Conceits and Deceits in Her Story

If you’re the kind of person that has ever used the phrase “but it’s not a game,” you should stop reading immediately and go play a real game instead.


Her Story stands proudly in that “Not Game” category. The obvious comparison is Gone Home, but Her Story jumps right past the exploration of physical spaces into the exploration of mental ones. The premise: you’re watching short clips of police interviews following a murder. That’s all there is to do (besides mess around with the sublime 1990s fictional operating system). You can watch the clips in any order if you know what to search for. This might not sound gripping, but trust me: it is. Like the game’s detectives posing questions (which are never audible), you are tasked with posing questions of your own. But which ones? How do you know what to ask? That’s the puzzle.  With the game being about deception (including one necessary deception within the game’s marketing itself), this isn’t a straightforward task.

And oh yes. It does feel like a meticulously crafted puzzle. One that is ultimately meant to be understood. Like Primer. Or any Christopher Nolan film (and one in particular). The perfect accompaniments to Her Story: a pen, a notebook, and Google on the ready.

On the other hand, sometimes I feel I’m listening to a perfectly crafted album. There’s a lot of layers to peel away here and a boat load of symbolism (wielded a bit too carelessly… one of the game’s only flaws IMHO).

But what I really want to talk about is one particularly clever design choice.

I’m no games scholar, but I’ve thought a lot about how one implements a nonlinear story line in games. Let’s say you want to make such a story. You want to split up a story into a jigsaw puzzle and have the player piece it back together, right? But how much freedom do you give the player?

Imagine giving someone a novel where all the pages are randomly ordered. What happens when the first page they read is the last page of the novel? Or a huge twist? Or the climax? You not only run into an almost guaranteed anticlimax, but the reader also has to waste time on tedious setup for the climatic parts they’ve already read. Obviously, a naive approach isn’t going to work.

So you take the BioShock approach. You take pages  1-5 and put them in the first section of the game. Then 5-10 in the next section. We’ve seen this before and it’s not particularly interesting. What if you want to give the player totally unfettered access to the story and STILL feed them the twists and turns of the plot at a reasonable pace? Is that possible?

Yup and the solution is rather brilliant.

The answer is poor technology. Not the game itself of course, but the fictional, in-game technology. It’s much like the way that movies prevent communication between characters with poor telephone reception. The fictional video database in Her Story only lets you see clips that you explicitly search for and then only 5 clips at a time for any given query. At first this appears like an arbitrary limitation, but it’s absolutely crucial to the pacing. First, it prevents you from finding all the clips by searching a handful of common English words. But more importantly it allows the game’s designer, Sam Barlow, to order the content perfectly. To make sure that you have to ask the right questions to get the right answers. You still could find any clip you wanted by searching the right term. But you won’t know to search for the term (some of these clips are only a few words). So you get to navigate large parts of the story however you want, but there’s still a loose ordering that tends to prevent you from totally screwing yourself by watching all the most interesting stuff first.

I’m really amazed that a few small limitations can enable such an interesting story to be told, but there it is. More games should use such devices or invent their own.

I really want to talk more about this game, but doing so would involve massive spoilers. Play Her Story and let’s talk about it.

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