Video games can be great and important works, but not all of them are. Games For Adults is Playboy.com’s regular column highlighting the ones that can make you think about more than hit points and head shots.
One of 2015’s most celebrated and original video games is definitely developer Sam Barlow’s mystery thriller Her Story, and one of the biggest reasons why is its excellent use of full-motion video.
For those unfamiliar, a full-motion video (or FMV for short) game relies on pre-recorded video files with real people acting rather than the graphics typically found in games. Her Story is about a set of fictional interview tapes which feature a woman named Hannah Smith (played by Viva Seifert) whose husband, Sam, has been found murdered. In order to solve the murder and catch your culprit you have to view a bunch of these live action police interviews and piece together clues you gather from the tapes.
The entire experience is driven by Seifert’s wonderful performance and the game’s heavy reliance on your detective skills as there are no hints or any kind of handholding. Barlow uses the FMV design with great effect as he has you solve a crime like you never have before in a video game.
THE UPS AND DOWNS
Barlow choice to use real videos because of his desire to make an experience that focused solely on storytelling.
“The starting point was that I wanted to make a police procedural game,” Barlow shared with me. “I was thinking about that and at some point I zero’d in on the idea of the police interview. That seemed like a good focus—to do away with the car chases, varied locations and action you might expect of a police video game, to focus on the dialogue and character. From there I came up with the idea of the database, and of it being video-based. Then I started to put the story together and allowed that to become the center of development.”
Barlow previously worked on both Silent Hill: Origins and Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, in which he spent most of his development time working on the script, and rehearsing and shooting with actors using motion capture. Constantly working with an actress during Her Story’s development did not feel too unusual for Barlow. However what was a departure for him was how differently an independent FMV game like Her Story actually plays from most other traditional titles, and the deluge of advantages and challenges associated with making one.
“To be honest, the bigger differences here were the fact that I was making a solo independent game and that its core game structure and mechanics were so unconventional,” says Barlow. “The advantages are obvious—you get a perfect capture of the performance, rather than spend millions and end up with a somewhat robotic or plastic looking Kevin Spacey [a reference to Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, in which Spacey starred]. There’s an instant emotional connection with the video, with the found footage look that is hard, or perhaps impossible, to hit via CGI. This makes the game accessible in a way that most other games aren’t.“
Barlow adds, "Challenges? It’s weird to get your head around something that cannot be changed once it’s shot. We’re so used to being able to tweak and alter anything within a video game that it’s uncomfortable to be in a position where you have all this content that cannot be changed (without a re-shoot). Also, because video is something of an old fashioned idea within games, it’s not completely straightforward to make use of it in a game engine—that required a little bit of work.”
A few more traditional games have used FMV in the past and still they don’t feel or play that much differently from mostly everything else out there. The recent Need for Speed, which uses several FMV scenes, is a prime example. It’s like any other arcade racer—you just have to quickly cross the finish line driving some ridiculously expensive cars. What makes Her Story so special, however, is how it fuses FMV with its peculiar mechanics and structure.
“You see what they’ve done with games like Need for Speed and Guitar Hero,” says Barlow. “Clearly they hit a point where they looked at what they were doing to create their cutscene CGI and realized it was going to be easier to just shoot it for real. You’re swapping one type of content for another. On Her Story, the big differences came from making a game that was genuinely player-driven and truly non-linear.”
AWARDS AND CLASSROOMS
Her Story’s only character is Hannah Smith, and you’ll be spending a lot of your time viewing her police interviews and trying to figure out what’s she really thinking. Is she guilty or innocent? Seifert recently won an award at The Game Awards 2015 for her exceptional performance as Hannah Smith. To put it bluntly, without Seifert’s nuanced effort Her Story would’ve crumbled, and she was always one of Barlow’s number one choices for the role.
“Working with Viva was fantastic,” says Barlow. “We’d worked together before on the cancelled Legacy of Kain: Dead Sun project, so we knew each other and Viva knew the kind of stuff I wrote and I knew how great Viva was at taking a line and giving it dimension. When I was developing the story, I very quickly thought about Viva and put her at the top of my list of people who could make the game work.
“Viva is very watchable, she’s capable of being very precise with her performance in a way that I knew was going to be important if this game was going to work” he says. “When I approached her she said yes, and continued to say yes even when she realized what she was letting herself in for—that she was the sole actor and that the whole project kind of rested on her shoulders!”
With that great performance in mind, Her Story is now actually being taught by teachers in a few classrooms.
“There have been a number of teachers who’ve used Her Story,” says Barlow. “I think in general they see it as a fun, involving way to get their students thinking about storytelling, deduction, about how we can extrapolate from only a few pieces. A lot of people have told me that Her Story plays well in a group setting, so I can see that a classroom setup is a perfect environment to try this out.”
FLIPPING THE SCRIPT
Every year there are always a handful of video games that attempt to try something new, whether it’s by employing creative and fun gameplay mechanics or uniquely telling a fantastic narrative, and Her Story is one of them. It’s a great showcase of how effective and powerful interactive storytelling can be. Barlow perfectly uses several different tools, like FMV, great writing, and player input to craft an experience you can’t get outside of a video game.
“It’s a game that respects not only its audience’s intelligence, but their imagination,” says Barlow. “We’re so immersed in storytelling in our modern lives that a linear modern mystery can struggle to find a new twist to wow us. Her Story takes this problem and flips it—so the game uses our familiarity with the tropes of mystery stories and uses it to have the audience build the story themselves.
"I think that’s something that feels exciting to people. It’s involving and intimate.”
It most definitely is. Her Story is currently available on PC.
Aleksander Gilyadov is a freelance writer with an eclectic taste in film, music, and games. He believes Breaking Bad is the greatest show mankind has concocted, and that The Sopranos is actually a bit overrated.
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