Her Story is the kind of game that demands you play it even when the game isn’t in front of you. It’s a small thing that starts out subtly and is almost harmless looking but soon reveals itself to be anything but innocuous.
You play someone searching a criminal records database housing footage from interviews with suspects. Your protagonist is seemingly obsessed, and chances are you probably will be too, with the 1994 case of a mysterious woman with black hair. She is, by turns, chatty and shy, bursting at the seams with stories to tell only to stop telling them halfway through in embarrassment. What’s she being interviewed for? What kind of crime happened? Is she a suspect? A victim? What the hell is going on here?
Your job is to use the database’s search engine to piece together the crime by searching with keywords. For example, maybe the woman says something pertinent about her childhood that clues you into her state of mind or motive—if you think she’s a criminal. You could type in “childhood” in the search engine to bring up any video where she says the word “childhood” or talks about it. More keywords lead to more videos, which leads to more context and a fuller story. You’re not just trying to answer the question of whodunit; you also have to figure out what the crime is and who the suspects are in the first place. You’re starting with literally nothing but a handful of videos to build context from, which is a fun premise that turns out to have a surprisingly good execution as players will have different pieces of the story given to them at different times depending on their search words. You could start in the middle, the beginning, the end. It all depends on what you type and what you watch and where you let it all lead you.
This is a lonesome, confessional game. The protagonist is alone somewhere, a basement with a flickering light bulb it seems, watching videos of a woman answering unsaid questions asked by unseen detectives. She often goes off on tangents about her childhood, leading us down memories of London and adolescence and jealousy and sex and death and joy. While playing, I opened a document to type down names of people she had been with, places she lived, her hobbies, people she hated. Soon the list of “clues” I had was huge but halfway through the game I quit taking down notes. I had almost completely stopped caring about the crime story aspect itself. Not because it was annoying or shoddily constructed or anything but, instead, because I wanted to know more about this woman’s life. So I paid more attention to what she was saying as a whole instead of searching for details that stuck out.
Her Story is more character study than good old-fashioned crime yarn. The immediately familiar clichés from Law and Order and CSI are quickly overtaken by the clever writing and the personality of the game’s central performer, the mysterious woman (played by Viva Seifert) we come to know through these videos. I still cared about solving the crime but only to the extent that it would reveal more about her as a person.
Even when I was away from the game I would think about how something the woman said about Bob Dylan might connect to something she said about her cat, which might lead to a vital clue (or not); I became obsessed with coming up with new search terms that would reveal more videos. This all might sound rather boring to you, but well, it isn’t. As easy as it might be to dismiss Her Story as a flimsy gamification of search engines and wiki-diving, the loop the game creates, rewarding you for searching for clues in the woman’s speech with more videos, is genuinely gripping in a sad horror novella kind of way.
There are some minor issues that can aggravate, especially if you try to play the game in a sitting or two. You have a database checker program that lets you know how close you are to having seen every video. Though you don’t need to watch every single one to piece together the story and solve the mystery—as several of the videos are humorous in nature or red herrings—those who want to unlock every one of them are in for a sloggy guessing game where they’re just typing in random words and phrases for hours on end. So beware, completionists, your journey is a long one filled with abject misery. For those who don’t need to scratch that particular itch, this won’t be an issue.
Her Story wants to be different from every other game out there and in that it succeeds. I can honestly say that I’ve never played anything like it. It’s not text adventure, it’s not something I would call an FMV game or a point & click. It’s in a genre all of its own and what a grubby, welcome little surprise it is.
Her Story was developed by Sam Barlow. It is available for PC, Mac and iOS.
Javy Gwaltney devotes his time to writing about these videogame things when he isn’t teaching or cobbling together a novel. You can follow the trail of pizza crumbs to his Twitter or his website.