As a lifelong console gamer, I completely missed the FMV gaming boom on PC in the late 80’s and early 90’s. Even now that I infrequently dabble on Steam, it’s just not something I’ve had the desire to revisit. After gaining a lot of notoriety at The Game Awards however, I felt compelled to pick up and play Sam Barlow’s Her Story. Not just as a fan of his criminally underrated Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, but also to see what made this style of game so appealing.
Her Story’s hook is using an in-game police database to view a bunch of tiny video snippets featuring a woman interviewed seven different times in 1994, concerning her husband, Simon. You begin staring at a grainy monitor with one keyword: murder. After viewing each of the videos, you take notes and use the search engine to find more of them that continue to explain the situation at hand. The series of videos all have different dates, the woman is wearing different clothing, and you use these clues to play virtual detective as you get to the bottom of Simon’s disappearance. It’s basically like solving a crime using only Google and YouTube, and somehow it’s excellent.
“It’s a mind boggling cluster of events that’s not only believable, but had me furiously typing keywords in to the database until 3am.”
The game’s sole actress, Viva Seifert, is utterly brilliant. Her use of visual queues, her change in emotions through a use of various vocal tones, it’s all totally believable. Never once did I feel like I was watching scripted events, but rather an episode of First 48 on TV. I haven’t witnessed a single actor or actress carry an entire game, especially one so rooted in narrative, since Gone Home, and even then I wouldn’t compare the two. Her Story requires a lot of detective work to uncover all 100 video segments in order to piece the entire story together, so not only do you have this incredibly thought provoking game in front of you, but one that’s brilliantly voiced and acted out by a lone actress.
As the story began to piece itself together, I found myself wishing I had taken notes with a pen and paper. Each clip has the option to add manual tags or save them for later use, but there was so much I would forget, like time stamps, verbal clues, or codes. As soon as I thought I had it all figured out, more clues emerged and new keywords led to even more clips to watch and decipher. It’s a mind boggling cluster of events that’s not only believable, but had me furiously typing keywords in to the database until 3am. I could barely keep my eyes open, but I had to know what happened.
Once half of the videos were uncovered, I was given the option to log out and finish the game. There was so much left to discover, so I found it odd that Sam Barlow would want me to roll the credits without knowing the full account of Simon’s disappearance. Finding all 100 videos takes a lot of guess work, and we’re talking hours if you aren’t taking written notes, so it’s understandable that some would eventually lose interest and call it quits to play something else. Not me, though. I hadn’t played anything like it before, and I wasn’t about to leave any stone unturned. I was fully invested in this seemingly minimalistic idea of solving a crime using nothing more than a bunch of video clips and a police database. Whose reflection was I seeing in the monitor? Am I relevant to the story? Why? Why?! WHY?!
I also feel that quitting out before discovering all of the videos is going to cause less of an impact for those invested in Her Story. This is a double edged sword, since anyone “beating” the game without full knowledge of the events are probably going to leave unsatisfied, but the keywords required to find each video aren’t always in plain sight. There were moments where I was at a dead end, even while taking notes. I wanted badly to look up a walkthrough to see what I missed, what clue I’d overlooked, but I didn’t want to ruin the experience. Call it stubborn, but after 4 hours or so I unlocked the final video and was blown away by the overall realization of what in the fuck had just happened.
“…it’s easy to see why it earned so much praise at The Game Awards this year.”
Some of the plot is open to interpretation, which is great, and this has caused a stir in the community as to what truly happened to Simon. Days after finishing the game, I still found myself skimming through theories on the Steam forums, Reddit, and the comment sections of other gaming websites. This is rare for me. Usually when I finish a game, I’m done. Her Story, however, still lingers in the back of my mind, and it’s easy to see why it earned so much praise at The Game Awards this year. Viva Seifert is a phenomenal actress, Sam Barlow is a master storyteller, and the two in tandem make Her Story one of the single greatest gaming experiences of 2015. Hands down.
*So where’s the final score? There isn’t one. I did spend a lot of time conveying my opinion in the above text, and I hope that’s worth more to you than some arbitrary number or a sequence of shaded in star shapes. Basically, I’m not a fan of scores so I no longer use them. Read the review and judge for yourself if it’s worth playing.
*This review was done using a copy of Her Story that I purchased myself on Steam for $5.99. Interested? Pick it up on Steam right here. You can also follow Sam Barlow and Viva Seifert on Twitter, if you feel so inclined.