Friday! Video games! Let’s talk!
Steam’s annual Summer Sale kicked off this afternoon, discounting thousands of games across their digital marketplace. This is typically the only time I invest heavily into PC gaming, and this year has been no different.
Horror games are notorious for offering copious amounts of gore, relentless waves of zombies, and intense jump-scares, but few have managed to delve in to the human psyche and deliver a nightmarish atmosphere quite like Silent Hill.
The once glorious franchise tackled sensitive subjects like sexual frustration, uxoricide, and religion, while mastering the art of atmospheric storytelling and brilliant use of musical cues. Akira Yamaoka’s iconically dark, yet strangely beautiful composition elevated the genre to new heights, as it wormed its way in to the player’s ear while they traversed the uneasy browns and reds of the fog-ridden town of Silent Hill.
It’s been so long since a game has managed to capture the same unsettling atmosphere and cryptic nature of Konami’s horror-turned-pachinko-machine series, but Hailstorm Games’ Claire: Extended Cut is about as close as anyone’s managed to get in nearly 13 years.
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.
If you’re an adult and you’ve ever lived on your own before, you probably know that feeling you get when you come back to visit your family and see that life has moved along without you. Your siblings have grown up, your parents’ relationship may be different, or maybe things just aren’t how you remember them.
I moved away from home at 18, but I could still draw you a map or describe every single room in that house, all the way down to the most minute detail. Whenever I’d go back to visit my parents, I’d open the door to my old room and still imagine it littered wall-to-wall with Korn, Coal Chamber, and Marilyn Manson posters, Playstation games alphabetically ordered along my shelf, crumpled pages of practice graffiti smothering my art desk, and a stack of old horror VHS tapes a mile high, all covered in a thin layer of dust.
With all of the good memories also come the ones from the darkest period of my entire life; from the relentless bullying in school to the rocky, hopeless relationship I had with my dad at the time (that has since been repaired, thankfully). It’s weird how just thinking about a home can draw in all of these memories, but they’re all things I was constantly reminded of while playing Gone Home.
When I started looking in to Gone Home, it was explained to me in its most basic form as a “dem feels game where you walk around your house, read notes, and your sister is gay”. Well, alrighty then.
As a heterosexual only child, I didn’t really feel like I was going to connect with Gone Home right off the bat. Imagine my surprise when, 2 hours later, I’m watching the credits roll and strongly considering it for my Game of the Year.
In Gone Home you play as Katie, the big sister who has just returned from her overseas travels and finds her parent’s house in shambles. Clearly the house appears to be lived in, but strangely everyone is missing. You’re given no background information in regards to their disappearance, no clues of what to do next, and the house is yours to explore from top to bottom in a first-person perspective.
You can open drawers, read notes, journals, old magazines, personal letters, and listen to the occasional mix-tapes left around by your younger sister Sam. See, in Gone Home, the story is a lot less about you and more about Sam’s common struggle of being a teenager; having parents that don’t understand you, feeling alienated from your peers for being different, wanting badly to be treated as an adult, watching your friends grow up and change–for better or worse–and, the most devious of emotions, love.
Exploring your home does not pose any form of threat, as there are no terrorists to shoot, no dragons to slay, no combos to learn, no hi-score to achieve. There’s no penalty for taking your time and exploring the mystery of your empty house and missing family. That’s all there is to it.
In the end, what makes a game a game is going to vary from person to person, and I completely agree with the Destructoid review of Gone Home where they claim that it’s “not a game for everyone.” If you need more action in your games, more complex mechanics or a central focus on the main character, Gone Home is definitely not for you. It’s what the internet ignorantly refers to as a walking simulator, but it’s much more than that. It’s a narrative experience. It’s a story as good as any coming of age novel. It’s relatable. Whether or not it’s a game is up to you, but it’s truly one of the most memorable experiences I’ve had in a long, long time.
As I sit here writing this review, I can vividly remember exploring the home, learning about Sam’s personal struggles, her love of Street Fighter, listening to her mix-tapes spanning the Riot Grrrl movement of the mid-90’s, and reading her ghost hunting diaries and various short stories about Captain Allegra and her “first mate”.
Few full-length games deliver such a strong narrative, so the fact that Gone Home is roughly 2 hours long doesn’t bother me at all. It’s the same length as most modern films, or a few episodes of a television show, which also exist to tell a story. I liked that uncovering the mystery was left up to the player, and it reminded me of Bioshock’s Rapture; discovering and listening to recordings, finding letters, and uncovering the lore yourself.
My initial interest in Gone Home was non-existent, but eventually my curiosity got the best of me and I’m glad it did. I stand by the game (if you agree with calling it one) based on its stellar narrative, solid voice acting, and letting the player uncover everything by their own free will. I feel that Sam’s story, however similar it may or may not be to how you felt as a teenager, is something that we can all relate to on some level.
Gone Home is not a cinematic experience and doesn’t try anything fancy with its bare-bones gameplay, but developer Fullbright’s apparent knack for storytelling definitely paid off. It may be short, it’s not too pretty, and it’s lacking the action that so many crave in their games, but, in my opinion, Gone Home is definitely worth playing and ended up being the biggest surprise of 2013.