any one concept. Upon learning of the murder, for instance, I thought of “crime”, “judge”, “lawyer”, “alibi”, “prison”, “sentence”, “guilt” — words in the lexical field of crime, in other words. The result is not merely inconvenience but something that directly affects gameplay, since the long intervals between new searches make it harder to retain the list of things to look up next. It might have helped if there was some kind of notepad application that could be accessed as the clip played; the search history was useful but insufficient in my opinion.
On the other hand, for games like this that involve databases, an excess of information is preferable to a dearth of it, and when three or more clips showed up after a query I felt both rewarded (in that my query was successful) and punished (in that I would have to watch all of these clips). In terms of pacing and delivery, I think the game did a commendable job — enough ideas recurred that I could keep track of the story without growing bored of their repetitiveness, with just the right balance between clarifications of who each character is (Eric, for instance, is explicitly given to be the boss) and explanations of their actions. In this respect, the non-linearity of the game was instrumental — introducing the reader to the story, its characters and their background is something all fiction, static or interactive, has to overcome, and choosing to confront this barrier by addressing it head-on — as is implicit in the interview clips, which the player immediately understands are incomplete fragments of a narrative — can be an effective way of overcoming it, precisely because it is framed as a conspiracy theory-like story with questions at its core. Holes and gaps are invitations to the player to fill them in, rather than instances of neglect to be lamented. The player starts with nothing and tries to form something: that is the premise of the game.
Of course, leaving the player to find his own answers can easily be construed as a sign of laziness, and this the game recognises. After watching a certain number of videos, the game prompts the player with a dialogue box that asks if he is done, a clear compromise between giving the game some form of closure and staying true to its open-ended, exploratory nature. I personally like this — games don’t have the physical constraints that books have, where the end of the book is the end of the story, and so an ambiguous ‘ending’ is harder to accomplish — the player isn’t sure if the lack of an ending is intentional, and if he needs to do something else to advance. Provided this uncertainty isn’t the goal, a prompt of some kind is necessary to signal to the player that he has attained an end state — finished the bulk of the game, although there may be things yet unseen. In Her Story, however, the prompt takes the form of two questions: whether the player is satisfied with his investigation, and whether he thinks he understands the events that transpired. This latter question, in my opinion, leaves much to be desired — on one hand, it demonstrates the game’s concern for the player’s understanding of the story, and thus reinforces the player’s sense of achievement; on the other, it tells the player that the narrative he painstakingly constructs is only significant in a yes-or-no question that takes mere seconds to answer, and that he can easily give a false reply to. It calls attention to the triviality of the reply, and by extension the triviality of the achievement; the inability to elaborate is made worse by the fact that it’s meant to be an open-ended game.
I don’t have much to say about the acting except that I found it natural and compelling. A major obstacle to my suspension of disbelief, however, was the fact that in nearly all the clips there was only one person, the interviewee, talking. The presence of the interviewer is suggested by the interviewee’s speeches, most of which appear to be responses rather than monologues, and there was a clip in which someone, presumably the interviewer, clearly applauded at the end of the interviewee’s guitar performance, but otherwise there was no evidence that anyone but the interviewee was in the room. It seems unlikely that this is key to the mystery, and I found it a bit of a stretch that the interviewer volunteered no aid whatsoever, not even backchanneling noises, while the interviewee went on for minutes at times.
ICE CREAM FLAVOUR: Caramel. Golden brown and tempting throughout, though slightly tedious towards the end.