For whatever reason, gaming really seems to struggle with crime stories. You can have a lot of fun robbing banks in Grand Theft Auto and its counterparts, but human motivation behind breaking the law is often shallow and inconsequential. Her Story might just be the best detective game I’ve ever played — and it seems that the trick was to strip away much of the traditional game elements. You do little more than watch video clips and search for keywords, yet the game manages to tell an engrossing whodunit that rivals some of my favorite detective shows and books.
About a decade ago, Hannah Smith’s husband died, and the case remains unsolved; no one knows for sure if it was murder or an accident. The entire game takes place on the desktop of an aging computer. There are a few "read me" files that give you basic directions to get things started, but other than that the entire experience consists of skimming video interviews with Hannah, and trying to dig up new clues. The most useful tool is an incredibly handy search function: if you type "murder," for example, you’ll get a list of all of the clips where she says the word murder. I kept a notebook handy and jotted down things I wanted to search for as they came up, and by the end of the game I had a page full of seemingly random words like "arabian nights" and "glasgow."
The entirety of the game is watching one woman talk
Because the entirety of the game is watching one woman talk, it’s intimate. Over the course of the few hours of Her Story, you’ll learn a great deal about Hannah: her childhood, her love life, and some pretty startling secrets that I won’t spoil for you. It’s a steady progression, and what seems like a typical murder case slowly reveals itself to be much more complicated. I found myself constantly hungry to learn new details, thanks in large part to the fantastic performance by actress Viva Seifert.
The game is the first solo release from Sam Barlow, who previously worked on games like Silent Hill: Shattered Memories. "I've always desperately wanted to do a police procedural game," he says of his inspiration for Her Story. The genre is surprisingly lacking in games, despite its prevalence in other media. While the desire to make a realistic crime game came in large part from a love of shows like Homicide: Life on the Street, the interview-focused gameplay stemmed from research into real crimes and watching real interrogations.
"I wanted to understand their stories."
"It was watching the video that really shifted my point-of-view from that of the cop to that of the person in the seat being questioned," Barlow explains. "I’d always felt that the interview room was a unique place — a place where people open up and spill their life story into the hands of a skilled detective. But here it was, for real, no TV slickness, just raw video — real people, telling all as if they were talking to their psychiatrist. It felt like an invasion of privacy to be party to that level of intimacy, watching it up on YouTube. The way that camera is always focused on the suspect, the detectives in the periphery, the guilt I felt... it all kickstarted my empathy. Whatever these people had done, they were human, and I wanted to understand their stories."
The footage featured in Her Story might conjure memories of terrible full-motion video games of the 1990s, but for Barlow, the style is a response to the way games are typically made. A play or movie can depend solely on the performance of a great actor, but in games that’s a much more difficult proposition. "A good story and a good performance is sometimes all you need," he explains. "But capturing a full performance in a video game is so expensive! It's almost exclusive to the blockbusters, who perhaps need that stuff the least."
Over the course of development, he tried a few other ideas to add more traditional gameplay to the experience — letting you examine evidence or peruse interview transcripts, for instance — but he found they ultimately muddied the experience. In fact, when Barlow found playtesters were using notebooks to keep track of search terms, he offered to add in-game tools so they wouldn’t need to — but everyone preferred pen and paper.
"Part of the appeal of the idea to me is of having all the clever stuff happen outside the game itself — in the player's head, and on the notes scattered around their desk, or in their lap. Perfect," he explains. "Often when games begin and end inside the TV or computer, it's easy to shut them off... this way, with the game spilling out into the real world, it's less clean, the game can have a life of its own."
That’s certainly true for me; even after finishing the game, I’m still thinking about its ambiguous ending, not totally sure of what really went down. It’s something I’ve felt plenty of times after reading books or watching TV, but rarely after playing a game. People often talk about gaming needing its Citizen Kane moment, but with Her Story, at least it finally has its Law & Order.