Her Story Review
On its base level, Her Story follows a murder investigation which took place in the 90’s. In the game’s canon, the hundreds of interrogation videos of the victim’s wife were transferred from VHS to a computer and systematically logged with subtitles. As the player, what you’re looking at is an old PC desktop- a pretty satisfyingly well-rendered Windows 95-esque OS- and you’re tasked with looking through the police database to figure out what happened in this cold case. To say literally anything more about the story is a huge disservice to the game itself, as it lives and dies by its narrative, but suffice it to say that things get pretty interesting from the word ‘go.’
Where Her Story truly shines is in its mechanics- because every clip is archived with subtitles, your mode of interaction starts and ends with a search bar. For one reason or another, you can’t access the full list of videos in chronological order, but any word you search will bring up every video in which the woman said that specific thing. You can’t access more than the first 5 results however, so searching general words like “he” or the victim’s name won’t get you very far without narrowing your parameters.
Because of the way the gameplay works, Her Story conveys its plot in an extremely engaging way. Imagine reading a mystery novel and skipping to the end after reading a few pages, then reading the middle, and later reading part of the beginning again- it would be completely spoiled. That’s what you’re doing for this entire game however, and it’s really a marvel that developer Sam Barlow was able to hide the actual meat of this story throughout its chronology, without having sections from the “end” of the investigation ruin the parts in the “middle.” You’ll constantly think you have a handle on what’s going on, but there always seems to be something deeper to find.
Viva Seifert embodies the main character in a shockingly subtle and vulnerable performance. If you’re a film guy like me, this game is an invaluable exercise in direction, character motivation and continuity, as our leading lady weaves through different emotional arcs and gives off tells just subtle enough to make you whip out your notepad. “She’s spinning her wedding ring around on her finger,” you might say. “Does that mean something here? Let me cross-check that with this clip of her tapping the desk strangely, and that reminds me- I should watch that one with the coffee cup again…” A few minutes into the game I was already jotting down phrases and keywords, and by the end my computer desk was a mess of sticky notes, complete with arrows pointing to different words and events- I probably looked like a serial killer to anyone who saw me hunched over my makeshift detective station.
I did have a few minor issues with the game- for one, there is a more typical sort of “video gamey” thing that happens every now and then, which seems out of place here. To say what it is would be spoiling some of the surprise, but suffice it to say I would have preferred if the developer left this particular aspect of the mystery solving process alone, without editorializing. Also, while this game is very much more about the journey than the destination, if you’re trying to unlock every possible video you can hit a pretty steep wall near the final hour or so.
You could play this game to the end and still completely miss huge sections- not because you didn’t see them, but because you watched them and failed to understand them. This is a game about actual intelligence, and actual deduction- not a series of stats and dice rolls. It’s incredibly rewarding to know that the buck stops with you- you’re not just along for the ride while the game solves its mystery for you. Her Story has opened up an avenue of video game interaction that I had never previously considered, and I can’t wait to see how its mechanics benefit the medium in the years to come.
Her Story / Sam Barlow / June 24, 2015
This review was conducted on the PC version of the game.
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