Perhaps it’s naivety, but it never ceases to amaze me what can be achieved in a game made by one person. It feels churlish, perhaps even slightly dismissive-sounding to start by saying that, because there’s a really high chance that because Her Story is so much Sam Barlow’s baby that is a large key to its success. I spoke to him this year at length about the game, and couldn’t get him to reveal secrets. But we discussed the idea of him pitching his game to publishers, and, well, it just wasn’t going to work, was it? A game that, by rights, should annoy me no end: it tells you nothing, plonks you in front of a virtual keyboard and lets you work out what’s going on, without ever really nudging you in the right direction.
Immediately there’s a bond between player and game. “I’m sat at a keyboard in front of a screen, and that’s exactly what I’m doing in this game”. There’s the glare of the overhead lights in this obviously 90s setting, with a horrible, almost warped CRT monitor that takes you back to the time where we needed eye protection, such was the poor quality of computer screens. It plays on nostalgia, sure, but it wouldn’t work if there wasn’t a hook, and by Christ, it’s one that’s going to be copied.
Mystery games that task you with being the detective aren’t new, but ones that actually let you uncover the story, and find out what the hell is going on, without outside distractions and “gamey” mechanics that are designed to compel you? Now that’s rare. Few developers have such courage in their story-telling, few have the conviction to say “this is it”, and leave you to it. And it works. It really, really works.
Slowly but surely you ebb away at the narrative walls. The facts cascade as quickly as the lies and red herrings, and you’ll need a notebook to keep track of it all. Scribbles in your hastily written handwriting; lists of keywords and ideas, a palpable sense of excitement, one that’s initially not too far removed from the awkward feeling that you get from that hugely popular podcast, Serial. Indeed, the case of Adnan Syed has parallels here, because as you first begin to listen to that, your own ignorance makes you wonder if it’s real or not. Is Her Story a true story, re-purposed as a video game? At first, many posited the same theory for Serial, until ignorance gave way to research – a desire to know the truth. Such was the popularity of that show that it made lots of people become armchair detectives themselves.
But going into Her Story, by now most will be aware it’s not real. The confusion only arises because of how well it’s sold. Viva Siefert’s playing of two parts of the same person, or twins, or whatever your theory may be, is masterful. Her impassioned monologues, the hurt behind her eyes, and her confusion – she completely delivers on a believable performance; so much so that when you find your end, you wonder for days if your theory is the right one. Sam wouldn’t tell me, but I’m convinced it was split-personality disorder. You probably aren’t with me there, and that’s the true magic.
But Her Story is successful because it doesn’t commit the cardinal sin of not giving you anything to cling to. Many games will go for mystery, and leave the ending entirely open, frustrating and annoying us as we close the window and return to our lives. No, Her Story gives us “an” ending, at least. While the arc of the on-screen character(s) is open to interpretation, the finale, as you log out accepting what you’ve learned, is not black and white: all this time, you’ve not been playing yourself, you’ve been playing as someone related to “her”. It’s a gut-wrenching moment that lends weight to something you might otherwise move on from sooner. This matters. It fucking matters.
Then the screen flickers as you close down your PC, away to your own real life. Thoughts buzzing through your mind. Did I understand it? Did I find enough to make sense of what happened? It’s a magical moment that leaves you tingling, but like the very best stories, it stays with you. It makes your ring your friends and discuss theories. It makes you use Google to find further reading. Her Story is unique, magical, and as fulfilling as it is compelling. The fact it’s on iOS devices as well as PC means you’ve absolutely no excuse no to try it. If you have even a slight care for story in video games, then you owe it to yourself to play Her Story, truly one of the best games of 2015.