Her Story feels more like a toy when I think there was a good opportunity to make it more like a puzzle.
This week I played Her Story, an indie mystery game made by solo developer Sam Barlow, who was also behind the two British Silent Hill games. I played the game on my PC, though it’s also available on Mac, iOS, and Android. As a pure narrative game, Her Story takes some restraint to really “get” and has some strong language and sexual themes, so I’d say it’s appropriate for an 16+ audience. Her Story was made in Unity!
Her Story is an interactive story game centered on exploring police interrogation recordings from 1994. The subject of the police interrogations is Hannah Smith, who is the only shown person throughout all of the clips. The player can search through the recordings to view the clips via the fictional L.O.G.I.C. database. However, clips can only be searched by phrases, where players are only shown recordings that contain that phrase in their transcript. This means that the player uncovers the narrative of Her Story achronologically, which turns the typical storytelling structure of try-fail cycles on its head.
The entirety of Her Story is comprised of watching clips like this. Hannah Smith is adeptly portrayed by actress Viva Seifert.
For me, the greatest win of Her Story is the mise-en-scene. Don’t get me wrong, the innovative storytelling structure is still probably its greatest contribution to games. Still, the more applicable lesson that I’m taking away from the game is how much polish and environmental details can elevate a gameplay experience. The game’s simulated computer screen feels very realistic, complete with draggable windows, a working desktop, functional folders, and polish touches such as fisheye and monitor blur. The sound design is immaculate as well; a droning fan playing in the background sells the ominous and sterile mood that’s appropriate to the plot, and the clicking and typing sound effects are nice touches. These effects may seem superfluous to hardcore ludologists—but in terms of pure “game”, Her Story doesn’t have much to offer (its “types of fun” are purely discovery and narrative), so appropriately, the relative importance of selling narrative points like setting and mood is emphasized.
Barlow really nailed the atmosphere. Just one glance at this screen tells you exactly how you should feel when playing Her Story.
Along the lines of lacking gameplay elements, If I had to offer a critique of Her Story, the lack of clear objective was a miss for me.
Along the lines of lacking gameplay elements, If I had to offer a critique of Her Story, the lack of clear objective was a miss for me. Though this might’ve been a conscious choice on the part of Barlow, I found the directionlessness to be more confusing than immersing. Ostensibly, players are meant to “solve the mystery”, but there’s no indication of why, or even of what the “finish” condition is. In other words, Her Story feels more like a toy when I think there was a good opportunity to make it more like a puzzle. If there was some way to track progress towards completion, or even a final phrase or key to find to finish the game, I’d have found it much more engaging.