Feature

Inside Her Story: The Indie Mystery Game That People Can’t Stop Analyzing

by Kimberley Wallace on Jul 03, 2015 at 04:00 AM

Her Story, a game where you search a police database for clips pertaining to a fictional 1994 case, has been one of this summer's biggest surprises. Centering on a twisted narrative about the disappearance of a woman's husband, the shocking reveals and lingering ambiguity have kept players talking long after the credits have rolled. The crime mystery has yielded comparisons to highly praised media, such as True Detective and Serial, for how it grips you and keeps you thinking.

As of this writing, Her Story holds an 87 for PC and 90 for iOS on Metacritic. My own review for Game Informer comes with high praise for how the themes stay with you and forces you to pay attention in a way most games don't. Her Story is such a unique experience for video games, putting you in front a computer straight out of the '90s with only one goal: type in keywords to bring up video clips to discover more about the case. We couldn't resist chatting with creator Sam Barlow about topics ranging from its origins and ambiguity to if he had any doubts about its simplistic nature.

Leaving Triple-A Behind For A New Venture

Sam Barlow isn't a stranger to the video game industry. He's best known for his work on games such as Aisle and Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, but he's always had a yearning to bring crime fiction to video games in a compelling way.

"I've always wanted to do a police procedural thing," Barlow says. "It was kind of maddening to me; if you turn on TV or go to a book shop, there's so much that's police thrillers, serial-killer things, detective stories...it's huge. But it's never been big in video games, so I was always pitching publishers to do something with this."

Unfortunately, publishers were reluctant to take a chance on something of this nature, and Barlow was always met with skepticism. "That's probably a reflection of people realizing that this kind of material works so well on TV and in books because of the characters," Barlow says. "The mystery is driven by characters on TV with the performance and dialogue, and there's a challenge there with how video games traditionally work. How the hell do [video games] do justice to this material?"

Barlow recalls Rockstar's L.A. Noire as the closest thing to his vision, but notes even that had its problems, such as an awkward disconnect between the player and its main character, Cole Phelps. Barlow pointed to wonderful, nuanced performances followed by Phelps screaming at someone in a way the player didn't intend. Barlow also wanted to do something that focused more on a narrative instead of an open world.

It didn't hit him that this format could work on a smaller scale, until he noticed games like Device 6, Year Walk, and Blackbar. "I kept playing and thinking, 'This is really interesting stuff and these are made from teams of one to two people. They're able to do this really interesting work and they're finding an audience for it,'" Barlow recalls. "I could tell from just how jealous I felt towards those guys, that this [direction] was something that made sense."

Barlow decided to make a game by himself and never looked back. His very first idea was to place the entire game around a police interview, and the reasons behind that are more intriguing than you'd think.

Up next: Having subtext translate to a video game and the use of FMVs...

Capturing The Performance

Being a fan of crime mysteries in other media, Barlow returned to what made them successful: the characters. He also noticed that an important element to these mysteries was the actual detective work, such as plugging away at the computer and comparing video and photos endlessly to have that eureka moment.

Barlow was practically inspired by the TV show Homicide: Life on the Street. "That was this type of cop show that really focused and brought to life the interrogation, the interview room, and how homicide detectives would manipulate people. There was always an opportunity for character actors to come into that show and really shine in that interrogation room, telling really some interesting stories and revealing cool stuff," Barlow says. "I had that in my mind that I wanted to do something like that."

The police interview would be important, but Barlow really wanted to get a live performance. Looking back on his days in triple-A, he always found that motion capture was a bit frustrating and time-consuming. "It always seemed perverse to me," he says, remembering watching the reference video of the actual actors and comparing it to the new 3D version. "You'd be pointing at the video, saying, 'Look at the performance,' - the expression of their face, what they do with their eyes, and you'd be looking at the 3D version and it wouldn't be there," he explains.

To cut costs and to achieve the subtext he wanted, Barlow made the decision to have Full Motion Video (FMV) sequences in the game. FMVs may seem like a relic from the '90s, but it helps that Her Story is set in that decade.  Barlow also thinks they've been ineffective in games due to various reasons.  "For me, the FMV games that worked - or in theory should have worked - were things like Night Trap and Voyeur, where they acknowledged it was video," Barlow says.

Barlow is aware that some hesitation comes with the word FMV, but he feels Her Story combats the larger issues.  "Most people think an FMV game is essentially a game where there is no role for the player...there is no imagination; you're just going to sit there and watch something on screen, and they think that's boring, Barlow explains. "But actually for Her Story, it's chopping it up in the database and finding it in this disordered fashion that really is a nice way of drawing you in as a player into the experience. You're heavily involved in it, you're thinking a lot inside and outside of the game. Your brain is really working over all this material."

Subtext would also be important to Her Story - something Barlow admits doesn't always come across well in video games. He knew he needed the right actress if it was going to get across. After working with Her Story's lead Viva Seifert on a canceled project, Barlow knew she'd be perfect for the role. "I knew she could do this, because she's good with her body language," Barlow says. However, that doesn't mean he didn't worry about the demands he was putting on her. The shoot, done chronologically, lasted an intense week. "Halfway through, I went back to the hotel was like, 'Christ, what if Viva collapses because it's too much?'" Barlow recalls. "I've worked with actors who would crack under this type of pressure, and I've worked with actors who were really, really good but can't hold a script in their head. It was like, 'I'm so lucky that this is working and Viva is nailing this.'"

Up next: Crafting the finale and finding success...

A Finale To Leave You Thinking

While Her Story definitely provides answers, it also leaves some things up to your imagination. Barlow compares it to movies. Most have an "A" and "B" plot. The A-plot usually gets resolved, but most of the time the B-plot isn't as cut-and-dried. He uses the example of The Verdict's phone call at the end, where you have to decide if the main character answers the phone call of his love interest.  "Everyone who watches that film has their own idea, but it's left open," Barlow says. "To me that's beautiful. It keeps the characters alive in your head."

When crafting the finale of Her Story, Barlow wasn't always sure it would even have an ending. He wondered if the game needed one, but when asking playtesters, he realized players were so intrigued they needed to know if they had found everything that was important. Therefore, Barlow started thinking about ways to end the game. He realized that players needed to feel like they had some closure, but he didn't want you to finish the game and forget about it, either.

"I don't want to give you everything, where you can neatly put it in a box and forget about it," Barlow explains. "With Her Story, it was at the point where the player has gotten enough information, most of the questions they've had have been answered, but there is still some bigger questions in terms of what has happened in the intervening years and what is the ultimate outcome, that I'm going to let you have your own ideas about it. That way it continues to percolate in your head, which for me is just a real nice solution."

Finding Success

So far, Barlow has been impressed with Her Story's reception. "My expectations were way, way low," he says. "The last couple of days I've been amazed at how the game has done. It's really gratifying to see people really getting it and just appreciating it."

From the beginning, Barlow simply wanted to prove that a compelling crime story could be told in a video game. He also wanted to make sure a broad range of people could pick up and play his game. "The sweet spot for me was creating anything that someone can pick up and play - that doesn't make it stupid, doesn't make it simple," he says. "That seems to really have worked here. All sorts of people, from dedicated gamers to those who only play the odd game on their iPad, are interested and engrossed in the experience."

After being in the business for 10 years, it was hard for him not to worry that people would think Her Story would be too simple; essentially you're just typing words into a database to piece together what happened. At times, Barlow had to stop himself from adding anything extra to the experience. The strength of the game was its simplicity. As Barlow says, "I kind of knew what was cool about this was the purity of the concept, and if I start diluting that, it's going to be more confusing for players. If there are loads of cool things to do outside of typing in words, then it's going to diminish that."

So far it looks like Barlow's approach has been working just fine as Her Story continues to grip players in more ways than one.