Stories in video games are largely inconsequential; cobbled together to lend structure to recognisable iterative gameplay mechanics. It certainly is not beyond games to spin a good yarn but genuinely good examples are hard to find.
Storytelling in its purest form is in the spoken or written word, but great stories in film and television cannot rely on words alone. The visual language – given these are visual media – become entwined with the narrative to fit its form. In games, stories must be visual as well but any story worth telling in this medium must do so with the gameplay too.
Executed well, this is how unforgettable stories in games are told, and there is no finer example of that in action than Her Story – the new game from British developer Sam Barlow.
In Her Story, players assume the role of someone granted access to an archaic police computer terminal, searching through hundreds of short video files from a series of interviews conducted in the summer of 1994.
These videos form part of a fictional murder investigation but there is no order to them, so the only way to find more to watch is to search for words and phrases that spring out from what the videos you find – a name, a place, any word that opens up a possible avenue of investigation.
The goal is to find out more about the murder and piece together a version of what happened. Each video is time-stamped but searching for a chronological order is pointless. The key to finding answers is instead to search for cause, reason and understanding.
These live action videos feature a sole actress – Viva Seifert – who turns in a performance perfect in its imperfection. There are moments of what could be perceived as (and could very well be) poor acting but there are two sides to that coin: what if her character is acting herself; what if she is lying?
Doubts such as this and the avenues my mind followed helped me gather the pieces. Players can save certain videos for quick access but that is as far as any on-screen "solution" goes. Instead, the solution is pieced together in your brain. It is a puzzle game, but unlike most puzzles in video games, what you are putting together is a story, a clearer mental picture of who this person was and what happened to them.
To coax players along, in both right and wrong directions, Seifert puts emphasis on particular words – but only enough to keep things rolling. This never feels like the game is dragging the player along, simply offering clues and red herrings like any mystery would.
Quickly I found myself quickly firing off any word that came to mind. There are as many dead-ends as partial answers, and fewer complete ones, everything helping to spur me on. It is not just the mystery spurring players on, though, but also the game's ambience. There's authenticity to the videos, a sense of place built with a smattering of small references to the era, and helped no end by an ancient-looking desktop through which everything occurs. There's even a CRT screen effect overlaying everything.
That ambience is permeated by a sense of unease that creeps through the game and up your spine as the story progresses. It is no spoiler to say there is a twist or two in the tale – and discovering these by your own means only serves to draw you further into the game's web.
Seifert's performance, Barlow's superlative script and a number of small touches also play a substantial role in creating the game's atmosphere, which lingers long after you log out. If there is a problem with Her Story, it is the game's end, which (avoiding spoilers) is somewhat open and may leave some players behind.
Barlow has made a game so astoundingly unique and satisfyingly bereft of pretense, it is nothing short of an instant classic. This is not just video game storytelling at its best, it is a unique form of interactive narrative that by all rights should transcend the medium.