Traditionally, video games are designed to put the player at the forefront of a story. There is almost always a You built into the storyline, and while that You can be a fixed character or a malleable self-creation, You is almost always the center of a game's universe. It's up to You to save the world, to defeat another monstrous evil, to solve the elaborate mystery that lays before you. But what if all that work that You would normally do has already been completed? What if a game deemphasized You in favor of another character you cannot control, manipulate, or even interact with?
Her Story, from Silent Hills: Shattered Memories designer Sam Barlow, is an attempt at precisely such a game. On the surface, it tells the story of a woman whose husband has gone missing. Over the course of several police interviews, her tale begins to twist and turn into distressing territory, as the entanglement of her personal life begins to unravel, and the details of the case become increasingly sordid and bizarre. But unlike other crime fiction games, it's not up to you to interrogate this woman, to collect evidence, or even insert yourself into the narrative. Instead, you arrive in Her Story's world years after the fact, tasked with assembling this woman's story out of ancient (by computer technology standards) video clips encased on an old desktop PC. You have no tools at your disposal beyond a search engine, which brings up five clips at a time featuring whatever combination of words you type. You begin Her Story with the word "MURDER" already prompted, which brings you to a handful of clips that float between the beginning, middle, and end of the story, yet reveal little in terms of tangible detail.
How you progress from here is left entirely up to you. Ideally, you will pore over these first few clips for names, places, and words you can search for. With each new video you encounter, more search terms present themselves. However, due to the age of the interface you're using, you're limited to five clips for any given search term, and they appear with a bias toward the earliest clips in the timeline. This forces you to combine and adjust your searches as you attempt to pull up previously inaccessible clips. Typing in the name of the victim, for instance, brings up around 60 clips, but combining it with "Hannah", the word "murder", or other available references will narrow that considerably.
Because these terms can bring up videos from just about anywhere in the story, the possibility for huge revelations relatively early in the process looms large. Yet even though I began to piece together the particulars of the case just under an hour into Her Story, I remained fixated on seeing the story through to its conclusion, thanks to both the simple, yet engaging search puzzle, and the performance of the game's sole actress, Viva Seifert.
Seifert's performance is entirely live action, and it's the glue that holds Her Story together. No one else ever appears on camera during the course of the game. You don't even hear the police detectives ask her any questions. This choice was a considerable risk. In most interrogation scenes in film and television, a big part of what makes them work is watching the detectives run through their playbook varying tones and demeanors as they attempt to coax information out of a suspect. Here, the tone of the interrogation is implied entirely by Seifert's reactions. This can be a little awkward in places, as Seifert essentially has to repeat the content of the question while trying to sound like she's having a natural conversation. But a few stilted instances aren't enough to distract from Seifert's presence, which evolves over time into deeply unsettling, but wonderfully nuanced territory. To explain in any more detail how that performance evolves would ruin the feeling of discovery you get as you pick through Her Story's clips. It's enough to say that Seifert draws you into Her Story, and keeps it all grounded in a sense of palpable reality, no matter how fantastical that reality periodically comes across.
The script is also careful to create bite-sized moments that each feel like they have their place in the story. A simple 20 second clip where Seifert states flatly that she did not murder her husband might not seem like a big piece of the puzzle, but it's a key one in establishing the tone of the conversation at this stage of the timeline. Which is not to say that every single piece feels vital--a few quirky moments, such as Hannah breaking out into song mid-interview, feel completely inconsequential and tonally off--but the vast majority of the material works.
The evolution of the story is what stands out most in Her Story. Each interview is its own chapter, and though the player is darting around between chapters on a near-constant basis, attentive players will have no issue keeping track of where each piece fits in the larger narrative. You even have the option to tag videos with your own search terms, and pull significant clips into a queue to watch later. However, there's no easy way to simply watch every video in order, even after you've collected all 200+. That seems like a hindrance by design, but it's a hindrance nonetheless.
A larger hindrance to Her Story's success is one inherent to its structure, or lack thereof. Her Story essentially dumps its puzzle pieces out in front of the player, and avoids any attempts to guide them on what order to tackle things in beyond that initial pre-loaded search term. As I mentioned earlier, I began to gather what Her Story's big secret was pretty early on, but it took me around five hours to finally pore through every clip. As a result, the mystery ran out of steam maybe an hour prior to the finish line. Up to that point, I found the story wholly enrapturing, even if I came across clips that merely reaffirmed what I already knew. But in that last hour, I found myself just inputing random words I thought I'd probably heard before, grasping at straws purely in service of consuming every last ounce of a mystery that had long since lifted its veil.
Perhaps in anticipation of this, Her Story offers you the chance to "end" the game long before you've seen every clip. A little chat client pops up on the game's faux-desktop, and an unknown person asks if you've seen enough. If you say yes, the credits roll, and you're offered a mechanism that allows you to go back and search for 15 clips at a time, instead of five. In effect, it's up to the player to decide when they have finished Her Story. And as evidenced by occasional posts like this, that's a design choice that may irk some players.
In fact, I'd expect many players to bounce off Her Story entirely. With no sleuthing mechanics built-in, no control over the story beyond the order in which it is presented, no definitive win condition to speak of, Her Story actively flies in the face of the design tenets typified in interactive storytelling. Yet that's also what makes Her Story such a fascinating and exciting experiment. It certainly tells a strong story, but it's the unique way in which it presents that story that makes the game so compelling. I can safely say I've never played anything quite like Her Story before, and while I don't necessarily think the "search engine murder mystery" genre needs to become the Next Big Thing, I cannot help but greatly admire the unusual ideas Her Story presents about how we tell and interact with stories in games.