In a medium where evolution is typically measured in polygons and development costs, it’s fitting that possibly the most innovative game of 2015 would be something so unassuming.
Her Story places you in front of a computer monitor circa 1994, and lets you loose to dig through hundreds of police videos revolving around a single woman and a very peculiar case. You are told nothing other than how to operate the software needed to access these videos, and then left alone to attempt to crawl through the archive.
Her Story doesn’t lend itself well to trailers or quick descriptions. It isn’t flashy nor does it immediately show its brilliance, but that subtlety is an integral part of why it manages to do so much with so little. The low rent aesthetic provides a texture – aged video footage, a faux 90’s desktop, dated clothing – and then drapes it over the narrative to fully pull you back in time as you attempt to put the pieces of the mystery together.
How Her Story looks though, or even what it has to say to a degree, isn’t why it’s so fascinating. To be sure developer Sam Barlow does an incredible job setting the tone through familiar, nostalgic imagery, smartly opting to omit authenticity where it isn’t needed while still nailing the feel of the 90’s. It’s all remarkably well-considered, but where Her Story pushes games forward is in how it approaches narrative as nonlinear and undefined.
Because of the limitations of your in game computer, you can only ever access five videos at once, using the search box to scrub through video transcripts for keywords. What this means in practice is you have to search out every bit of the narrative for yourself, being locked out of broad searches so as to require you to actually think like a detective and put the puzzle pieces together for yourself. Her Story is the first game I’ve played where I actually felt as if I was the one solving the case, following a trail of breadcrumbs I had to seek out and which often didn’t lead in a straight line from beginning to end, requiring I go back and dig up old clues to find a new lead.
I became exceptionally diligent in making sure to check up on every name, every address; any random detail that had the potential to lead me to a breakthrough. Her Story demands a lot from the player in order to see and understand everything hidden inside it, but the depth of its narrative and the intricacy in which it’s woven together rewards those who put more time into learning its secrets. It puts all its trust into the player not to cheat their way to a resolution, but is backed by such an engaging web of plot (delivered entirely through a masterful, demanding performance by Viva Seifert) that anyone who doesn’t give it the attention it deserves is only cheating themselves in the end.
Her Story doesn’t look like much, nor is it easy to do it justice through words alone, but it’s nevertheless a game that’s going to be talked about for years by anyone who takes the time to look below the surface. It breaks entirely new ground for narratives in games, and is perhaps the biggest proof that FMV has a place in games beyond basic comedy. It’s a very difficult game to talk about in any capacity without ruining what makes it so great, but it all the same demands discussing and is a game I see creating ripples through the industry for a very long time to come.