If you’ve ever read murder mysteries, you know that they have a strange magic hold over their readers. I’ve tried and tried and tried to figure them out before I finish reading, but I can never solve them before the end.
But I love them! I can’t get enough! So when I heard about the Her Story game, I was instantly invested.
Her Story is a deceptively simple game that succeeds on every level. You are searching through a database of police archival footage, all interviews with a woman whose husband went missing in the 1990s. As you type in search terms, more videos come up. Each is short, just a fraction of the original interviews with this woman. The shortest ones are only a second, the longest maybe around a minute. You can see only five videos at a time, so you have to be clever about what words you type in. Your goal is to trigger content you haven’t watched yet.
What makes this game feel so special? Is it the dated ’90s interface? The screen has reflections on it, like you’re sitting in a dingy office using a CRT monitor. Play the game with headphones, and you’ll hear the hums and clicks of fluorescent lights over the soundtrack. When you type search terms into the database, the game gives you feedback in the sound of old keyboard keys, clack-clacking away. I turned off the sound of my iPad’s keyboard so I could just hear the fake keys when I typed.
The aesthetic is cohesive and perfect. Opening up Her Story made me feel like I had secrets worth keeping.
“I can’t tell you what just happened!” I would gush to my coworkers, after finding a new video, a new bombshell. I stuck Post-it notes to my computer. I kept a list of terms that I wanted to search.
One of the most incredible things about Her Story is that it turns you into a self-directed detective. Almost every person I’ve spoken to starts the game by searching the logical murder-mystery buzzwords we’re familiar with. Evidence, weapon, fingerprint, suspect—they all return videos, but in Her Story they almost function as red herrings.
As you uncover who the characters are in this particular mystery, your searches get a little more specific. Names from this woman’s childhood, places she mentions, recurring metaphors. And the thing that impressed me most is that, as you search, you’re constructing your own narrative. It’s not just about this woman and what happened to her husband. It’s about you, and how you put the pieces together. What tipped you off about this or that lie, what clues you saw that make you certain you know the answer to the mystery.
This game is a feat of both writing and acting. You can watch the videos in any order. Actress Viva Seifert delivers answers to an off-screen detective in such a way that it doesn’t matter that you’re seeing half a conversation split into hundreds of pieces. Writer Sam Barlow says that the detective’s part is scripted as well—but we’re probably never going to get to read it.
“Maybe there’s a place, when everyone in the world has played it and enjoyed it, I can do a supplementary—the kind of stuff that would be in an art book or whatever,” he told Polygon in a recent interview, where he discussed the game’s much-debated ending.
This is one of those games that I would recommend, even if you’re “not a gamer.” Games like Mass Effect tell great stories too, but they’re kept behind a barrier of difficult-to-master controls and requisite fast reflexes. All you need to play Her Story is your device and your curiosity. “It’s a unique way to interact with a narrative,” Barlow said, describing the game. “Something that can only be done interactively.”
Her Story is definitely an adult game. There’s language, references to sex and alcohol, and…well, the people in this game are pretty screwed up. It’s almost ’90s English Gothic, if such a genre exists. I mean that what appears to be a straightforward murder mystery is full of a lot more strangeness than you might expect.
If you want to try it, Her Story is only $5.00. It’s available for PC, Mac, and iOS. I played it on my iPad, in my bedroom with the lights turned off. I recommend the experience.