Sam Barlow has one of the most impressive CVs in gaming. By my reckoning, he only has six releases to his name but two of those games are comfortably inside my list of all-time favourites – the experimental interactive fiction of Aisle and the masterful Silent Hill: Shattered Memories. The latter might never come to PC but hopefully it’ll arrive in digital download form on the Wii U’s eShop sooner rather than later.
Barlow’s next game, Her Story, has elements of true crime, police procedural and confessional monologue. During a sprawling conversation last week, we discussed how it continues to play with interactive storytelling techniques, and how it has as much in common with Alan Bennett as True Detective.
When I came to transcribe the interview, which ran for nearly three hours, I realised that the first question I asked wasn’t answered until the end. In a nod to the game’s own fragmented monologue, I’ve rearranged Barlow’s replies under single word headings, which explain what the game is and how it works, by way of a story about therapy, family and falsehoods. The headings also conveniently break a long piece into digestible portions. Settle down with a beverage and read on.
RPS: I’ll ask the really boring, easy question first – can you describe what Her Story is?
Barlow: That’s actually the hard question!
Barlow: At it’s core it’s a game about a single case, a murder, and what’s different about it is that rather than taking the direction that other crime and detective games take of having you embody the detective and wander around, doing lots of gamey stuff, with the trappings of a police procedural – I’ve gone off on an extreme and created something where you have a lot less of the gamey stuff. Almost to the point of having none of it. I’ve abstracted things but this, in theory, gives you a much greater sense of the feeling of being a detective and, for me, fires a lot of stuff off in the brain that you get from that kind of police procedural material.
If you think of where Gone Home took Bioshock, potentially just removing the shooty bits but keeping everything else. It became this thing that some people don’t think is a game, but it clearly is. Obviously the focus there is on the subject matter. This is similar. If you think of something like the Phoenix Wright games where you talk to subjects, study the facts of the crime and look for contradictions, Her Story is a little like that. But with PW, it’s a scripted thing with the kind of gaming mechanics that we’re familiar with, walking to locations and choosing dialogue options.
I’ve stripped a lot of that stuff back to focus on the core experience of listening to the testimony of this woman in several interviews and as a player, pulling all that together to try and get an understanding of what’s really going on.
Barlow: I guess it belongs to the genre that I call the Desktop Thriller. In the late eighties and early nineties there were a few games like this. The Fourth Protocol, The Thirteenth Floor, The Vera Cruz Affair. These oldschool games – the interface was literally you sat at your desk, with the interface being lots of paperwork or a book or computer interface.
There’s a fantastic game called Portal from 1986 that Activision did. You’re an astronaut and you land on Earth and everybody’s gone or dead, and you find an old computer terminal. And it’s all broken so you can’t use the crazy voice-activated holographic touch interface, you have to use an old keyboard. That’s the excuse for it being a CGA PC interface.
That entire game, you’re interacting with this old computer system, going through a database, speaking to an AI and discovering what happened on Earth.
Her Story is part of that genre. The whole thing takes place through a fake computer screen. You’re essentially sat at a crappy old mothballed computer in a police archive room, going through this database that contains footage of this crime from 1994.
When I first started it wasn’t necessarily as minimalist as it is now. I kind of had it in my head that it could have more overt gamey aspects. The more I worked on it, the more I moved away from that, but the core interaction you have at the moment is extremely simple, extremely minimal. But it does open up interesting experiences.
The way this database works is that all the footage that existed on these tapes was digitised and stuck on a database, and they’ve got each statement that the woman makes as a separate clip. The questions by the detective were stored elsewhere and are either lost or stored elsewhere, still locked down.
The computer has run through the videos and used a speech recognition algorithm to take down all of the statements that the woman has made as metadata in the search database. So you can type in anything to search through the statements – so if you type in ‘Apple’, you’ll get the statement where she says she made an apple pie, and the one where she says her laptop is made by Apple Computers. Any use of that word, no matter what the context might be.
In that sense, it’s extremely simple. You’re essentially googling her testimony. But what that means is that you get this interesting relationship whereby you’re using her words as the means to explore her words. It’s a combination of the old Ultima games with the conversation system where you’re typing in nouns or whatever, but that felt like talking to a robot.
RPS: You were always looking for new words that you could use. Looking for keywords that are threads to pull on.
Barlow: You might use very mundane words, or ones that have multiple possible meanings, to attempt a scattershot approach, guessing. Or you might use very specific words to follow up on something that’s mentioned, trying to work out where a particular story goes. If you use abstract words that deal with emotions, that might bring up several different threads.
RPS: I love that kind of interface. Uplink does something similar, which I wrote about recently. It’s the most directly immersive form of first-person gaming in a way, because the character’s body is almost exactly positioned in the way that the player’s body is.
Barlow: That gets to a tension that I always feel when I’m doing stuff. When I first got into games, I wanted to make things like the traditional Looking Glass games, the first-person immersive sims. Those games were all about making you feel like you were there, using the first-person view and all the emergent systems to create essentially a simulator.
Back in the nineties when I was getting into text gaming and stuff, there was a big push for simulationist games. People would get the tools and their first game would be a single room and everything in the room would be simulated. There’d be a pack of cards, for example, and you’d be able to take out each card. There’d be a bottle and you’d be able to pour the water out.
There was a focus on simulated everything. People were thinking ahead, thinking that the future of games was going to be the holodeck and all this kind of stuff. There’s part of me that’s very much into that and a big part of Shattered Memories was trying to remove some of the more traditional interface elements and make it feel very immersive. Eliminate all the loads and basic stuff like that.
But there’s part of me that thinks that’s – not necessarily a dead-end – but the pure pursuit of it can be. If you do a thought experiment and you imagine the holodeck exists and you’re standing in a fictional world, and to all extents and purposes you’re there – for me, at that point, all the things that make art just disappear. If I’m in this virtual space and it’s all happening to me, and I’m reacting exactly as if it IS happening to me, I completely lose that layer that enables me to parse something.
If I’m watching a movie, there’s this wonderful thing where you have the floating viewpoint of the camera and a lot of your responses to the movie are as if you were in the position of that camera, spying on things, looking at things, reacting to the action with movement. At the same time you’re doing this magic act of putting yourself in the shoes of the characters but also being outside of them, so you’re aware of their situation, you have dramatic irony, you have that whole concept where you’re able to think of things on a more thematic level – that’s what makes movies really interesting and makes them more than just soap operas.
Part of me, when I’m trying to make games that are that immersive and virtual, is aware that there needs to be another thing that is pushing against it and deliberately defying it. With Shattered Memories, we deliberately did things that are specifically designed to take you away from that character, Harry. When we’re cutting back and forth to the therapy sessions, we’d occasionally spawn Harry in a slightly different place to where you’d left him and some of the things that he said were there to deliberately push that.
RPS: Did you always know it was going to be live action?
Barlow: Live action was one of the seeds. The last big project I worked on before going independent was a big budget action adventure with a major publisher, using one of their IPs. I worked on it for about three years and we did a lot of motion capture on that. There was always a little voice in the back of my mind about how ridiculous the whole thing was in terms of the expense and effort that went into some of that motion capture.
I remember that we had a bunch of casting sessions and one of the people we saw was the actress I’m working with for Her Story, Viva. We casting a role, she came in, recorded her lines and we were filming it on a videocamera for reference later. She was so good that we said, ‘you’ve got it’ and she thought we were joking but it really was that good.
When we were looking back at the footage later, it had so much character to it. So we cast her, did lots of motion capture, and suddenly there was the expense of having the crew on hand, all of the technology on set. All of the stuff that’s been captured is on motion capture tapes but also on video for animators to use as reference. We weren’t happy with where the tech was for facial capture so we were going to do what we did on Shattered Memories, which is to have people work it in by hand afterwards.
Eventually we’d get all of that footage back and then all the teams of animators would go to work on it, and the video reference of the actor’s face would go to another team of animators, and there’d be back and forth as all of that was critiqued. And throughout the whole process, a little part of me found the whole thing so ridiculous. You look at the first piece of video footage, from the casting session, and the effort to capture that was so minimal.
Obviously having all of that crew and tech can be a useful process, particularly if you’re doing something in 3d where it can be essential, but the whole thing was so strange. To go to such lengths to capture something that you already have.
At the start of 2014 there was a panel at the Glasgow film festival with Rhianna Pratchett and Ragnar Tornquist, and I think at the time Irrational had just shut down so there was a lot of talk about AAA storytelling. I think Rhianna had just come off Tomb Raider. There was this conversation around a big contradiction that I don’t think anyone has solved just yet – in movies, the easiest thing to do is to point a camera at an actor and listen to them acting; in videogames that can be one of the most expensive things, particularly in 3d.
I’d been saying this so many times during the process of working on that game that at some point I decided I would just point a camera at an actor and see how I could make a game around that. I think I joined these three things together – my memory of Viva’s casting tape being a great example of something in and of itself, the concept of the formal interview with the police procedural stuff, and the idea of making a game that revolves around live action footage. That was essentially the spark.
RPS: Her Story seems like it’s a game about observation rather than direct interaction. Observation can be its own form of interaction, but do you actually define who is doing the observing or is it left as a blank slate?
Barlow: It’s left as a blank slate. Here’s the interesting thing to me with the whole scenario. When you come to the game you have very little information, which is an interesting place to be as a player. You’re given the keys to this thing but you don’t know what it is, so you push and pull until you get a feel for it.
You’re dropped into this scenario and all you know is the genre and that this is a crime story and that there’s a woman, and very quickly you’ll realise that we’re talking about a murder. Then, as you start to access all of this video footage, because the pieces you’re seeing are taken out of the linear order, you’re trying to piece the story together. The woman who is giving her story – on a semi-literal as well as a thematic level, you’re helping her to piece together that story.
Without going too deep into the actual story, there are lots of questions about how well you know yourself. Obviously the title is a semi-pun on history. The thing that interested me about police interviews – similar to the psychiatric interview in Shattered Memories – is these formal settings where you have an individual just sitting and talking. Particularly with this game, when I was writing it I was thinking a lot about my own grandparents who are no longer with me, and other family members.
You realise that you know so very little about them. You hear stories, things that people have mentioned about their lives, and then you kind of kick yourself for not having listened and heard their stories.
RPS: You’ve spoken before about the importance of found stories and I think that genealogy is part of that. The family unit, especially in the age of sites like Ancestry.com, becomes a sort of found story. They’re discoverable but they’re skeletal and as we find new information, we start to add flesh to the skeletons. Because human beings are natural storytellers. You can see a gravestone and conjure up a whole life, with family and friends, from the dates, the name, the flowers that have been left, the state it’s kept in.
Switching that onto someone accused of a crime, the equivalent of the gravestone, the detail that the story grows from, would be the public appearances and recordings. There’s a danger that through a media lens we do the same thing – we see the skeleton of the case and we immediately start to add flesh.
Barlow: Yeah. There’s a modern phenomenon now where you get footage of police interviews just released, either leaked or explicitly released because it’s in the public interest or whatever. Sitting and watching these things, which go on for hours and hours, there’s this realisation that one of the keys to being a detective is realising that everybody wants to tell their story. Especially people who are guilty. But in a larger sense, everybody wants to tell their story.
Barlow: This is one of the things I realised when the producer insisted I go to see a psychiatrist as research for Shattered Memories. It was done just to make sure we weren’t pulling the whole process of therapy in the game out of our arses.
90% of the role of a psychiatrist is letting people talk. They want to talk about themselves. With my grandparents, you have all these different reasons and social constructs that prevent you from sitting down and talking at great depth about somebody’s life and understand exactly what happened in that life.
When my producer asked the psychiatrist if it’d be OK to go along to a few sessions for research, he said he was ok with that but we had to take the process seriously.
We agreed. So I went along and chatted to this guy for an hour and towards the end he started to say, “You seem very well adjusted, you seem very happy in yourself.” I started panicking and thinking he was going to be pissed off because I hadn’t taken it seriously and hadn’t talked about anything. So I started thinking of things I could dredge up and came up with some stuff.
He turned round and said, “Ah, finally the monsters are out”.
Literally, just like the cliches, he followed that up with, “OK, time’s up” and kicked me out onto the street. Suddenly my whole existence had been split in two and I realised I had these awful dark issues and I really needed to talk about them during next week’s session.
RPS: Do you think there’s an element of performance art to being a psychiatrist? I think it’s true of most roles.
Barlow: The hardest thing in the world is pretending to be interested in someone else talking about themselves. But that’s why Woody Allen or anybody else goes every week, because they get to be the most important person in the world while they’re in that room.
RPS: We mentioned performance as an aspect of a psychiatrist’s job. The same must be true of a detective?
Barlow: Yes, that whole aspect of performance is key to the police interview. With the stuff about torture coming into the public domain now, I had that in the back of my mind while I was working. During my research I was reading a lot of manuals and theory about police interrogation and interviews, and all of the research basically says that the more coercive stuff, whether it’s a policeman hitting you on the back of the head with a book or something far more extreme, are practically useless.
The cliche of the police interrogation as a thing to bring out confession is almost entirely fictional. In very few cases does it actually bring about confession, it’s about fact gathering. Exposing contradictions and getting people to talk about stuff so that they slip up, which Phoenix Wright shows.
The performance aspect of being a detective isn’t hostile though, it’s about getting people to think you’re best friends. It’s slowly increasing the levels of intimacy through body language and the way you’re talking. It’s a huge lie where you’re trying to convince the person you’re talking to that this isn’t a formal process, that you’re not a member of the police playing a role, that you are in fact people sharing a conversation privately.
It’s a necessary thing but the more you get into the mindset of these detectives – and it’s something that was done really well in True Detective recently – as a kind of human those levels of deception become quite queasy. It’s very rare in situations with police that opening up is actually to your benefit.
RPS: And what about the performance of the suspect? We haven’t talked about looking for the truth of the case because we’ve been talking more about looking for the truth of the person. In Her Story, is there an element of looking for contradictions, lies and deception about the case?
Barlow: This is one of the interesting things about how development evolves. When I sat down thinking about this, I figured it would be a game about finding the truth. Whodunnit. That was where most of the gamey stuff would be in my mind.
I knew there’d be checks and balances in place as to how you access this stuff. In the game I mentioned earlier, Portal, you feel like you have freedom to explore the story out of sequence, but it’s actually dealt out in a fairly linear sequence. It’s similar to how Gone Home gives out bits and pieces of information in a fairly controlled order, no matter how you play. It’s much more controlled than it looks.
A big part of me is attracted to, as you can see in Shattered Memories which is constructed as a series of reveals. That was how this was going to work. But as it went along, I did the thing that a lot of game designers do but don’t necessarily act on. I played around with the ideas early on, inside the dev tools, which is a little like somebody turning on noclip and flying around, thinking “this is awesome!” I think that a lot of the open world games now come from people opening up their games in that way, realising that letting players have those freedoms is fun.
For me, I was playing with some of the early prototypes, which were heavily based on real testimonies I’d found online. I realised it was more interesting not to have any restrictions rather than working through the case in a linear fashion, being able to dip in and out of different areas. Eventually it stopped being a game about getting a conviction and became a game about understanding this person and their story.
It isn’t about uncovering contradictions – some of those contradictions and lies are interesting because they lead to a different truth.
The game covers seven interviews and by the seventh, chronologically, the truth of the crime is revealed. That’s the endgame in a traditional detective game. But when you’re playing Her Story, you can pull stuff out of that seventh day from the beginning. You could guess a word and access that stuff off the bat. It’s like doing a Super Metroid hack and winning the game from the first room.
But, here, that’s just one point on the story. There is an inherent structure to the way the game works because the database has been unlocked under some freedom of information act privilege but you’ve been given a limited guess access. That means for every query you can only return five clips, and those are returned in chronological order. So the more generic terms you use, the more likely you are to be hitting the early interviews.
So there is a challenge there, if you want to dig deeper. It gives it some shape.
Barlow: If you put somebody in one of these situations with a psychiatrist, say, and because it’s a weird combination of formal and informal, people are suddenly able to open up and talk in great length about their lives. Having done that research for Shattered Memories and having looked into the technique of police interviews, I realised there was something very similar. In some cases when somebody commits a really serious crime, their entire life has led up to that, everything before is part of the explanation for it. So when they sit down to talk, they’re telling their life story.
When that footage is released, there’s something very wrong about it. Suddenly this very intimate story where the lie that the detective tells about the situation being one on one, and being a shoulder to cry on, suddenly vanishes. At the flick of a switch, the whole thing can be on YouTube, with everybody watching and scrutinising. The role of the detective becomes much more invasive at that point.
There are a number of cases that particularly caught my interest with this. There’s a big case that’s currently ongoing in the States involving a woman called Jodi Arias, who killed her boyfriend. There’s no doubt she killed her boyfriend, it’s fairly conclusive, but they’re currently deciding whether or not to kill her.
As a completely separate topic, the whole death penalty thing in the States and the logic behind it is insane, but all of the footage of Arias got released online. If you look at the comments, and I know you’re not supposed to, there are millions of people commenting on her life, analysing her life, and the more of it you read, the more overt it becomes just how easily people fall into types.
You were talking earlier about how people take skeletal things and put flesh on them and particularly with women accused of murder, all of the tropes come out. When somebody is trying to get the death penalty, to show that the accused is beyond human, you get these concepts of the femme fatale and all of that. On some of these YouTube videos, people are analysing the way that this woman cries – is she crying in the right places or in the right ways? No, they’ll say, she’s deliberately crying, or she’s flirting with the police here. She’s evil! All this kind of stuff comes out.
That whole idea of the police interview being a way of people telling their stories but with all of the complications around that was very interesting to me. By removing the detective from it, essentially by making you the detective but with access to footage rather than the suspect herself. You only have footage of the testimony.
RPS: So the footage is historical? Does the game take place just after 1994 when the crime took place, or is it a cold case that’s been re-opened?
Barlow: In the loose framing narrative that you get, the game is set in the modern day. At some point, in ’99 or something, the police department had some modernisation push and digitised all of their old tape, but the machines became obsolete and the one you’re looking at is one of those. It’s been sitting in the dusty corner of some archive building.
RPS: Was the decision to go to the nineties partly to do with the aesthetic of videotape? You use it a little in Shattered Memories so I’m guessing it has a personal appeal, and the fact that tape can fragment and decay must be attractive for this kind of story. But how much of the time period was to do with that and how much was about avoiding exactly the kind of ubiquitous media presence we’ve been talking about?
Barlow: It was partly some of that, although until fairly recently the actual tech in police stations really wasn’t cutting edge at all. The biggest thing was that as I started writing I didn’t have it locked in my head that it’d have the strong VHS look. But as I was writing it, I ended up pushing the story back further in time because as things went into the story that were about generations and about my own family, some of those aspects didn’t feel like they fitted right up to the minute.
Barlow: Overall, Her Story ends up being about the bigger picture rather than the crime. It’s about somebody’s life. A reference that I didn’t even realise was important to me until I’d almost finished was Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads, which was a series of monologues. Being Alan Bennett it was mainly working class Northern female monologues. I think there were a couple performed by Julie Christie and Patricia Routledge. They were ten, fifteen maybe twenty minutes long, and it was just the characters talking to the screen and it was completley about that relationship with the camera. Theatrical. That convention of addressing the audience is much more common in theatre.
But they were quite chatty, as if you were talking with them over a cup of tea or something, but there was something weird because it was on TV and had a strange formality. The characters were mostly women of a certain generation who didn’t necessarily have a voice in popular media but at the same time they were the kind of women who were exceptionally good at telling a story, and Bennett has a wonderful ear for that.
I was quite young when it was on TV and it was an event because we didn’t have hundreds of channels or the internet back then.
RPS: The one I always remember was Thora Hird with the cream cracker.
Barlow: That was on the school syllabus.
RPS: I was seven years old when it was on television and you might imagine I’d have been bored to tears, but it really stuck with me. It made a huge impact. It felt real. As far as I remember there was no framing device, they were classic dramatic monologues.
Barlow: Yep. You wouldn’t question it in the theatre but on television it has an odd quality. There’s a level of intimacy to it, which is perhaps why it appealed to you even as a child. The camera setup and the domestic setting make it comfortable.
RPS: That may well go back to something else we touched on, which is the apparent impossibility of talking on that level with people in a family environment. On that confessional, revealing level, I knew less about my father and his mother when they were alive than I felt I did about Thora Hird’s character in that half hour monologue.
RPS: Serial was a bizarre cultural phenomenon and there seems to be some crossover with what you’re doing with Her Story. Even though Serial is ‘true crime’, it’s a bizarre form of interactive fiction, with the reddit threads and the discussions in pubs and cafes.
Barlow: I’ve actually got a note on my desk saying, “Listen to Serial because it’s bound to come up.”
RPS: It ties into a bigger picture of internet detective work, which happens again and again. Are threads about the Boston bombings and the like completely removed from the intimacy of a formal interview space?
Barlow: We can probably extrapolate further. In the literal sense, in almost every high profile case we have these armchair detectives. With Pistorious, suddenly everyone is an expert on firearms. The invasion of privacy that leads peoples’ lives to somehow become fair game. Amanda Knox was another one that was a big inspiration for the game – reading peoples’ opinions that are often based on a single photo in the Daily Mail. People will use that to psychoanalyse her entire behaviour. She’s laughing, she’s smiling, she’s evil. They jump straight to the tropes – she is the femme fatale, she is cold, she’s thought this through, she has no emotions, she’s laughing instead of crying.
Do any kind of reading up on how people deal with the stress of these situations and you realise that, nobody really knows how the fuck you’d behave. Her entire life was crumbling around her. There’s a brilliant example in the Arias stuff. There are a couple of points when the detective leaves the room and the camera is still rolling, and she doesn’t know there’s a camera, allegedly. She gets up from the table and does a handstand. People are there on Youtube saying “If I was innocent of a crime, or if I’d been attacked by my boyfriend, there’s no way I’d do a handstand! She’s clearly evil!”
I think there’s a bigger point that comes from all of this. It’s not just about armchair detectives, it’s true of everything. People take very small pieces of information and extrapolate from there, ending up with conspiracy theories. You just have to look at some of the stuff in the games industry recently. The level of invasiveness and the way that people concoct crazed theories around stuff, which is essentially peoples’ lives!
There is a queasiness that can come from something like Serial and these big fun court cases. Obviously people enjoy watching a fictional police procedural on TV and they don’t need to feel guilty about that but when you have these real life cases that become television shows, with the Big Brother thing of people commenting and tweeting, it’s easy to forget they are real people.
Barlow: We’ve almost now become immune to reality. There’s a realness to VHS and scrappy footage that just doesn’t work on us anymore, partly because of found footage films mimicking reality. If I watch an advert for tissues or bread, I will be in tears. A little boy pedalling up a hill and his bike breaks, and I’m in tears, crying because of the artistry of this completely synthetic thing. But yet I can sit and watch video footage of these people who have lost loved ones, or been forced to do horrendous things that they’ll never recover from, and we’re able to sit and watch it and eat it up and post popcorn gifs on the internet.
That’s partly what I’m trying to figure out in my head with Her Story.
To indulge my love of Silent Hill and interactive fiction, there’ll be a follow-up article next week with deeper discussion of the making of SH: Shattered Memories, SH: Origins and Aisle, as well as broader thoughts on games and horror.
Meanwhile, Her Story is on Steam Greenlight.