Disclaimer: Due to the nature of this game, this review will have some minor story spoilers.
Full motion video (FMV) games have been out of circulation for nearly 20 years. And even when titles of this genre such as Mad Dog McCree were widely available, they were nothing more than simple light-gun, rail based shooters. Games of this kind were simple entertainment, as they only required the person in control to aim and fire at selected targets when called upon. And, in all honesty, I’ve never expected more from such games. However, Sam Barlow’s newest creation made me swallow my words whole.
Sam Barlow’s Her Story, is nothing like the games of the days of yore. Not for a minute, does it try to feed you mindless entertainment, mainly because it is more than a simple video game. Unlike other story driven titles, it doesn’t assist you in any apparent way, in fact, the guidance that Her Story offers is minimal, if not nonexistent. However, it creates a sense of discovery that other writers and developers can only dream of.
Her Story places you in front of an open, but limited police database which only allows brings the attention to viewing clips of numerous police interviews carried out, with, at the time, nameless women. It allows you to save clips that you deem significant, and attach notes which may aid you in your further endeavors, as in order to progress, player’s need to search the library with the use of key words collected from other interview clips. At times, words such as “suspect” or “victim”, which are relevant to any police investigation, result in a recovery of a single clip. Whereas searches of a word such as ”glass” may present you with a dozen of clips. Even if player’s strike the proverbial gold, and find a keyword with 20 or more results, only five will be displayed at the time.
To many, this type of gameplay mechanic may seem trivial, as it resembles the simplest of Google searches. But once it’s put to the test, it unravels its true beauty. When working on the story, I quickly got lost amongst all the clues and, before all was lost, I grabbed a pen and a notepad and frantically wrote down everything I had learned so far. I started off by carefully writing down all the details that could have held some value, but as the story started to unravel, my neatly kept notes turned into a diary of a mad man. Sentences turned into phrases, phrases turned into words, and words quickly turned into abbreviations before becoming singular letters.
At the beginning, taking notes seemed extreme, even for me, since a crime thriller chronicled by a single person cannot possibly be complex enough, or detailed enough, to warrant that. But mere minutes into the story I realized that the on-screen character is not always the same person. I started having my doubts for the first time when she was discussing a bruise that her ”friend” has caused. Initially she pointed to the left side of her face, but when confronted about it later, she pointed to the right. At the start I thought ”Right, got your first lie.” But when I rewound the clips I noticed one difference, which revealed that while the on-screen character maintains her appearance throughout, she’s not always the same person. One had a tattoo on her left arm and the other one did not. And the simple story, have quickly turned into a tale of lies and deceit choreographed by a couple of life-time con artists.
The depth and complexity of Her Story’s plot is astounding, and can provide one with countless hours of profound entertainment. As each and every time, the path to the conclusion will be different for everyone who decides to indulge themselves within this masterpiece. You can stumble across the answer to the crime within the first hour, but by this time you’ve learned that Her Story is in fact, “their story”, and, just because you know the whys and whens, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you know the order to be at least partially certain, you have to involve yourself with hours of lifetime recollections, told from two entirely different perspectives, while writing down possible clues, disregarding lies, and simply withstanding the macabre nature of the story.
Interview clips vary in length. Some are as short as 2 seconds and feature a single word, and others are as long as two or three minutes. No matter how long or short the clip is it always adds to title’s intrigue. A 14-seconds-long monologue may give you a word which will allow you to conclude one of Her Story’s many subplots, and a four-minutes-long ballad my give you some needed guidance in choosing the right word out of the hundreds that you’ve written down in order to continue.
All of the clips use similar perspectives, which are also attached to character’s article of clothing. And initially you trust that the woman wearing the red jacket is the same person throughout the game. When sorting thorough childhood recollections of both characters, you’ll find that both used to attend same appointments, but one would always wait in the toilet and wait for her chance to swap. And the second she storms out during the police interview due to an emotional breakdown, she always returns shortly after. And when she does so, you can never be sure if it is the same person. And at that point you’re no longer just looking for clues, as now you also have to decode who you are dealing with simply by going through the information that you have noted down. And, at times, it can be extremely difficult.
The main plot of the game is in the very least, interesting, with numerous story-lines that are truly captivating. The shortest of stories from a characters’ past will give you some insight on the current events, as a single information on one’s behavior will put an entirely new spin on the murder mystery that the game is about. This will allow you to unravel the lie that both characters have lived for so many years, but most importantly, it will turn the initially simple main plot into a story like no other.
The past of both women, who will remain nameless for this review, is simply spectacular. The turns that both of their lives have taken will spark a multitude of distinct emotions within you. And they will not only come from the pure narration, but also from the physical performance. As actress Viva Seifert’s reenactment of the main and “only” role can be frightful, depressing, and at times even repulsive.
Her Story is the most captivating and intriguing game I’ve played this year. Its story, portrayal of the main characters, and nonlinear branching narrative, will all make you question your own competence. As in the end you’ll start doubting everything that the game throws at you, to a point where you might even doubt the existence of both characters. And this is because Her Story is all about your own personal reflection, and the game continues to play inside your head after the credits have rolled, as questions that remain are endless.