If you had walked in on me playing Her Story over the past few days, you may not have realized I was playing a game at all. My play sessions — which consisted mostly of sifting through menus and scribbling in an old notebook — more closely resembled doing homework than playing a PC game. And in many ways, Her Story, which firmly refuses to divulge its secrets to gamers, does feels like work. That said, if you put in the time you will be rewarded with one of this year’s most unique interactive experiences.
At its core, Her Story it is a mystery game. To avoid spoilers I’ll just say that the game tasks you with scouring a police database for interviews and information pertaining to a specific crime. As a result, the gameplay isn’t all that different from searching through your own hard drive: You type a keyword into the search bar to find all clips containing that word, limited to the first five to keep you from seeing everything with one term. You can tag and save clips you think are important, though I personally found a notebook to be more useful. A word is preloaded into the search to get you started, but if you feel lost, the documents on the desktop will point you in the right direction.
Then come the interviews.
The personal narrative driving Her Story in the form of interviews is the game’s most notable feature. Every clip is a full motion video, meaning actual video is used rather than computer-generated graphics. The interview subject, and the game’s only actor, is a young woman played by Viva Seifert. While the story was written by developer Sam Barlow, the delivery rests on her shoulders. Fortunately, her performance is superb, and so natural you might just forget you’re delving through fictional testimony.
Your experience with the game relies entirely on your own ambition, which is the game’s greatest strength and weakness. Because the story is experienced non-linearly, as you scour through various records and clips, each player’s experience will be unique. Maybe your first few searches will yield huge chunks of story. Then an hour might pass with very little new information. The longer you dig, the closer you will come to seeing the whole picture.
Each new detail will add to your patchwork mental timeline, and each new character presents fresh opportunities for new information. Players will quickly begin to notice inconsistencies in the story, and pick up on strange character quirks. The story has a few big secrets for you to uncover, but sadly I think Her Story shows its hand a little too strongly in some scenes. No one moment reveals all, but some of the more blunt hints will steal away some of the player’s sense of accomplishment.
I experienced various highs and lows during my five hours with the game. Early on, I discovered many detailed clips. Each big reveal sent a chill down my spine, redoubling my interest in the story. However, as time went on, these moments became few and far between. I found myself struggling to find new and exciting clips at around the 60% completion mark, yet still feeling confident in my interpretation of the events.
Eventually, you are offered the option to end your investigation, at which point the story unveils its final twist. While this twist is admittedly a little limp, it at least offers some closure to an otherwise cryptic story.
Afterwards the credits roll, which would signal the end for most games. But in Her Story’s case, the story has only begun. The game’s cryptic narrative takes on new life outside the game, among the fans. Each will walk away with their own interpretation, meant to be shared and compared to the experiences of others. It’s this collection of stories that represents Her Story’s shining achievement: Straightforward plots are nice, but there is nothing more special than a theory that is all your own.
Developer: Sam Barlow
Platforms: PC, Mac, iPhone, iPad
Price: $5.99 (PC, Mac) $4.99 (iOS)