Games + Narrative (feat. Her Story)

—————————————————————————- Spoilers for Her Story —————————————————————————–

There’s a question about games that I’ve always found interesting to consider: How do games tell stories? To expand on that further, how do they tell them in ways that are different from other media? What kinds of stories do they tell well? And how do they affect us when they do? There’s tension between gameplay experience and story that you notice when you explore and analyze games as a storytelling medium. Sometimes player agency and gameplay quality is sacrificed to tell an author-directed narrative, while striving to make games solely gameplay-based experiences can leave out opportunities to utilize the unique traits of games as an entertainment medium to convey a narrative. Henry Jenkins explores this tension in his article “Game Design as Narrative Architecture,” and responds to it by detailing some of the ways that games include stories in their games while working to ease that tension. I considered this question about stories in games, and had Jenkins’ writing in mind, while playing Sam Barlow’s interactive film game Her Story for the first time. After looking back on my experience with playing it, a point of potential insight into this topic sticks out to me. I think we can look at Her Story as a demonstration of how games can function as a unique medium for telling stories, and what kinds of stories they tell well.

Some background

In his article Jenkins discusses a few ways that games can navigate the challenge of telling stories and still create an immersive player experience, using the unique characteristics of games as a medium instead of mapping narrative models from other media directly onto games in ways that may not fit. He refers to these methods with an umbrella term: environmental storytelling. There are a few different types of environmental storytelling in games, according to Jenkins, including creating evocative spaces, guiding the player in enacting stories, hinting at embedded narratives, and encouraging emergent narratives. He goes in depth on the nuances of each type and how these play upon the strengths of games, but for our purposes here I’ll expand on just the ones which Her Story uses to communicate its narrative.

Evocative spaces and embedded narrative in Her Story

Her Story drops you into a game environment that resembles an old computer. The visual setup and sound design of the game space evokes a very particular environment and helps the player fall right into the gameplay with little instruction. On the computer is a query box for searching a database, a note from an ally teaching you how to use it, and a starting search keyword to introduce you to what it is that you’re looking for. That keyword is “MURDER.” After searching using that term you quickly learn that what you’re here to do is figure out what happened to a man named Simon Smith, the husband of a woman (named Hannah) whose seven interviews with a detective you have to search through to solve the mystery. Everything about the space points to this idea — the glare on the screen, the humming of the computer, occasional flickering of the lights, other apps on the computer. All of these details I’ve mentioned so far are features of an evocative space. Creating evocative spaces within a game allows the designer to communicate a lot of information without interrupting the flow of gameplay, and helps to further immerse the player in the game world by making their environment convincing and reflective of their character or objectives.

Most of the story itself is communicated through the use of embedded narrative. Information about the murder of Simon is sprinkled throughout the game via short clips of the interviews taken by the detective. Players piece the story together bit-by-bit as they discover more video clips (which they find by searching different words in the query window, since the window will return the videos in which the woman uses that word in her speech). Embedded narrative works really well as a storytelling tool in this game, as it meshes well with the main mechanic of searching for clips and allows the player to have stunning revelations when they discover a crucial piece of new information. It creates a similar appeal to that of a detective novel or film, except the order in which the player discovers information in Her Story is completely up to the player and therefore each gameplay experience is unique. It utilizes games’ interactivity to give the player more agency in how they learn the story and what they make of it. Another product of that interactivity is the potential for different players to share their differing experiences and understandings of the story with each other. The player also has a personal connection to the story that they write as a player of the game, but I’ll touch more on that later.

Her Story’s relationship to gameplay and narrative

I found Her Story incredibly interesting for the way that it manages to both provide a good gameplay experience and contain a good story. The game has really simple and repetitive mechanics, but I didn’t feel while playing that the game was lacking in interesting gameplay or engaging moments. The core loop of the game, focused and simple, was compelling. The mystery, the tools that the game gave me to solve that mystery, and the gradual, out-of-order, bit-by-bit approach with which I could piece together answers to all of my questions were enough to keep me incredibly engaged. I did feel lost as a player sometimes, not knowing what I was supposed to do at the beginning and not being sure when the game was supposed to be over. Her Story is a game that you can finish having completed or seen as much (or as little) of it as you want. Looking at it from the perspective that I usually take when I play games, I searched for a win condition. When I couldn’t find one I just fashioned one for myself based on following the rabbit hole that was offered to me to its end — solving the mystery and gathering as much information about what happened between Hannah and Eve (the identical twin sister we eventually learn that she has) as I could. It was self-driven, and the intrigue, the depth of the story, and the way it was presented to me (where I had control over what I learned more about and in what order) were enough for me to constantly feel a desire to play more and reach that goal. I recognized a gameplay loop that kept me coming back for more and allowed me to steadily improve my searching skills and gain information more and more quickly: I would 1) watch a video, 2) learn something from that video, 3) feel satisfaction from that learning, managing to find a clip that was short, filling in a new database box, or confirming a suspicion, 4) figure out some other word to search or lead to follow based on the questions I was trying to answer, and 5) repeat. Notice, as I did, that the main force behind my sustained engagement with the mechanics was the lure of discovering the more elusive points of the narrative.

After completing this game and making that connection, I determined that the story itself was just completely amazing. I was inspired to search up and watch a YouTube video containing all of the interview clips within the game played in order so I could finally get a chronological, complete telling of this awesome story, and discover where exactly the twists and turns happened. Interestingly enough, my experience watching just the pure telling of the story from start to finish was kind of… boring. When extracted from its gamified structure, the narrative of Her Story is effectively an hour-and-a-half long monologue. Most of that monologue recounts details about the days surrounding Simon’s murder, which gets repetitive and doesn’t include much exciting information on its own. Even the emotional impact of the twist reveals, which felt so shocking and dramatic within the context of the game, felt relatively deflated when experienced this way. But within the game, the story really is amazing. It feels so fun to discover, especially in the way that the game lets you discover it. This mystery works better and is more compelling and engaging as a game than it is in its film form. There’s something extra that you get out of discovering the twists and turns of the story bit-by-bit and out of order that you don’t get just watching the interview clips in chronological order with none of the searching. When you start to unravel the story as a player, you can utilize the mechanics of the game to home in on the most interesting aspects of it, or the parts that you are particularly interested in learning more about. The story is, in a way, tailored to you. In addition, when we take a step back we can see that there are actually two stories being told as players progress through Her Story. One is the story surrounding Hannah, Eve, and their connection to Simon’s murder. This is the fixed narrative, the one embedded within the interviews that the player scours through for clues. The other is the story of the player’s journey to discover that embedded narrative, which is unique to their individual playthrough, and is being written by the player as they progress. This is the plot of the game, the sequence of events that the player witnesses and drives forward themselves. It’s personal, and only exists because games are an interactive medium. That interactivity is stripped away when the narrative of Her Story is removed from the game and experienced as only a film.

A Brief Conclusion

The narrative and the gameplay experience of Her Story are inextricably linked, and both actively support each other and enhance the overall effectiveness of the game. Each of them alone would be underwhelming and not make for a memorable experience, but together they synergize to create an impactful one. This is how Her Story strikes a balance between player agency and the imposed story, between communicating its story and maintaining a positive player experience. The detective-esque story makes the gameplay compelling and gives the players something to search for, and the fact that the story is packaged within this game and its mechanics is what makes it exciting. When the use of narrative architecture in games is successful like this, the result is the ability to move your audience while keeping them engaged, entertained, and coming back for more.

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