Her Story

It’s a little hard to be in a position of reviewing something you still don’t believe yourself to have a solid grasp on, but then, here’s a game that makes an effort to keep itself vague, so that’s where we are. It’s nonspecific by design; maybe frustratingly so. People appreciate a degree of open-endedness, but when nothing is certain, and you can argue for any possibility you want, the explanations become, to a certain degree, meaningless. And what happened for me here was a bit like what happened to me with Umineko No Naku Koro Ni, a game where the audience can only try to solve various mysteries with the understanding that most of the things seen in the game simply didn’t happen, and had no meaning (at least as far as the mysteries were concerned) apart from possible symbolism. After both games I found myself reading fan theories that I thought were idiotic.

It’s an Occam’s Razor thing. Within the wide sea of things we aren’t told or can’t confirm, if we make radical and unnecessary assumptions, we’re being foolish. If we say the women in Her Story aren’t twins, we have to explain why the detective, whom we don’t know anything about, wouldn’t have checked a hospital record to corroborate a testimony, or wouldn’t have checked to see if a tattoo was real. Even if the tale of these twins is on par with stories about amnesia (as far as the degree of required suspension of disbelief goes), committing to that suspension is a natural part of enjoying fiction, and if dissenting from it involves ignoring pieces of context and logical expectation, it’s just far more appropriate to go along with the story we were told. And even if there are little things that aren’t resolved: isn’t it possible that not everything happens for a reason, that the game’s designer isn’t infallible and wrote a few mistakes in, that an indie game wasn’t flawlessly executed?

Considering that you can simply delete the “blank” tag from clips you’ve watched to find new videos by searching for “blank” again, thereby trivializing the entire searching process (which is to say, the only actual game mechanic), I’d say it’s clear that the designer was not immune to blunders.

Where that leaves us is that I can only play along for so long with a game that’s deliberately vague, and not get too hung up on exactly what happened, whether or not I failed to connect a dot or two somewhere. However: while I’ve been pretty cynical in the discussion up to this point, I want to differentiate between “enjoyment of the game” and “interest in determining what happened”. While I would rather slit my wrists than slurp up the dregs of web articles and fansites to get to the bottom of every idea, I had a great time actually playing the game.

Uplink demonstrated that just letting a person mess around with a computer interface is a fantastic way to build immersion, seeing as we’re all doing that already. But I’ve never seen the “FMV game” genre used to positive effect before. The mechanics are really well suited for the chilling feelings it gave me: for example, suddenly loading up a new clip and having the mood take a complete 180 from endearing into creepsville. Or the sounding of background music as I come out of a fresh video clip, which must’ve been tagged as revelatory in the game’s code. The flashes of a woman’s reflection on my screen, and sirens, which were a bit of a red herring for me, but the impact was strong.

It’s also a great game for keeping pen-and-paper notes like a real goddamn detective, an approach that has never backfired for me (oh, wait–I think I said it did in La-Mulana… fine, almost never). Charting your own course through a bunch of random computer files is a unique experience that I liken not so much to any existing video game as to going through unbound and out-of-sequence journal pages I found in a basement, written by my dad thirty or forty years ago.

It could be better. Putting aside the more obviously subjective stuff, I think the keyword searching functions poorly toward the end, when all you have left to find are no-content clips of someone saying stuff like, “Yes, that’s right.” Taking out the “database checker” program would’ve helped with that, as its presence, essentially as a progress bar, naturally incentivized pointless completionism. Though, what I really wanted was to be able to use the database checker to rewatch the clips in sequence once I was done. Unfortunately, that’s not a thing either. But the game is pretty short and has lasting impact, so you’d be silly to skip it.

This game was thoroughly enjoyed by the reviewer. It is an excellent game that may be too simple or not ambitious enough to be a 5, or there are design flaws meaningful enough to prevent it from enduring as something truly beloved. Highly recommended.
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