Billed as an interactive narrative, indie mystery sim Her Story, also available for iPad and iPhone, by Sam Barlow, stars actress and musician Viva Seifert as a woman whose husband has gone missing. She was interviewed on tape seven times about his disappearance, and you have it all at your fingertips in clips cataloged in a searchable police database. Just type in your search terms, hit enter, and the computer will pull up all the relevant clips that contain the words you've chosen, or those that have been tagged by you. The directions are minimal, instructions on how to operate the machine in front of you, and the clips you'll pull up are mostly out of order, leaving you to figure out what to search for, in any combination, as you watch clips and piece together the truth. As you search through clips and listen, you'll want to take notes of your own (yes, children, actual, physical notes) of everything from relevant or suspicious dates, peoples, events, and places. But what's relevant and what isn't? Is her casual admission of where she went one evening worth digging into or just a red herring? Does the slight smirk she gives when she mentions someone's name mean something? Her Story unfolds in front of you as you dig deeper, and if you love a good mystery and appreciate a finely crafted tale, you won't want to put it down.
I can remember quite clearly that there was a moment while I was playing Her Story, listening to a clip I'd dug up on a particular search term, when something happened that made my eyebrows shoot straight up. That, I think, is one of the hallmarks of a good mystery story, which is what Her Story is at its core, in addition to a character study. Up until that point, I thought I knew where things were going, and suddenly I was pulling up old clips to double-check comments for contradictions, watching the way she spoke to figure out where to go next. Noticing recurring themes and searching for related words will almost get you farther within the game than actual note taking, but only to an extent, since to get the whole story you'll need to know exactly what you're looking for. The downside is that depending on what you search for, it's possible to stumble across big revelations very early on, and it can be frustrating trying to figure out the right combination of search terms to pull out what you want, especially since you're limited to five clips onscreen at a time, and the game doesn't count "cheat" and "cheated" as the same search term, but "love" will pull up results for "loves".
What makes Her Story fascinating, however, is the way so much meaning can be found in all of these clips, no matter the order you encounter them in. Some are just a few seconds, while others might be a minute or more, and rewatching them after you learn new information can often be eye-opening as you pick up on the double-meanings, the hints, the subtle cues. You're constantly second guessing everything you see and hear... did you miss anything? Have you figured it out now? Or is another clip going to change your mind? Barlow was behind the excellent exercise in storytelling that was Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, a game that made me lay awake after I'd finished it and pick out all the new meaning I could now see in seemingly innocuous scenes and conversations, so the way Her Story is so carefully crafted with layers and layers is no surprise. Viva Seifert's performance is excellent, revealing so much in glances, body language, even fleeting expressions that she'll keep you guessing all throughout. The game's presentation is simple but effective, in the way that it often makes you forget it is a game... there are no timers, no points, no inventories or checklists... just you, the data, and however you manage to uncover it. It's utterly engrossing, the sort of thing you'll sink into like the best sort of book, and fans of crime novels of all sorts will find something to like here. Her Story is a compellingly crafted interactive experience like no other, though one can only hope we see much more like it from its talented team.
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