And as much as I love the game and wish I’d written it, it’s not My Story, either.
I’ve written this article in response to one by Christian Donlan on Eurogamer, which I think is wonderful. I’d like to thank Christian for providing such great food for thought.
In particular, this line made me pause: “it's not Her Story but Your Story as you weigh the evidence and apportion motives as you see fit.”
I understand and appreciate his reasoning and it’s hard not to agree, but I’d like to put forward a different outlook on the subject by looking at Her Story and the larger question of to whom the story belongs in a game.
Her Story is not your story. Piecing it together is your experience and how it shapes in your mind is unique to you, but that doesn’t make it your story.
The pieces fit together as a kind of jigsaw – the time stamps on the clips help with this. The way you uncover things and the emphasis the pieces have in the picture you are putting together is a little malleable so certain pieces will have greater significance than others because of that personal unveiling.
This is similar to watching a TV series out of order – you’d still arrange it in your mind the correct way, but how it colours your view of the story will be different to the way it might have been if you’d watched the episodes in the intended order. You may not enjoy it as much because some of the impact of storytelling is in the way we create setup and payoff and a different viewing order may undermine that.
Episodes 1-3 of Star Wars had a problem that was too large to surmount in this respect – we’d already had the payoff of who Darth Vader was so it was hard to care about Anakin Skywalker.
The revealing of the narrative in Her Story is kind of like watching Memento – the pieces of Shelby’s story are presented to us in an unconventional order and the true shape of it falls into place at the end. The difference in Her Story is that instead of the writer/director choosing the order in which the fragments are presented, the player uncovers them through the keywords he or she chooses.
With Her Story, the interview pieces have implied conflict, but they also constantly pose questions about the interviewee, her situation, the people around her and even the story she’s telling. She isn’t addressing the player, she’s addressing the people who are interviewing her. We feel that we are viewing something that genuinely happened.
One of the things I particularly like is that the video snippets don’t sound like monologues. Too many games suffer from the problem that talking with characters feels like you’re triggering brief monologues. Even diary entries feel like this. More so, really. Games that rely on diary entries and notes for the player so often leave me cold because it’s too obviously a game design thing rather than a story thing. They are written specifically for the player and seem, at times, to bypass the character we are playing.
I’ve always been a firm believer of taking the player into account when developing a game and most developers do this very well where the game’s mechanics and interface go. Where they often fall down is in how they bear in mind the way the player thinks when dealing with the story, characters, dialogue and the interaction with those things. Her Story is excellent in the way it handles this because the whole game is about how the player thinks while revealing the story and gives the player a great bond with the narrative. For me, it is the best connection to a game’s story I’ve ever felt. (The only better link to an interactive story was the second episode of TryLife, but that’s not really a game, although I highly recommend it.)
What I particularly liked is the way that, although we never hear the voice of the interviewer, the interviewee’s responses tell us what was asked and we build up an implied picture of the person asking the questions.
Now I’ve swayed back and forth a few times on whether Her Story is actually a game or not, but after asking myself a lot of questions I’m firmly of the opinion that this IS a game. A game in which there is one big puzzle we must solve through the way we interact with this incredibly simple interface and view a fixed set of video clips.
However, this isn’t a game that responds to our probing by giving different scenarios or to branch the narrative towards a different ending. This is a game in which WE respond to the unfolding of the narrative – it’s about how we react to a fixed narrative based upon how we’re able to view it and the order in which it’s revealed.
One thing that struck me when comparing Christian’s article to my own thoughts was that developers and game critics have become obsessed with the player’s narrative. This is where the bigger question of whose story it actually is really comes into play.
I think we need to differentiate between experience and narrative – just because you experience something in a way that’s unique to you, it doesn’t make that your narrative. When I walk down the street on a beautiful day, it’s not a narrative, no matter how much I enjoyed the experience.
If I view an abstract painting in a gallery and admire the way the artist has used colour, shape and texture to create an intriguing piece and I then see a face in the work that the artist didn’t intend, the painting isn’t suddenly mine. The experience of my interpretation of the artist’s work is uniquely mine and no one can take that away, but the artist placed those brush strokes in a specific way and nothing has changed that. The painting is still its own thing.
In a similar way, this is true of all those games with branching narratives – all the elements have been created and every possible path through the story already exists. The player is not creating a new story, simply unfolding a pre-defined one. It may well be that the one you experience is different to the one your friend unfolded, but how can it be yours when the creators already defined it?
Her Story is slightly different in this respect, because the interpretation of the existing story in the player’s mind is a fundamental part of the whole experience. This is what separates it from every other game. Okay, that’s a sweeping statement because I haven’t played every other game by a long way, but it’s still not your story. It’s not the player’s story.
It’s also not the creator’s story.
We should always remember that a good narrative is about the characters – it is the characters’ story and regardless of how the story unfolds it is about those charactes. When Christian Bale played Batman for three films, the stories within them didn’t become Bale’s stories, they were Batman’s stories.
The beauty of games is that, instead of just watching other people play these great roles and become these fantastic characters on screen, players step onto the stage themselves and play these important roles. The player is incredibly vital to moving the story forward because they have taken on the part of the main character, generally without rehearsal, which means having to learn the role as they go. This is, of course, a strong part of the experience – learning the character you are attempting to play. The player shares the character’s story and drives the progression through it.
Even in a first person game, the player knows that they are playing a role in which they are the hero fighting aliens or zombies, say, or exploring a haunted house or a deadly dungeon. The player takes on the role of the character directly.
A third person game may distance us a little from the role or give us the opportunity to take on multiple roles as the game switches the playable character, but we still identify closely with the character we are playing.
Without players understanding that they are taking on the roles of these characters, we would never be able to switch from one game to another as easily as we do and the characters in them, moving from Gordon Freeman to Batman to Lara Croft to the Traveller (Journey) for instance.
In Her Story, the player doesn’t take on the role of the character being interviewed or even the interviewer. Instead we become a nameless researcher looking into the case through a database of stored interview clips that can only be accessed through the use of keyword searches. Admittedly, that doesn’t take too much scrutiny or we are in danger of seeing this role as “the player” and may lose our connection to the story we’re trying to discover. Suspension of disbelief is an important factor here.
I think that Sam Barlow has been very clever in manipulating our interpretations of the story he created. We’ve already had our ideas coloured by the trailer he created, before we even started to play the game, but the way that he’s cut up the videos into very specific snippets is very manipulative, too. Are we genuinely interpreting this story in a way that’s unique to us or are we being manipulated into a very specific interpretation? Either way, it’s a very clever idea, brilliantly crafted and one that will make me think deeply about game stories for some time to come.
This isn’t Your Story but Her Story. At best, it’s Your Interpretation of Her Story. But really, I think it’s Your Interpretation of Her Story as Influenced by the Manipulations of Sam Barlow.
And, considering how much like a genuine experience he’s made the whole thing feel, I find this wonderful. I hope it means that we’ll all be inspired by it.
Copyright © Steve Ince 2015