Boy oh boy. I did not expect to love this game so much, but I did.
I am not really a fan of interactive narrative experiences, especially the traditional kind on Twine (sorry Alex, my interactive narrative prof). For the uninformed, traditional interactive narratives are text-based and generally feature story-branching through decision-making. You can play an excellent example here: http://www.depressionquest.com/
“But, Zhi Xin, don’t you love literature? Don’t you love games? Wouldn’t the combination of the two be RIGHT UP YOUR ALLEY?”
You would think! But life has its way of springing surprises, and this is one of them.
I love reading because it allows me to sit back and get introduced to characters I would otherwise not have known. Not just introduced – I get to know what they’re thinking and why, their little obsessions, their paradoxes and complexes. I get to be some hovering presence as they make their mistakes and rectify or not rectify them. And I am not responsible for any of it! I get to feel what they feel with none of the burden that comes with the consequences. I love not having agency in this respect!
Now throw agency in for interactive narratives, and now I am just… me? Where’s the joy in learning about another person? There’s no way out – either the decisions I make affect the story, making the protagonist my reflection, or I feel forced to decide something that isn’t me at all, and not understand why I’m doing it. Feels miserable either way.
So my ideal interactive narrative would be one where I can be passive, yet with interaction that falls naturally into place.
Cue… Her Story!
I didn’t read much about what the game was about, only that there was a series of police interviews which I have to go through in the course of the game. I thought it was a murder mystery, and the win-lose condition of the game would be solving it. Nope.
When you start the game, you are given about no instructions, just this screen:
Two things were clear to me immediately:
- This is a database of video clips belonging to the police
- This is modeled after a 90s computer
At first I was like, hey cool, how much freedom do I have? So I tried the term “robbery”. Nothing. Clearly this was the database relating to just that one case.
Since “murder” was helpfully pre-filled, I went with that. At the end of the experience I would be in awe of this brilliance. I’ll explain that later.
4 results came out. Now these results are video snippets of police-conducted interviews, and can be as short as one sentence. Sometimes you watch a result that’s like “I must have popped out to get some milk,” and because you haven’t watched the context that the sentence was made, the relevance of the clip is not known to you. Another design decision: you can only watch a maximum of five clips with any search term. This ensures that you can’t just search a common word and then watch the entire archive at one go. You have to choose a term that hits the right balance of specificity and generality, so that it will target the questions you have, and reveal a greater part of the story that you don’t know, allowing you to think of the next search term.
It’s basically detective work perfect for the internet era, and at the same time – unexpectedly – it resembles what a reader does when uncovering the plot of a book! All the pleasures of reading, translated seamlessly for the interactive medium!
My perception of my objective was to try to understand what happened, and that was cohesive with my action of googling my way through the interviews. When the mechanic of a game fits so well with the objective, that’s when you know you have a gem.
Of course, execution was amazing as well. Remember the brilliance I mentioned just now? Well, one of the risky things of such a mechanic is that you cannot impose an order on how the player experiences the story, and as such, there is a huge possibility that the sequence actually experienced is disjointed or unsatisfying. For me, though, the beats of the story felt on point. Sure, I was jumping back and forth, but somehow I still achieved a kind of ideal story arc of exposition – rising action – climax – denouement. And the only control the designers had? The first search term.
The execution of this game is so masterful that they managed to expect the questions you had after watching each clip, and make sure that important video clips can only be found through search terms you will only think of after watching a huge part of the story. This means that words had to be chosen very precisely; no word vomit allowed in the explanation that might appear unintentionally. THIS IS ART, GUYS. ART.
And all the most brilliant design decisions in the world won’t help if the story and protagonist are drab, but Her Story would never let that be so with how fascinating the protagonist is, and the uncommon plot twist. The story carried itself; the main character was believable and contradictory, like we all are. There were some points in the story where I thought they were trying a little too hard to reveal what happened, like when she sings the ballad for the interviewer, but that’s just nitpicking. The truth is I was utterly absorbed in the story; it felt like a good book, and that’s not something I have felt often with games.