Her Story or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Embrace Uncertainty.
Last month saw the release of Her Story, a brilliant detective game in which players sit before a police computer and type search queries into a database full of live action video footage. The archive covers seven interviews from 1994, in which a British woman (played by Viva Seifert) is interviewed by detectives about her missing husband.
A simple but powerful game mechanic, searching allows players to interrogate Seifert’s nuanced performance in a naturally unfolding, non-linear fashion. You’ll notice suspicious discrepancies, loaded phrases and symbolic motifs as you form and fold various competing theories in search of the truth.
A dazzling achievement in interactive storytelling, it addresses lots of big, innately human questions. It’s about internet juries, family secrets, the fallibility of individual perspectives, and the fraudulence of simple answers. It’s about the stories we tell, and the stories we don’t. It’s about lots of important subjects that are rarely broached in games.
Much has been said and written about the game’s themes, but what fascinates me the most about Her Story is what’s absent. It’s a game without an ending. I began my investigation expecting to crack the case and to be congratulated. I expected certitude and curtains, but they never came.
I’ve been thinking about Her Story for a month now and, revisiting my wannabe detective notes, the only thing that I’m certain of is my gnawing sense of uncertainty.
This is not to say that there’s no sense of achievement or resolution in the game. The procedural act of investigation carries with it an inherent momentum, and the brooding score often crescendos in order to ground the feeling that you’re achieving something. There’s also a “database checker,” where each clip you watch fills in a little green rectangle on a grid not dissimilar to a disk defragmentation tool or a progress bar. Still, in a world where our watches congratulate us for walking to work, and in a medium founded on gold stars and experience points (one where developers have been know revise the end of their games in order to grant more closure), the game is intimidatingly open ended.
Trawling the game’s message boards in search of closure, critic Austin Walker discovered the following exchange.
The question, “how do I decide when I am satisfied”, is laughable on its face, but there’s something profound underneath it. It speaks to how most games are content just to appeal to their players’ basest urges, to their power fantasies of righteous resolution, and to just how rare it is for a game to leave those urges deliberately unfed.
Writing about the fervour surrounding the apparently unsatisfying ending of Mass Effect 3, Adam Sessler once wrote that:
I’ve always felt that the controversy of the game’s ending ignored that the entire game was an ending, a summation of decisions and behaviours that came before. Even the game’s oh-so-infuriating “decision” at its conclusion and its seemingly indistinct results resonated with me. We are what we have done, this desire to find approbation in the final analysis, it’s a falsity, a children’s story we tell ourselves to mitigate the frustrations. You don’t get to collect on your efforts, your efforts are all you’ve collected.
Clearly closure isn’t always a bad thing, but we have to recognise that closed narrative structures also close doors. Tight three-act structures have resulted in some of the greatest stories ever told, but their restraints also cause all kinds of problems for today’s storytellers. From Mass Effect’s binary moral choices, to Marvel’s unending set up for their next blockbuster and Star Trek: Into Darkness’ total collapse under the weight of its own inflated stakes, self-imposed narrative restrictions are causing real problems for today’s writers.
When telling stories, there’s nothing more self-defeating than confusing a guideline with a rule. Thankfully, with Her Story, writer Sam Barlow forged his own enigmatic narrative structure, and in doing so, created the most riveting and refreshing game of the year so far.
It’s my hope that the open end of Her Story signals the beginning of a freer, more experimental age of storytelling. Alongside ambiguous unresolved mysteries like Serial and The Jinx, and films like Nightcrawler that entirely reject the necessity of character arcs, the success of Her Story proves that audiences are ready, willing and able to work harder in return for more diverse, more nuanced, and more relatable stories.
This piece was originally published in Abstract Magazine.