Genre: Visual Novel, Adventure
Release date: June 24, 2015
Editor's Note: This review contains minor spoilers
Her Story, created and released by Sam Barlow of Silent Hill fame, is one of those games that often has critics questioning whether it should be called a “game” at all. It’s closer, perhaps, to a visual novel or a movie viewed out of sequence. Whatever you call it, it’s an enjoyable, compact experience that probably won’t have you lying awake thinking about it weeks later but tells an engaging story in an unexpected way.
Since this game is nothing but plot, to speak at length would reveal too much of the experience, but the premise is straightforward. The game takes place entirely on the desktop of an old computer in a police station. You’ve been tasked with reviewing the videotaped testimony of a woman (played by actress Viva Seifert) being interviewed about the murder of her husband. Each of the seven interview sessions she gives are divided into more than two hundred short clips that represent the woman’s spoken answers to a detective’s questioning. You’ll never hear the detective’s side of the conversation, conveniently lost in an “archive flood” back in 1997, but this doesn’t deprive the game of anything and further contributes to the idea that this really is her story, a woman’s chance to relay her feelings and experiences without being overshadowed by anyone else.
Overall I found the story to be enjoyable and the acting serviceable, though at times a bit hammy, which I’m sure is a side-effect of the actress having no one to play off of. The plot sometimes falls prey to clichés (hard to avoid in a murder mystery), but these tropes don’t feel bothersome if you play the game in a compressed timespan. I highly recommend completing this three-to-four-hour title in one sitting or at least spread across just a couple of days; it won’t grab you as much otherwise.
The “gameplay” part of the Her Story experience involves using the right keyword searches to uncover the vast array of video clips in the database, all of which are floating just out of reach until you can guess a word from the video’s transcript. The game gives you one to start with: “MURDER.” This unlocks a few clips where you learn other facts to search for such as names and places and objects: “SIMON,” “KITCHEN,” “WALLET,” which unlock still more pieces of information that branch out into the narrative of a woman’s life, past and present. You’ll want to keep a running list of promising new words to search for as the testimony sprawls in too many directions to keep in your head, but by following the natural narrative that unwinds, it won’t be hard to get the whole story.
I quite enjoyed this method of gameplay as it was fun to discover little pockets of memory just by following the casual mention of something like a dollhouse or a wig, or to search for innocuous words like “SLEPT” and uncover clips that feature the term in very different contexts. By the end of the game I was aware of a linguistic, thematic web that connected a lifetime’s worth of memories in a complex network.
One thing worth mentioning is that if you’re looking for a major challenge, you won’t find it here. The words to search for are intuitive if you pay attention to the clips you already have. By tracking words I found promising and following every potential trail to its conclusion, I was able to unlock all but about twenty small clips, most of which were just a few seconds or words long, and had little new information to reveal. This game is entertaining and keeps you on your toes, scouring clips for more subtle hints, but is by no means mentally exhausting.
This game is hardly the first to attempt to tell a story in this way. It reminded me of Japanese text-based adventures like Analogue: A Hate Story, which uses the same mechanic of delivering clips of information (this time in the form of text journal entries) out of order, though Her Story gives you more freedom in discovering what’s going on. This means that it can be easy to stumble upon the “truth” fairly quickly if you pick up on crucial clues early, but you’ll have to stick around to understand the full arc of the story. The game also had a clever device built-in so that a crucial piece of information is saved until the very end, which is reasonably effective and left me with a little jolt of surprise
I was particularly pleased about the price of the PC game -- $5.99 -- which felt reasonable for three-to-four hours of gameplay. Adventure games in particular are seeing a turn toward shorter single-serving experiences akin to paying to go to the movies, which I think is a welcome change. Gamers with busy schedules who don’t have twenty hours to pour into a new title can still experience excellent content when they can snag a few spare hours (see The Charnel House Trilogy for a horror-themed example of the same principle). That doesn’t mean sweeping epics are going anywhere, but rather that they’re being joined by slimmer, cozier types of adventures. Her Story is diverting and well-made, and is definitely worth checking out if you’re in the mood for a story unusually told .
+ Female-centric story
+ Open-ended narrative
+ Smooth, engaging gameplay
- Overly theatrical acting
- Occasionally falls prey to clichés
- The ending can be revealed too quickly depending on how you play