By Benjamin Fitzgerald
Release Date: June 24, 2015
Developer: Sam Barlow
Publisher: None [Independently Released]
Genre: FMV, Detective
System: PC, OS X, iPhone, Android
Full-motion video (FMV) games once occupied a significant niche in video game history. They were popular for a number of reasons, one of them being that they were far more expressive than other technologies at the time allowed. Sprites and CGI models failed to capture human facial expressions and emotions, and animated clips like the ones from Toonstruck were very expensive to produce. FMV allowed actual humans to be green-screened over video games, which brought a level of realism to games that was otherwise impossible.
Unfortunately, there were also a lot of problems with FMV games. Many were produced with meager budgets; poor writing, lackluster gameplay and shoddy development were common. To make matters worse, many games decided to hire the game developers rather than professional actors to play the roles, often with mixed or poor results. Even when high-profile actors lent their talents, they did not always consider the job worthy of a serious performance. As a result, by the late 1990s, FMV games were on their way out, and few were made after the new millennium.
It seems, however, that FMV is making a resurgence. The celebrated Tex Murphy embarked on his first adventure in over fifteen years when Tesla Effect was successfully crowdfunded. A year or so later, two English games FMV games were released to critical acclaim: Contradiction and Her Story. While the former took full advantage of modern digital technology, Her Story followed a more nostalgic route. Developer Sam Barlow wanted to ensure the videos looked authentic, but found that digital filters were unable to give the videos the grainy quality one would expect from footage filmed in the early 90s. After shooting the footage, he transferred it onto VHS tapes and then digitally recorded the footage off the tapes.
(I really want to play this game!)
Her Story is an interactive detective movie, if you will, with a bit of noir and a bit of X Files bizarro thrown in. Personally, however, I thought of it almost like a role-playing game. The more I watched, listened and learned, the more I was drawn into the experience. I truly felt like I was a detective, trying to crack some kind of strange mystery. If a role-playing game is a game that requires you to step into another person’s shoes and think like they would, then Her Story almost counts. Of course, one could simply jump from one keyword to the next without ever investing emotionally into the experience, so it’s not a true role-playing game, except perhaps in my mind’s eye; nevertheless, its success in drawing me into the story (and I’m not the only one) is testament to the quality of the acting and writing.
The more I played the game, the more I wanted to know. I wanted to know who this woman was. What happened to her husband? Why? I took eight pages of notes, writing down every possible keyword I could think of, every word that seemed to be even the slightest bit relevant. Many of them were dead ends. Some bought incredible revelations. I found myself mulling over everything she said, watching and re-watching clips. Was she lying? Was she telling the truth? There were times when I would pace in exasperation. My jaw dropped a couple of times, and there were Aha! moments when the epiphanies carried me away in a rapture of euphoria.
I don’t want to get too involved in the story, because this is a game that truly is all story and little else. (There is a mini-game included with Her Story that I believe is an authentic early-90s game. I seem to remember playing it when I was young.) Briefly, you have been given permission to review old police interviews of a woman named Hannah Smith, taped between June and July of 1994. For some reason, the tapes of the police detective have been lost, causing the interviews to be split apart question by question. On the Saturday evening of June 18 1994, Hannah reported to the police that her husband had gone missing. His dead body was found soon thereafter, turning the missing person case into a homicide investigation.
There are several things that I find intriguing about Her Story. For one, it is non-linear. While it is certainly possible to track and catalogue every single video clip, effectively piecing together the seven interviews from Hannah’s perspective and reviewing them chronologically, this would be tedious and time-consuming. I also believe that it would detract from the game. The tangled mess of videos – not unlike a crossword or jigsaw puzzle – makes the experience memorable.
The characterization is interesting, too. Although Hannah Smith is the only person we see, she is not the only character in the game. The script for the game was written as proper police interviews, and the detective was filmed along with Hannah. However, the video clips of the detective have been removed from the game; we can’t hear his questions, and can only guess at his phrasing. There was a strong reason for this. While researching the game, he realized that he found himself empathizing with the interviewee rather than the suspect. By removing him, it enabled the audience to better to relate to Hannah. Nevertheless, his presence as a character is integral to the story, and removing him was a bold choice as a storytelling medium, as it ups the ante as far as suspense is concerned.
Finally, the game does not have a proper resolution. By the time we get to the end, many questions have been answered, but not all of them. Furthermore, while there are a number of reveals during the video clips, perhaps the biggest reveal is the one that is not directly tied into the film clips. I cannot say more, but it sheds a lot of light on the whole game.
Her Story is not quite perfect, but it is certainly one of the more creative and inventive games I have played in a while. Hannah’s story is very interesting, and more than a little unsettling. If you approach Her Story expecting a traditional video game where you control the narrative, you will be gravely disappointed. Nevertheless, it tells a good tale. The plot is almost incredulous at times, yet it is handled convincingly. And the open ending, with several questions left unanswered, invite the player in, allowing them to speculate on the details the interviews fail to provide. Her Story may be a long way from Barlow’s work on Silent Hill, but it is no less impressive.