Her Story is a plot-based game. As such, this review is completely free of spoilers. The only plot information revealed is what is revealed to the player right at the start of the game before any user-instigated interaction takes place.
In it are all manner of theories, questions and debates on the events of Her Story, the latest game from Sam Barlow, writer of the incredible Silent Hill: Shattered Memories.
While I have my own theory and I’m pretty happy with it, I’ve also seen some contradictory (and pretty convincing) ones from other people on the thread who have also enjoyed the game’s 3-4 hour duration. It’s making for some exciting discussion.
That there’s such animated chat surrounding the game is mainly down to the clever way in which Barlow presents Her Story to us, turning a series of linear video interviews into a fragmented mess we’re expected to gather and tidy up in our heads.
I’ve read other reviews of Her Story that have made some pretty bold (and in my eyes, wrong) decisions as to what’s considered spoiler material. For this review the only plot details I’ll reveal are those made available to you right when the game starts. Everything else should stay off-limits until you discover it for yourself.
Her Story puts you in front of an old computer at an English police station. On the desktop are – among other things – a couple of Readme files, a clip archive and a database checker.
The Readme files explain the basic concept: someone has been able to dig up a series of police interviews from 1994 for you, and you’re free to sift through them to try and determine the story of what happened.
These interviews have been split into small clips and placed into an archive. These clips range from anything from two seconds to two minutes long. By entering words into the archive’s search bar, you can find clips that mention those words.
When the game begins you’re helpfully provided with your first search term – MURDER – and the four clips it brings up. From these clips the following is clear:
From there, you’re on your own. The rest of the story lies in the other 268 undiscovered clips, and it’s up to you to use your investigative skills to find them.
What this essentially means is that everyone who plays Her Story will uncover the plot in a different order, creating their own twists depending on what information they find first. By the end everyone will have pieced together the same linear interviews, but the journey they’ll have taken to get there will have been completely different.
And there are plenty of twists, mark my words. The absence of any clips featuring the policeman’s voice takes any sort of bias out of the equation: there are no clues from the cops to indicate whether you’re supposed to feel suspicion or sympathy for this woman. This is a decision that’s entirely yours to make, and it’s one that will change numerous times throughout.
Actress Viva Seifert does her part in ensuring this by putting in a brilliant performance. Had she been too wooden or too over-the-top this game’s authenticity would have taken a hell of a knock but at no point while playing did I feel like I was watching anyone other than a woman being interviewed by the police. She’s fantastically normal, and I mean that as a sincere compliment.
The whole thing is beautifully presented too. The ancient police computer you’re using feels authentic, right down to the old-school Windows 3.1 style icons and the scanlines and glare coming off the big clunky CRT display. There’s an option to turn all these filters off but you won’t want to.
The attention to detail extends to the video footage too. Replicating the VHS look is something that’s surprisingly hard to do (check out the start of the Paranormal Activity 5 trailer to see how not to do it) but Her Story nails it perfectly, to the extent that I can only imagine Barlow filmed the scenes on the format natively.
What it all comes down to is a set-up you’d swear was genuinely from 1994, but one that crucially doesn’t try to ram it down your throat save the odd throwaway reference to, say, a car from that era when the woman’s giving her story.
There are no blatant “hey folks, it’s the 90s” moments – don’t expect clips of the woman saying “have you been watching Gladiators on the telly? That Wolf’s a bad bugger and no mistake” or the like – which keeps things subtle and in turn further adds to that authentic feel.
There has been backlash from a small number of people – mainly consisting, most tellingly, of those who haven’t actually played it, and also partly by some who can’t see past the fact it features a woman – who argue that Her Story isn’t a proper ‘game’, as if there have to be some strict rules it passes before it’s allowed to be discussed on a video game site.
Make no mistake: Her Story is a game. It is a puzzle that must be solved, a story that must be slowly revealed and a crime that must be explained. Just because there is no linear path through it and no clear solution doesn’t mean you can’t get engrossed in it.
I sat through it with a notepad, coming up with different leads and words that came to mind as I watched each clip. Judging from the response to the game on social media, it would appear many of my friends and peers did the same. If it wasn’t a game we may as well have been writing a shopping list.
Indeed, once the credits roll – you can choose to ‘end’ the story whenever you like once you’re roughly halfway in – it becomes even more of a game, as you try to adopt various techniques to try to find those final clips you haven’t seen yet in order to fill the database checker 100%.
Ultimately though, it doesn’t matter whether you define it as a game. Her Story is a beautiful piece of storytelling: one that can be explored and enjoyed by everyone, whether you’re a ‘hardcore gamer’ (I hate that phrase) or someone who’s never picked up a controller in their life.
For less than the price of a magazine you can enjoy one of the most wonderfully presented, interesting interactive experiences this year. And once you’ve played through its three or four hours, you’ll be eager to discuss its story – her story – with others long after it’s over.
HOW CAN I PLAY IT?
Her Story is available on PC and Mac. You can get it on Steam here, or get a (cheaper) DRM-free version from GOG here. Alternatively, it’s also available on iOS and can be downloaded from the iTunes App Store.
Full disclaimer: This review was based on a review code I received from the game’s developer, though I had already pre-ordered the game and paid for it in advance of this. I gave my pre-order Steam key to a friend. Get off my back, I’m doing God’s work here.