Her Story – A bold presentation that ultimately fails to satisfy
Reviewed May 15, 2016 on PC
It's been nearly a month since I finished playing Her Story. Ordinarily, I'd consider that too long between completing a game and writing the review, but I couldn't shake the feeling I was missing something - for a game to receive near-universal praise, yet fall pretty much completely flat during my playthrough, didn't sit right. Sadly, I think it is a case of the game's narrative and game's structure being at odds with each other, and it undermines the game as a whole.
On its face, Her Story tells the story of a woman being interviewed by the police following the disappearance of her husband. As one might expect from a crime-fiction story, the details of the case become more tangled and more bizarre (bordering on the absurd) as the interviews go on. However, rather than the typical detective game elements of interviewing witness or suspects, gathering evidence, and generally building a case, Her Story presents the player with merely the recordings of the interviews and a rudimentary search tool and tasks them with piecing together the story until they are 'satisfied'. There is no defined end state, nor fail state, and it is left up to the player to decide when to finish investigating.
The interface through which the player explores these clips is a rather good facsimile of an old PC desktop. There is a distracting faux glare effect, though thankfully this can be disabled. Through this interface, the player enters search terms (e.g. MURDER), and a number of interview clips will be returned, up to a maximum of five clips with clips being anything from a few seconds to a few minutes. As the search term can be mentioned anywhere in the transcript for that clip, it may reveal key information, or may be totally irrelevant. One of Her Story's interesting presentation choices is that all interviews are with the same actor, and only show her monologue, not even the questions posed by the interviewer. This can make it difficult to understand the content of the clip at times, but adds to the feeling of searching through this person's life and trying to understand their story.
This structure is something that could be amazing in the right setting, and with the right story, and that is how I felt for the first ten minutes or so of my exploration. Picking apart the clips, looking for inconsistencies, building a timeline, and deciding what words to investigate next feels GREAT. However, little over ten minutes in, I happened to stumble on a series of clips that largely revealed the true nature of the husband's disappearance, and completely deflated the investigative part of the game. Revealing the twist so early on made further exploration feel somewhat pointless, and despite a great performance from Viva Seifert, ten minutes is just not enough time to get to know the character, making the reveal uninteresting and made the more absurd clips feel even more so and at times unbelievable. I shan't explain further for fear of spoilers, but it is suffice to say that narratively the game fell apart largely due to the structure chosen to present it.
To her credit, Seifert puts on a wonderful performance as the interviewee in the game. The lack of interviewer dialogue occasionally makes her responses come across as stilted, as it is necessary to incorporate the question into her dialogue much of the time, but on the whole it is a performance which makes the game work. A poor, or even mediocre, performance would lead to the clips being completely meaningless, but Seifert's performance makes it easy for the player to grasp how the interview is going, and if the information presented is meaningful or an aside.
Mechanically, the interface is clunky and awkward to use, but these awkwardness is clearly by design. Limiting the player to only five clips from a single search time is an interesting way of making the player actually think about what is important, instead of just searching something like "the" and seeing much of the game's content. It could be said that this was too successful for its own good - making me think what is important so early on is what lead me to discovering the twist, and the non-linear presentation means it is not just a theory to consider, but can be tested immediately.
Beyond that, the game is little more than watch these clips and think about it. Though I think many people may expect more, such as highlighting incriminating or inconsistent clips for later review, this mechanical simplicity works for what the game sets out to do. After all, this isn't Your Story, it's Her Story - some sort of branching narrative makes little sense here.
I would however like to have seen additional contemporary evidence, such as a police report, beyond the interviews. Being presented with an event to investigate, but only to be given one possibly biased view on it, makes it somewhat difficult to believe anything that you are told. I do think this ambiguity is somewhat deliberate - the player isn't actually supposed to discover the hard facts of the case, but to come to an understanding of this characters motives and beliefs. Though that aspect works, it is a little disappointing that the game didn't go a little further and allow the discovery of the some undisputed facts.
To summarise, the structure of Her Story can very easily lead to a disappointing experience, and by its nature a second playthrough does not solve that. Scoring this game was not easy - based solely on my playthrough, I would have to give it either two or three stars, as it was unsatisfying and I walked away feeling "Was that it....?". On the other hand, had I not stumbled onto the key information so early on, I could easily see myself loving this game and giving it an easy four stars. For that reason, I still recommend checking out Her Story, despite my grievances, but be warded that the experience may be somewhat inconsistent.