As of late, there seems to be a movement of sorts against several independent games that, by all intents and purposes, do not conform to the standardized identity of a “game.” Titles like The Stanley Parable or Gone Home for example, challenge our perceptions of what games are completely. For some, this is an irreconcilable problem as many of these games fail to meet a criteria that fits them, a rigid definition that cannot be changed. But the truth of the matter should not be a question of what games are, but rather what the game itself is trying to say and do.
Take the recent release of Her Story, an independent FMV game by writer Sam Barlow. The game has received praise from some review outlets for the style of storytelling presented, but has been chided by the community for being a shallow “non-game” in terms of its gameplay. The problem is that claim is fairly groundless; there is a motivation, there are rules to the game, and the use of your own detective skills is what forces players to investigate, which constitutes actual gameplay. Her Story is a literal visual novel, interacting with the player as they uncover clues to see the whole narrative. Make no mistake, the assertions of Her Story not being a game are false.
That said, Her Story comes with its own set of problems; namely, is this the type of game you would enjoy? Much like a good book, the real test is how engrossed you are into the narrative presented to you. In the case of Her Story, it is the extremely difficult part to pull this off, especially considering how non-linear the narrative will be presented in the end.
The basics are simple: you use a database to search for archived videos of a woman who was interviewed several times in 1994 over the murder of her husband. From this, you type in keywords based on what she said in the videos and recreate the narrative piece by piece. What you discover along the way depends on how good of a detective you really are, as you need to narrow your search with multiple keywords to uncover every single video in the database.
Through this, you learn details about her life. Stories about sex, love, death, friends and family; everything told to you will not always help you in your investigation, but each video is a stepping stone to narrow your search and potentially uncover the truth behind the murder. It is her story to tell as the woman is the only person talking to you the entire time, making the player question whether or not she is actually lying in the first place.
It is rare that such a simple game and mechanic can become engrossing. Finding key words and piecing together the narrative leads to a sense of accomplishment that your sleuthing through these tapes is getting somewhere. Like any good investigation, you will eventually have a break in the case that challenges your perceptions of Her Story, and that is the mark of a good narrative; it rewards the player for using reason and logic to untangle the puzzle before them without being patronizing in the process—a problem with investigative-heavy games like L.A Noire.
Sam Barlow, the writer behind the underrated Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, is able to make the narrative engaging, but sadly it falls back on cliché too easily. Moments throughout Her Story do become pretentious; without spoiling too much, there are parts of the narrative where the woman overtly compares herself to a Fairy Tale for example. The final conclusion is also somewhat ambiguous, which was likely intentional but also somewhat frustrating, considering the amount of investigation required to get there in the first place. For some, that may take away any drive to continue investigating.
Being a full scale FMV game, Her Story also lives or dies based on the actress in front of the camera. British actress and musician Viva Seifert more or less has to carry the game, and most of the time she does an adequate job at it. You will notice moments of clear overacting throughout, but it is not enough to be jarring, mainly because of each clip in the game ranges from six seconds to a minute and a half at a time. Seifert is no better or worse than older FMV titles, where the cornball acting was rampant and never taken seriously.
Obviously, we are meant to take Seifert seriously as she spins her tale to the player. One of the major problems though is, despite decent acting, it is hard to believe some of what she says. This may be due to the body language, the direction Seifert is taking—even the delivery of some of her lines feels a bit canned and scripted. Much of the illusion behind Her Story is how credible the game makes these tapes feel, and on that front, Her Story struggles to maintain such an illusion.
Be it Seifert’s acting or Barlow’s script, Her Story eventually buckles under the weight of its own ambition. That is not to say the game is bad by any means, but rather like most arthouse titles, it has flaws that are magnified because of its off-beat nature. For many independent titles, this is the hairline fracture that makes such games divisive in the community.
For Her Story, the problem is not that it’s “not a game” as some would charge, but rather it’s an average game at best. A visual novel that hinges on a believable narrative, Her Story is able to captivate the player if only they are really interested in investigating what happened. Without that hook, without the player’s investment into the tale itself, Her Story will ultimately fail at its goal, as the narrative is not strong enough to keep players from going forward.
It goes without saying that Her Story is not for everyone to play. For $5.99, and clocking in at best maybe 5 hours, the question now is do you want to discover the narrative for yourself? No doubt YouTube will eventually have a full let’s play of Her Story, and that people will try the game for an hour and demand refunds off of Steam. Questions about Her Story being a game or not will continue to fruitlessly come up and subsequently go nowhere. The real question, however, is do you care enough about Her Story to hear it?
This game was played for about five hours until possible completion. It was purchased by the reviewer.