Her Story is a detective video game designed by Sam Barlow. The target audience is adults interested in crime and mysteries. I played on my phone.
This is a strong embedded narrative game, where the player has one objective: figure out what happened in a crime. To learn the story, players repeatedly search for words or phrases in a database, which returns the first five video clips that use those words. The boundaries of the game is the computer screen where the database is located. The end state is unclear; there is no defined winning or losing, so a player can choose to logout when they are satisfied with their understanding of the story.
The core mechanics of the game are searching for words and watching the video clips. Each search and watch is a loop where players are able to better understand the story and refine what their next search term will be.
One of the biggest successes of the game design is the choice to limit the number of clips returned for a search; otherwise, searching for one player’s name could return much of the story, allowing for a less investigative feel to the game. By having players continuously have to find new words to search for to learn more, the designer developed a detective feel to the game; in a sense, players are trying to find new clues.
The story line is fascinating, but I think mostly because it feels like there is much room for interpretation. Nothing is fact: just the interviews of the central character. The designer cleverly reused many words throughout the story to encourage players to search for those key words to access key clues. Additionally, some core aspects of the story were retold in different ways in various clips, allowing for a bit of flexibility in what players search for, but (I think) the ending of the story was only told once, requiring players to all conclude at the same ending even if they took different paths to arrive there. By doing this, the designer gives opportunities for players to pick up on different elements of the story but never get too off track.
Types of Fun
The mechanics of the game allow for the game’s main type of fun: discovery. Because the game is centered around searching and understanding, the intended type of fun is discovery. Because players must continuously search the database, they are discovering new clips and areas of the database. At the same time as the literal discovery of clips, players are discovering the truth of the crime story through watching the clips that they find. Another type of fun that the game offers is fantasy because players take on the role of a crime-uncovering detective, getting to live out a fantasy.
Spoiler alert! One of the main aha moments of the game for me was centered around watching clips of the central character talking about her tattoo. I had heard the tattoo come up in several clips before, but I couldn’t figure out what the big deal was. Over and over again, I found myself searching for tattoo related clips before realizing that the key was that the tattoo was only in the clips from certain days, leading to the conclusion that there were two different people acting as the same person. The designer clearly knew that this was a key aspect that players needed to understand, so they chose to emphasize it in several different places and ways without ever being too obvious. Doing so ensured that players were able to realize it eventually, but it still gave the reward of the player feeling like it was their own detective discovery.
A separate notable moment was when I really couldn’t figure out what to search for next. I had to take a break, brainstorm, and come back later. However, I think that this added to the overall sensation of a detective mystery. It wasn’t obvious how to proceed at every moment, and it shouldn’t be. When I finally figured out what to search for next, I was excited and engaged again.
Visual Design & Branding
The branding of the game is retro and dark. The archaic design of the computer allowed for players to accept the limitations of the database they were searching through. The setting of the clips was reminiscent of typical detective movie tropes, plunging players into the world of crime and known themes that the target audience would recognize; also, the clips were all a poor quality, again reflecting the retro idea. The branding and music throughout is dark and ominous, uncertain, just like the story line.
The game offers a way to save clips for later viewing, but I think that the game misses out on an opportunity to add a notepad or something similar to allow players to keep track of key ideas and future searches. I think that a yellow notepad or whiteboard are both typical detective tropes that the game could offer, furthering both functionality and the theme of the game.
When players begin the game, there is no obvious ending or goal. Only after watching a critical clip does a popup appear to chat about the ending. I’m still not certain the value of the popup chat since it never confirms the true story. I would either remove it entirely (just adding something to the initial instructions that says to log off when you’re done) or add more back-and-forth chatting about the story. It almost feels like an afterthought. Clearly, the designer wanted the ending to remain unclear and however the player felt it was, which is why I’m uncertain the need for the chatbot at all.
Her Story is a detective game with a clever searching mechanic, allowing players to discover new video clips and, with it, the story of a crime. The retro setting make the archaic database believable, limiting players to only a few clips for each search term, which inspires the detective clue hunting theme of the game. Because the game is entirely player driven, the storyline and pacing are entirely up to how the player searches and what the player picks up, but luckily, the designer created many pathways to lead to the eventual conclusion of the story.
The game succeeds in giving players a fun yet frustrating detective experience and a surprising unfolding narrative.