Her Story isn’t like most games. It doesn’t feature guns or a joyless male protagonist with a gruff voice committing acts of violence against dehumanized enemies. You don’t drive anywhere, shoot anyone, or build anything. Instead, you type. You enter search terms into a virtual computer hooked up to a fictional police database, in order to watch excerpts from a series of fictional interviews about a fictional murder.
All the excerpts are from the perspective of the suspect—the detectives working the case back in ‘94 asked questions, but you only see the woman’s answers. You can interact with other parts of the Windows 95-like interface, but for the most part, you’re just typing and pressing play. You watch videos and listen to the sounds of fluorescent lights humming and people coughing. These are all pieces of a larger recreation, of using a computer to dig up the past.
Because you can’t access all the videos at once, it’s up to you to find as many video clips as you can by deriving new search terms from videos you’ve already seen. As you watch more and more clips, you get a better sense of what happened leading up to the murder, as well as to the suspect herself. It’s over whenever you believe you’ve heard enough.
We don’t typically interact with games this way, and because much of Her Story involves actions we don’t typically associate with games, there’s a subset of “gamers” who don’t even consider it to be one. In order to be a game, they say, you need “gameplay,” whatever that means, and concrete goals to work toward. Most importantly, you need to have control.
And yet Her Story is one of the best examples of the inherent value of interactivity I can think of. This is in large part because of how limited your interactions with it are.
You could view the entire “game” on Youtube, and you’d probably have a better understanding of what happened, since such a video would probably place all of the video clips in chronological order. But Her Story is not a Youtube video. Its interface, the way you “build” the story by searching for terms and watching the relevant videos, is key to the experience, and that interactivity is key to its success as entertainment. Searching for terms, trying to fill out the database and find all the most relevant clips, keeping a notepad document of all the terms you still need to search for—these little bits are all the “gameplay” Her Story needs, and that’s OK.
Having to find each clip separately means you build your own context for the story you watch. Every player will find the clips in a different order, and some players won’t find every clip. There are innocuous ones, like the very first one (chronologically speaking), where the suspect chooses not to get sugar with her coffee because she’s “already sweet enough.” If this is the first clip you watch, it won’t mean much. But without spoiling anything, finding it much later in your playthrough could place it in an entirely new, more meaningful context. Your actions may not change the events, but they do change the way you view those events.
Many single-player games don’t even offer you this much. Instead, games that focus on all the verbs Her Story lacks—driving, shooting, building—actually turn these actions into blockades, preventing the player from accessing more of their “story” unless you perform well enough to overcome challenges. They’re like books that strive to make turning the page more challenging.
Besides, you are in fact working toward a goal while playing Her Story: a state of understanding. The murder mystery begs you to learn more, and your goal is to get a better sense of what happened. Combing through all the video files is how you accomplish that goal.
In most games, your ability to drive, shoot, or fight well doesn’t change the outcome of the story or its context. You don’t have control over how the story plays out or how you view the story—only how quickly you progress through them and turn the pages. The belief that only games that fit this narrow definition are worth a damn puts a needless constraint on the medium of video games—like watching a game on YouTube instead of experiencing it yourself.
And in the case of Her Story, just as with any other game, that would be a shame.
Suriel Vazquez has written for Playboy, Paste, Kotaku, and several others. You can follow him on Twitter @SurielVazquez.
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