Now that Her Story [official site] is available, Adam, John and Pip have gathered to discuss the structure and plot of the extraordinary FMV crime game. There are spoilers throughout and as much of the game revolves around the secrets and lies surrounding a criminal case, please don't read on if you haven't already played. Our spoiler-free review and interview should help you to decide if you do want to play.
Final warning. Spoilers are incoming.
Adam: I am currently playing a game about the World’s Greatest Detective (Ed - review delayed until Batman Returns). I speak of Batman, a man with a car so large that it crushes other cars simply by existing in the same postcode as them.
Her Story is an entirely different type of game but it does involve detection. Puzzling over clues. Alibis. Crime. That sort of thing. I’ve already written quite a bit about it so let me ask this, first of all. Wot do you think?
Pip: I think it's the best game I've finished so far this year. Possibly the best game that I've played this year, too.
John: I think it’s a really good game, and a really clever game - an incredibly clever game - but I just can’t trumpet its glory as loudly as everyone else.
Adam: That leaves us with two options. Pip - we could get our trumpets out and parp so loudly that John can’t be heard. OR we could ask John about his reservations and see if we find an interesting conversation somewhere between the horn section and the Walker solo.
TAKE IT AWAY, JOHN
John: Oh, I figured you were going for the trumpet option. Right, yes. Again, with provisos of my constantly saying out loud, “Gosh this is so clever. How did they ever do something so clever?”, I just didn’t like the acting. I didn’t ever believe in her. Not least because this girl who was supposedly knocked up at 17 and from this crazy background sounded like, and had the mannerisms, of someone who’d just walked out the front door of RADA. And since the entire game is her acting - that had something of an effect.
Adam: I loved the performance, as you know, and I wonder if this is something more than a difference of opinion - I wonder if it shows a difference in the way we looked at the game. I’m absolutely aware of my own prejudices, from a critical standpoint, and I know that I look to (often without meaning to) the intellectual side of things, sometimes to the extent that I neglect the emotional impact.
Now, your criticism isn’t about the emotive nature of the performance but I wonder if there’s something to be said for the fact that I enjoyed the artificiality of the acting, because it’s an actor playing somebody who is in a situation that requires its own theatricality if not outright deception, and because it worked for me on THAT level, I didn’t care so much about the finer detail.
Does that make sense? Anyone?
John: It just strikes me as anything but a finer detail. I mean, I dealt with it - I put my issues with it aside in order to let the game shine through. But even in the chronologically later recordings, she’s still RA RA I GREW UP IN MADNESS RA RA RA.
Adam: I took it as one of two things. That she’s taught herself to play the other role so well - since first swapping in and out of another person’s existence in her early life - that she has become the role. And/or that there’s a deliberate obfuscation, a case of saying the words but disguising the truth of them. I agree that there’s something very jarring about the delivery, in relation to the content, but I thought that was very deliberate. Maybe I’m totally wrong on that!
Pip! What say you?
John: Yeah, enough of my negativising - Pip, why does it stand out so strongly?
Pip: I think it's theatrical and sometimes that pulls you out of the experience a little, but I just really like how it dripfeeds you a mystery. You can't predict exactly when you'll get a little reveal or an "aha" moment but there are enough clips which create those that your playthrough – whatever order you unearth things – will have them happen fairly regularly. It's really satisfying and for me that pleasure overrode the little oddities in the performance.
John: It is just extraordinary how it delivers the plot. How just knowing a single word at the start would ruin the entire experience, and yet it still somehow opened up to me in the perfect order, the realisations opening up new directions, as I started piecing it together, then learning that no, that too was a bluff, and actually it was about THIS, and then pursuing, and on and on. It scares me to think about how much effort had to go in to getting that right - to ensuring the clips were perfectly severed, perfectly written to be read in two or three different ways, and then particular words didn’t accidentally offer a bit of story you weren’t yet ready for.
Pip: I watch a lot of daytime murder mysteries and police procedurals and read a lot of whodunnits and with those the sense of discovery is because you allow the author to lead you through, in some cases switching off the part of your brain that would do some deducing and in others just knowing information was being purposely withheld in order to get the satisfying payoff of discovery at the end. It happens in detective games too – you do some work for them but often it's just a case of having an interactive element to those dripfed experiences. In Her Story you actually get to do the discovering.
Adam: I find it interesting that it works so well on that level. Before I played it, I thought it was more likely to be a game about the idea of the mystery rather than a game about the mystery itself. Because I’m a silly chump who finds it easier to follow an Umberto Eco novel than an Agatha Christie, I think I’m attuned to the structure rather than the solution. I’m terrible at figuring things out in a logical way, which is why I had loads of notes by the end of Her Story. I can’t keep track of simple things unless I write them down or put them into some kind of order, physically. My brain leaks facts because it’s so busy looking at theory. Her Story surprised me because it’s good at the fact and the theory.
John: Like Pip says, when watching the ridiculous numbers of crime procedurals that I do, it’s important to be able to switch your brain off to not spoil it. Like, for goodness sake, don’t notice the actor who got slightly too many lines about 11 minutes in in an episode of Castle or Elementary, or it’s spoiled. But here it was all about switching my brain back on, which was such a treat. But then, like Adam, I have to do that by making notes - I have this ludicrous page of about 100 words all scribbled down then ticked off when I’d searched for them, as well as an actual honest-to-goodness mind map drawn out to keep track of it all.
Pip: I only did the word lists not the events. I have a page in my work notebook now that's absolutely packed full and it's nonsense – Saturday, wig, fairytale, tea, Peter, ticket.... With the story itself I liked adding the unreliability of my own memory to the mix. I've kept the broad points of the story straight in my head but it's been enjoyable chewing over the specifics just by trying to mentally revisit older clips that I think of in a different light thanks to newer revelations.
Adam: There are all kinds of things I’m certain about - facts that I reckon are backed up by plenty of evidence - but there are plenty of details that I just have a hunch about. And then i remember that I haven’t seen any real evidence. I’ve heard references to evidence, I’ve made connections and heard statements, but I’ve also made a lot of assumptions about the smaller things and perhaps some of the bigger things as well.
It’s not so much ambiguous, in that there are some truths to find, but there’s plenty to chew on afterwards. There are characters that we know next to nothing about and events that happened years ago that it’s impossible not to speculate about even though we might be dealing with both lies and a faulty memory.
John: I so, so wish we could have learned more about life with Florence. Boy, there’s a whole other game in there.
Okay - so here are two other really dumb parts you can argue aren’t dumb. First, it makes keyboard noises when you type - I’M TAKING CARE OF THAT THANKS. Second, the song. There’s A SONG. “Oh, for the next interrogation over the murder of your husband, could you bring your guitar along and play us a few ditties?”
Pip: Y'know what? That song bit made me think of The Sailor's Dream – a mobile game by Simogo. I'm not saying it made sense that you would hand a suspect a guitar and request a folk tune during an interrogation, but the thing here is that Her Story is wearing the clothes of an episode of The Bill in the early nineties, but it has all these fairytale or fantastical elements to it. I'd slipped into thinking of it as this odd dreamland by that point. Or perhaps it was the song that caused me to tip into that way of thinking.
John: Oh - the nature of the song is brilliant, and the clues it gives are perhaps a touch heavy-handed, but really nice. I especially liked that I only found the first half with the clues by stumbling on the second half, and then searching for the refrain. That was, I think, my favourite moment. But still, A SONG.
Adam: I liked that it was there so much, for all of the reasons you’ve both mentioned, that I worked hard enough to justify it as a real thing that can happen. And, yes, I don’t particularly like doing the work to justify something but I was so glad it was there that I was happy to make the effort.
John: But we’re all agreed that the key noises were ridiculous. (Although, I assume, a vestigial leftover from the tablet version.)
Adam: What about the monitor glare? I didn’t realise I could turn it off and I’m glad I didn’t but it looks so much different when it’s off!
John: I realised I could straight away, and couldn’t bear to - it needed to be on for the whole game to work, I think.
Pip: So I'm assuming we all took slightly different routes through the story and I'd be interested to know your favourite or most memorable AHA moments because I'm thinking they'll vary due to those different pathways.
If it helps, mine was when I realised that I'd done a bunch of searches around hot drinks because of the cups on the table and that the tea/coffee preferences corresponded to different people. It was a little thing but SO SATISFYING! It also led to a couple of the moments where I felt kind of pulled out by the acting (a spillage that seemed overly fake and a moment of asking for one sugar as she takes a sugarlump out of the cup next to her) in case you were wondering about those from earlier.
John: “FUCK! FUCK FUCK!”
Adam: Mine was a really small thing. Seeing the “Why are you talking about Eve?” clip, where she rests her head on the table and taps her fingers BEFORE I’d seen the clip about the Knock Code. Then accidentally stumbling across the earlier clip again and realising, OH!
John: God yes. And I’d stupidly forgotten to save the clip where she taps, so spent AGES finding it again, reusing old searches. Did you translate it?
Pip: I couldn't find it again so no, but I had that same moment of OH!
What does she tap?
Adam: It made me sad.
John: She taps, “LOVE U”.
But far more sinister is the second set of tapping. She makes a mistake, but taps, “BYD HANNAH.” Which made me fairly convinced that she’d murdered her.
Adam: Did either of you (or both of you) play Aisle, Barlow’s interactive fiction thing from yonks ago?
Pip: Nope, but I was thinking about it based on this. Are they similar?
Adam: You should both play it because it’s brilliant but you should also play it to see how he’s used some of the same techniques in a completely different way. Aisle’s whole thing is that you get one command and then the game resets. A man is shopping in a supermarket and wants to buy some gnocchi. Type “buy gnocchi” and he does. You learn nothing and then you’re back in the Aisle again at square one.
There are loads of commands that seem meaningless but you can piece together so much of his backstory, details of his life, in one command by using memories and thoughts that you pick up elsewhere. And you can also just make him dance or talk to the people in the supermarket. It’s a game that leans heavily on language as a means to extract information, like Her Story, and it’s also a story that you discover in a nonlinear fashion, in fragments.
John: I’m trying to remember my AHA moment, and really struggling to. I remember the tattoo was a big part of it for me - that it was a snake and apple, etc. But I forget when it actually clicked.
Adam: Did either of you think it was going to be a story about split personalities that didn’t at all understand how split personalities work? I had the fear for a moment. Made worse by the fact that I found the idea really appealing on some level but was convinced it wouldn’t and couldn’t actually work.
Pip: I didn't but I think the way that part of the story unfolded for me began with something relatively concrete. I can't remember exactly what that thing was, but from the point that I realised there were two differently named personalities involved I assigned them to different people – does that way of putting it make sense?
John: It does. I do remember that at one point I had them entirely the wrong way around. On my spider diagram, I’ve crossed out Hannah and Eve and swapped them over. I like that it was ambiguous enough for long enough for me to make that mistake, before it became concrete.
Adam: That’s the central reveal and I guess it’s where most peoples’ shock surprise AHAs will fall, but I didn’t think the story relied on it too heavily. In that there’s plenty of interesting stuff - it’s not a Big Twist Story with nowt else there.
John: Who thinks Eve pushed Florence down the stairs? I do.
Adam: Because I’m apparently the worst kind of police chief, who would be chewing people out for not going by the book, I chomp on my cigar and say “We have no way of knowing that!” And that somehow pushes my feelings about it down into the cellar of (not Simon’s) discontent.
I think she probably did.
Pip: There's a question mark over the other set of parents too...https://www.rockpapershotgun.com/images/15/jun/pipnotes.jpg
John: Oh Eve poisoned them FOR SURE. I’m convinced because Hannah said they were found after a few days, but Eve said it was the next day. Now I type that out I’m not sure why I’m convinced, but I think being in the attic, seeing Hannah get everything, and get married, and know their world was falling apart - I’m sure she did it.
Adam: Is this about Original Sin and the assignment thereof in some way? Does John think Eve is responsible for all the evils of the world? As long as I, Adam, get off free of blame, that may be acceptable.
John: Hehe. It’s clear you’re complicit. But gosh, I so loved the themes about fairy tales, the Rapunzel story coming up, the way they created the most disturbingly twisted fairy tale of their own - they were the princesses of the darkest Grimm/Anderson tale.
Pip: Some of it's overt but then you just get mentions of fairy tale staples – mirrors and apples and mushrooms and terrible things happening to parents and the search for a happily ever after. There's also that obsessive, tragic love that makes me think of something specific that I can't place and it's driving me nuts. It's a very specific sensation I got from a particular story or movie or something and I'd love to work that out.
John: You mean their love for each other, or for Simon?
Pip: Each other. Definitely. Simon's kind of a bystander in some ways. Eve and Hannah sort of try to escape one another at points and the relationship is hugely damaging but they're part of each other in an inescapable way.
John: Is it Heavenly Creatures? It reminded me of that a bit.
Adam: It reminded me of Heavenly Creatures as well - which is, again, a crime story with escapes into fairytale and fantasy. Fictions within fictions - although Heavenly Creatures’ fiction is based on a true story, isn’t it?
John: Hideously, yes.
Pip: There are definitely shades of Heavenly Creatures. The thing I'm thinking of has a tragic ending in that I think one of the two dies and then the other simply can't live without her. There's the sense of their being no option not to do what the other one did. A few dramas and stories have done that riff but this was such a particular mood. If I remember I'll let you know.
Adam: The other thing it reminded me of was A Tale of Two Sisters, which is a wonderfully creepy and sad Korean horror film.
John: I was thinking of that too! The scariest film I’ve ever seen in a cinema.
Adam: YES! I adore it. Ummm...I can’t do a tangent. I have to go away so I can be Batman soon. There are thugs to bop, villans to biff and clues to kick square in the jaw.
Pip: And I need to write Dote Night. Shall we just say CASE CLOSED in big letters and assume that signifies we are done?
John: So we all hated it then, because EURGH, a woman.
Adam: Don’t be silly. We all hated it because EurGH, a folk song. Also, I kinda wanted to end by saying “the jury will adjourn” because when the heck else do i get to use the word “adjourn”.
John: Go on, say that.
Pip: CASE CLOSED