HER STORY Game Review: An Astonishing Retro Murder Mystery
Over the decades video games have been around, some genres have flourished, while others have faded into obscurity. Perhaps chief among the latter: the Full Motion Video game, that curious remnant of the ‘90s, spurred into existence by the advent of the CD-ROM and killed by the ugly reality that game developers weren’t filmmakers. There’s been live-action content in games occasionally since then, but proper FMV has been rare.*
Until now, as the infomercials say! Indie game of the moment Her Story brings back FMV for 2015, using the genre’s restrictions as strengths, while telling an engrossing story and cleverly developing the detective-game genre as well.
Her Story’s interface and gameplay take the form of a police computer terminal straight out of the ‘90s: all Windows 95 brutalism and clackety-clack keys. You’re investigating a decades-old crime by combing through a series of video interviews with the wife of a murdered man, segmented into clips five seconds to two minutes long. Everything’s been transcribed and catalogued by what is said in the clip, so accessing them is a matter of searching for keywords, tagging clips, and following clues to whatever conclusion you reach.
To many gamers, the mere mention of “detective” gameplay should throw up a few flags. Detective games have always been frustrating, thanks to the inherent difficulty of allowing creative decision-making within a game system. Many detective games have a couple of solutions to choose from at most, which sort of defeats the deductive process. Others railroad players down the path towards the right answer, or failing that, blatantly tell you you’re wrong until you get it right. Last year’s Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishments was nearly a notable exception, giving narrative consequences instead of gameplay ones, but it still let you know if your deduction was factually incorrect.
Her Story, on the other hand, leaves things completely open to the player - to the extent that some players might find it too freeform. Because every clip comes at the request of the player, the game is designed around dropping clues to guide active minds towards them. Often, you’ll find yourself revisiting and reassessing clips you’ve seen already. Her Story trusts your instincts; it’s up to you whether to believe everything or nothing, whether to interpret information as important or as a red herring. It even simulates - to a just-bearable degree - the drudgery of detective work, trawling through mostly-useless interview footage for nuggets of relevant information. If you don’t start to develop ideas about what’s going on, you’ll go in circles, but the game is also clever enough to give you just the right amount of nudging.
All that gameplay would be for naught if the central mystery story wasn’t any good. Luckily, Her Story’s three overlapping narratives are all strong: the literal story being told in the interview footage, the story of the interviews themselves, and the story of the player piecing the other two together. The game’s title is apt: this is a game explicitly about storytelling, how stories change depending on who tells them, and how stories themselves shape how people view reality. There’s a running theme of fairy tales going through the interviews, which is no accident - after all, the secrets and lies contained within such depositions are often fairy tales themselves.
Perhaps the most telling aspect of Her Story’s storytelling is the way it handles its ending. There comes a point - once you’ve uncovered a certain quantity of footage, I’m guessing - where you can either end your playthrough, or continue searching through video. Contained implicitly in that optional ending is the assertion that you can always find a more complete truth. There is no correct or incorrect solution, although at times I was sure the game was giving me subtle cues as to what was or wasn’t important. When you do eventually wrap up your playthrough, the game doesn’t even ask you to solve the case. Rather, it simply asks if you understand what happened.
Like the terrific TV miniseries The Staircase that appears to have inspired it, Her Story is less about determining guilt than growing to understand a set of characters. That’s more interesting than a guilty or not guilty verdict anyway: a verdict closes the book, while understanding leaves it open for further contemplation. And as a narrative and as a game, Her Story is worthy of much contemplation indeed.
* The one other modern FMV title I’m aware of is the in-development Camp’s Not Dead, designed by Zoe Quinn and starring The Room’s Greg Sestero. Yes please!