Easily the most unique release of 2015, the brainchild of Sam Barlow not only defies genre convention, but it defies traditional storytelling logic as well. Attempting to unpack and explain what makes Her Story so brilliant is a puzzle in it of itself, as there’s really nothing quite like this ’90s mystery out there. This strange FMV title has been making its way around social media and forums around the Internet, with users sharing stories, tips and theories as to what exactly went on in the Summer of 1994, and for good reason. Every moment you spend unpacking this harrowing tale of murder, conspiracy and potential mental illness is completely your own, a feat that seems unheard of for a title that’s entirely based around unchanging, prerecorded full-motion video clips. A puzzle in every sense of the word, Her Story will challenge the way you think, test your logical prowess at every turn and leave you with an experience that will linger on your mind for days after you reach its stunning conclusion.
Describing Her Story is inherently bizarre, so prepare yourself for the strangest game description you’ve heard in quite some time. Players take the role of an initially anonymous investigator who has access to a police database from the 1990s. By searching various words in a rudimentary search engine, full-motion video clips depicting police interrogations with a woman appear in a five-clip queue. Whenever a given word is typed in, the results will be made up entirely of clips in which the woman uttered the searched word. For instance, by searching the word “murder,” players will have access to every video clip that the woman said the word “murder” in (this is the first recommended search term). New clips will have a yellow eye logo int he top-left corner, making it easy to see which clips are new and which have already been watched; in addition, players have the ability to store clips for later viewing and to add identifying tags to make re-watching simpler. This central mechanic might seem extremely rudimentary, and quite frankly it is, but the possibilities that these searches unlock create the framework for what can only be described as a mind-bending experience.
While it isn’t the technical powerhouse that will fry that brand new graphics card you purchased (quite frankly, why would it be?), Her Story uses its visuals to perfectly create the sense of immersion that a simulation of this level requires. From the illusion of scratches and dust resulting from a filter placed over the interface to the artificial glare created from florescent lighting, Sam Barlow clearly wants you to feel like you’re in a sterile room typing away at an old computer. The fact that the subtitles in the video clips are yellow, which is standard practice for older police interrogation clips, shows the attention to detail that went into the creation of this experience. Those who fondly remember the nineties should feel a wave of nostalgia whenever they boot up Her Story, which only serves to bring them further into the world that Her Story has created.
Her Story is, at its very core, one giant puzzle. It’s entirely up to you to determine what’s important and what’s meaningless, though it’s possible to completely misjudge the validity of one’s assumptions. There are a few facts that can be gleaned immediately, namely that a man named Simon has been found dead, but everything else is left up to the player. Because the proceedings are dependent on which terms the player searches for, the entire narrative is as nonlinear as can be. Perhaps you’ll find out about the main character’s identity before you figure out the details of the murder victim’s personal life. For me personally, my journey through this mysterious tale featured complete roadblocks and total revelations; while some will be able to blast through this two-hour experience in one sitting, a great deal of players will need to step away and ponder what they’ve seen and heard. Her Story is the type of game that consumes you both while you’re playing and during breaks, which only serves to highlight just how fantastic its narrative is.
After you’ve seen enough clips, you’ll get the option to see the credits, though the experience doesn’t necessarily stop there. The final revalation before the credits not only complicates matters sufficiently, but it drives you to want to figure out exactly what’s going on in the remainder of the clips. Players will get the ability to view a video at random and see up to fifteen videos in their queue (as opposed to the normal five), which makes seeing every single clip a bit easier. Even after viewing every bit of interrogation information possible, there are still a lot of questions to be answered, which speaks to how personal Her Story‘s narrative can be. If you’re looking for a game that’s wrapped up neatly at the end, this is certainly not the title for you (to be fair, there are thousands of games out there that do this for you). Her Story tells the type of tale that sticks around your consciousness for days after you’ve reached its conclusion, which is absolutely a testament to the power of its nonlinear storytelling.
No game in the last twelve months has handled tough social issues quite as well as Her Story. Whether or not the main character (whose name is being omitted on purpose to preserve the sanctity of one of the central plot-lines) suffers from a debilitating mental illness is certainly subject to debate, but the fact that this is left up to the player to decide feels elegant. There are hints of child abuse, promiscuity and tumultuous relationships, but none of these themes feel shoehorned in for the sake of shock value. Perhaps this is due to Her Story‘s open-ended nature or the wonderful acting performance by Viva Seifert, whose personality quirks are the true star of the show here. It certainly feels like there are a ton of games out there looking to make a statement or make players feel a certain way; Her Story is fantastic because players with any sort of personal history can have meaningful emotional reactions based on their own, you know, thoughts and feelings. In a world where it often feels like creative types are trying to insert their agendas into their work, there’s something oddly beautiful about a game that puts the focus entirely on what the player takes from the experience.
It takes games like Her Story to allow us to step back, realize what innovation and uniqueness actually look like and actually define what special is. This isn’t the type of game that will push your reflexes to the brink, but let’s be fair, not every game has to do that. Her Story shows us that the best puzzles are the ones that allow us to use our brains in ways we never have before; it proves that there are still novel ideas floating around out there somewhere. This year’s most unique game is something that gamers far and wide should experience for themselves, be it as a pallet cleanser in between massive AAA releases or as something to show them the power of the medium itself.