Note: Although Her Story has been out for a while, at the time of writing, this is still a spoiler free review, for those who may be tempted to play, after reading.
When you hear the term FMV, you think back to the 80s and early 90s and terrible efforts at creating ‘interactive films’, propped up by shonky acting. Shudder no more, a new generation of FMV has arrived and it’s good. Created by Sam Barlow, whose credits include Aisle and Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, Her Story delivers an intriguing, non-linear story, that makes you play detective.
As the player of Her Story, you are an unknown individual who is raiding police files from 1994 to piece together the story of a cold case. In June 1994, Simon Smith was reported missing by his wife and that’s all you know. The player has been given access to old interview video files, by a mysterious friend, allowing you to piece together the story.
You must input search terms to find new snippets of video, which can then be tagged for later reference. As you plunder the database, the story is revealed in a series of police interviews. The videos feature a woman and crucially, a recording time and date, which helps you piece together the narrative. You can’t hear the interviewer or the questions, only the woman’s responses, so you have to fill in the blanks and try to guess the line of questioning.
A keyword, such as ‘Simon’ throws up a number of videos, whereas something like ‘computer’ may only get you one hit. This is a game that encourages you to become a sleuth. You’ll need pen and paper at hand for this one, to eliminate keywords you’ve already searched and keep track of theories and character relationships to explore later.
The whole game is given a sinister air by the design of the interface. This is clearly a 90s CRT monitor, on a PC running Windows 95. A striplight reflects across the surface of the monitor, revealing a faint silhouette of the person sitting at the desk i.e. you, the player. Sometimes the light flickers and buzzes and your reflection comes into view more clearly, but then it’s gone again. However, it’s an eerie moment and makes you question your identity in the game and where exactly you are.
Her Story relies on two things; superb writing by Sam Barlow and an excellent performance from Viva Seifert, who plays the woman in the interview tapes. Fortunately, both do what’s required of them. Barlow’s script weaves fairytale themes into what could have been a conventional whodunnit. Added to that, Seifert multi-layered performance keeps you guessing and doubting your hunches. Just as you make a decision about her character, she uses a small gesture or says something to unravel your theory.
As the plot is revealed, each successful search becomes a small victory. The further you go into the game, the more inventive you have to be with your search terms. The database shows you how many files you’ve opened and how many you’ve got left to find.
Her Story is as gripping as any TV crime drama, such as The Killing, delivering plot twists and big reveals. What makes the game more astonishing though, is that Barlow has no control over when those narrative moments happen. Each players experience will be different, depending on which search term they use and when they use it. Often I got a reveal and then found out the true significance of that moment a few videos down the line.
If you don’t like ambiguity, then Her Story may not be for you. There is no big narrative bow at the end, when the lights come on, you find out who you are and who did actually dunnit. Instead, you are left with your notes, the videos and your theory. Her Story is like Twin Peaks, in that you need a friend who’s been there too, so that you can analyse every clue and every word to develop your own crazy theory of what just happened.
I highly recommend Her Story if you want to experience a game that’s fresh, clever and gripping. I suspect this game’s going to be on the ‘reading’ lists of film and gaming students for years to come. You can find my Let’s Play on our YouTube channel, but first, I urge you to play it yourself, it’ll be a much better experience that way.