Words About Video Games

Who is the Player in Her Story?

On the one hand, as a novel work of audiovisual experimental interactive fiction, I'm glad I played Her Story. The way it slices up its narrative and forces the player to dig in and explore for it makes an otherwise trashy pulpy mystery kind of work.

On the other hand, the game is more interesting than it is successful. The illusion that you are inputting searches directly into a video database so you can watch archival footage of a police interview is ultimately undermined by the fingerprints of the designer visible all over the design of the search engine itself. I can't imagine why anyone would chop up and archive video footage this way, even if it had been damaged, and especially if a digital archivist worked to painstakingly recover and digitize this. You can't bring up more than 5 relevant results at a time, & you can't search using timestamps, dates, keywords, identity of the interviewee, or anything but words used in the transcript. So a game that initially sells itself as presenting an experience where the player is interacting directly with the world ultimately keeps the player at arm's length with its artifice.

If there had been a puzzle; if you were forced to watch this footage out of order and in fragments as part of the process of recovering and archiving it, and then your job was to catalog and re-construct it--that would have worked better, been more satisfying to play, I think.

But it's not just the mechanics of the search engine that undermine the illusion of the player's direct interaction with the game world. At the last minute, the game undermines the player with a final "twist." The game gives the player an identity in the story, an identity that the person actually doing these searches would have known they had all along. They don't have amnesia or mistaken identity.

It breaks the illusion that the 90s era desktop and the infernal search engine have created, and worse, it reveals just how much more meaningful the story could have been, if that context had been there from the beginning.

Imagine if Gone Home didn't tell you who you were as you explored the house. Imagine if the game saved the information that you are Kate, older sister of Sam, until the very end as a surprise. That's what Her Story does.

It's a baffling choice, since the emotional context that knowing who you are from the beginning would give to the story could be so much more impactful than the strange "Ha! Fooled you!" bit of forced cleverness at the end. I wasn't shocked by the revelation. I just wanted to know why the game didn't tell me that from the beginning, when it would have mattered.