FMV adventure games have often been called shallow experiences, with the time of video clips overshadowing the actual gameplay. So does Sam Barlow‘s investigative drama/thriller Her Story have what it takes to bring the genre back on track?
Her Story (PC)
(UK 2015, developer/publisher: Sam Barlow, platforms: PC, iOS)
A British woman is interviewed about her missing husband in 1994, the interview clips being reviewed by a police investigator some years later to solve the mystery.
Preliminary obsessions with cinema and genre-defying games
Designer Sam Barlow is known for his involvement with Silent Hill: Origins for the PSP and Silent Hill: Shattered Memories for the Wii, both highly underrated psychological horror titles. So it comes as no surprise that his latest game shares some storytelling DNA that is also present in filmmaker David Lynch’s works, i.e. mistaken identity, mental instability, sex, and murder.
The difference between movies and games is an obvious one: the one is non-interactive, the other is interactive. It’s a very important point to be made, and while movies don’t have to tell a linear story, games usually do, except for JRPGs in which protagonists usually have a strange affinity to amnesia. Of course this narrative device has been done in other games as well, e.g. when telling a background story or throwing the player right in the middle of an unexplained situation that only slowly unravels.
The Silent Hill games have always been good at confusing their audience, but also fascinating them, with a world that is real and unreal at the same time, only hinting at different interpretations. They’ve also been concerned with unreliable narrators, weird settings and twisted minds of people. Her Story might at first seem like a typical crime story, but it soon turns out to be more mysterious and disturbing.
Click, search and watch
Unfortunately, the gameplay is a two-sided sword. It involves searching for keywords in a police database which then shows various interview video clips from different periods of time with a woman (or two women who look the same and say they’re sisters). On the one hand, picking different strands of the narrative creates tension and interest. On the other hand, selecting these timelines without sometimes knowing what to look for creates confusion and irritation.
Even with a database map that shows how many parts of the interview have been uncovered (shown in green) and which can/have to be found (shown in red), it’s up to the player to organize these pieces of information, as they don’t come in a chronological order. Looking at the date and time of the video recordings or the faces and clothes provides hints, but how they all fit together is part of the mystery and appeal of the game.
As the narrative strands depend on which path the player chooses or which keywords are typed in, each playthrough can be different. It helps that one can play backwards, forwards or pause the interviews, and there’s also a personal tagging option. But with so many videos it’s often difficult to keep track of them all. A history of keywords one typed in is only partly useful, as it’s not ordered alphabetically, while searching a word twice also appears twice. It’s possible to add a set number of videos to a personal list, but arranging these isn’t necessary to complete the game. Ultimately, it requires patience and attention to detail in order to find new leads, even if the playtime is only 1-2 hours.
The way the investigation is done by searching through various evidence videos is interesting, and the non-linearity is quite unique. But it would be too much to call it innovative or even compelling and thrilling. The one-more-keyword and come-closer-to-the-solution gameplay is addictive, but it’s also quite repetitive. Of course having different interviewees would have made the one-point-of-view purpose less effective, but having more interaction with another investigator or at least looking for other pieces of evidence would have made the gameplay more interesting. The whole time is spent on a single computer screen. While it’s possible to play a mini game for distraction, there’s little in the way of other things to do.
Realism and gamification
The whole aesthetics are very 90s with even an option to have an anti-glare filter turned off, so one sees the reflection of lights and an indistinguishable face in front of the computer. The video quality is that of old VHS cassettes, adding to the authenticity as well. Other than that, there are only a few background noises like office work voices or cars driving by. Music is only used in the title screen, so one shouldn’t expect a cinematic experience as in other FMVs.
FMV adventures with a crime mystery aren’t new. While some use a less serious approach like the Text Murphy series or Casebook trilogy, others are more effective to involve the player, e.g. The Golden Gate Killer or the In Memoriam titles. These are much longer games than Barlow’s title, while featuring memorable characters, including the main protagonist, with more varied gameplay.
Characters, acting and storytelling
Her Story has a faceless investigator, personified by the player him- or herself, and only one person (or two?) to investigate. Questions can’t be asked, answers are often out of context, so the player has to fill in the information, find the missing links. It’s both a curse and a blessing, making it a much more cerebral activity, but also an experience not suitable for everyone, at least not those who like to have everything explained. Viva Seifert who’s the only actress does a pretty good job despite having no acting experience (only being a member of music bands Bikini Atoll and Joe Gideon & the Shark). It’s fascinating to watch her go through the motions, portraying various states of mind and making the player pay close attention to her gestures. Unfortunately the improvisation acting sometimes shows overacting and less than convincing performances a better actress would have known to avoid.
Even with an interesting story about an intriguing character, storytelling is far from perfect, as the only suspense and creepiness is found in unspoken words or situations which evoke strange images. Granted, this usually works in movies, but in games, the lack of exposition leads to the point when one simply wants a bit more. Scratching one’s head around statements from different points of views and time can only help to progress a story so much. However, if there are many mundane scenes which deal with spilled coffee or the actress playing guitar it might make her more likable or easier to relate to. But it doesn’t help the investigation and atmosphere. It also doesn’t help that one can accidentally complete the game without knowing exactly why, only being rewarded with the credits rolling when quitting it.
An FMV adventure like no other, but no masterpiece of storytelling
Sam Barlow shows with Her Story that there’s still life left in the FMV genre, and that it’s still possible to innovate in the adventure game genre. Featuring some good acting, an often touching, creepy script with surprising twists, this is an experience unlike most, relying solely on video clips. Unfortunately, there’s not much else in the gameplay than watching these videos and finding logical connections. A bit more investigative work with various tools would have made the gameplay more varied and interesting.
As it stands, it’s a game that doesn’t outstay its welcome with such a short playtime. It also shows how games with their interactivity and non-linearity can achieve things movies can’t. It’s a compelling experience to play and experiment with, even if the novelty of the idea soon wears off and the story and character(s) themselves could have been more interesting. Those who want to fully immerse themselves in a more elaborate story and more varied gameplay, will find In Memoriam or The Golden Gate Killer more accessible and enjoyable. But those who want to see what the FMV genre can also be like will find Sam Barlow’s entry a weird and memorable experience.
Buy the iOS game on
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