Her Story, developed by Sam Barlow and available on all platforms, is no doubt one of the most unique games I have ever played. The gatekeepers among the so-called “hardcore gamers” might balk at calling Her Story a game, but Her Story is absolutely a puzzle, a system with patterns that we have to comprehend and then master, which makes it a game. Under my favorite definition of a game, “the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles” coined by Bernard Suits, Her Story is a game through and through.
The target audience is definitely adults, with its very mature themes. However, since zero dexterity is required in the game, it can be easily enjoyed by “non-gamers” who have never touched a controller before.
Notable Formal Elements
Playing Her Story is like shining a flashlight in a dark forrest at night.
From start, Her Story is completely diegetic and shrouded in mystery. The entire game takes place in an old police computer, where the player can type in query terms to watch videos. The word “murder” is filled at the start. That is the only procedure available to the player. Even the tutorial is a file on this computer, and preciously little background is offered beyond that. You don’t know who you are or what you are trying to accomplish. This design choice to offer as little information as possible, aided by excellent details such as the glare on the screen or the reflection of the player character in the screen, makes Her Story incredibly immersive, which really helped drew me in to the mystery.
The rules are simple: looking for a keyword will show up to 5 videos that include that keyword. These keywords can come from videos the player has already watched, or can be general crime-related terms such as “lie” or “police”. These videos are presented out of order, and most of them elicit more questions rather than answers. Playing Her Story is like shining a flashlight in a dark forrest at night – you can only see a tiny fraction of the world around you, and every shadow feels like its hiding something horrible just out of sight. The more you sweep your flashlight around, the more you realize just how much unknown there is and how little you can actually see. This is the best kind of mystery in my opinion – I felt increasingly anxious and dreadful as I progressed the game, which made me more and more desperate to solve the mystery.
The objective is interesting as well – the explicit end of the game is triggered when a certain number (much fewer than all available) of clips have been found. This, combined with the aforementioned rule, means that a player can complete the game without understanding the mystery at all, a choice I found a little odd.
Narrative and Mystery
In Her Story, the narrative isn’t just woven into the mystery, the mystery IS the narrative. The story of Hannah/Eve, as told by the videos, is out of order, unreliable, presented in bits of pieces, and intentionally left open to interpretation. The real narrative arc of the game is the act of solving the murder mystery and the player’s personal interpretation of the story, thus it is completely different for every player.
Types of Fun
The fun of narrative, sensation (fear and adrenaline), and discovery are woven together as the player unravels the mystery. You can probably tell based on everything I’ve written already that yes, Her Story absolutely succeeded in delivering these types of fun.
Moments of particular success
It has to be the ending. Since the player character’s identity and motives are never revealed, I had assumed that I was playing as a police detective trying to solve the case, an obvious conclusion. Thus, I viewed Hannah/Eve’s stories through a cold and critical lens, treating them as murders’ fabrications for me to unravel. At the end, I was convinced that Hannah and Eve were the same person, and this whole story was an elaborate ruse. However, in a stroke of genius, the player character is revealed to be Eve’s daughter in the very last line of the game. This revelation literally left me reeling for several minutes as I re-examined my assumptions. Was it possible that Hannah/Eve were telling the truth all along, and I had treated two poor women’s tragic life stories as a mere lie? After all, this was “Her Story”, not “My Story”.
Opportunities for improvement
I wish there is a better way for the player to record and organize their discoveries. I think discovered videos should automatically be added to a timeline based on the timestamp in the video, with space for players to take notes.