(Spoilers for Her Story follow; if for some reason you just want to know my opinion and are thinking of buying it, I’m very glad I played it, so if you’re on the fence, give it a try.)

I am very glad to have played Her Story shortly after playing Tacoma: both games tell stories that feel a lot more familiar outside of games than inside of games, both use interactive techniques to good effect when telling their respective stories, but the interactive techniques and the subsequent effect on how I experience the stories are significantly different.

Tacoma feels like a copiously annotated story. That story unfolds over the course of three days, which you learn about by seeing six key points during those three days; and, during those three points, you can look at the story from a few different perspectives, and are presented with some specific pieces of textual information informing each of those points and perspectives. And there’s subsidiary back story available: extra scenes you can watch about each character, and physical spaces for the ship and the characters that you can inspect, some with further textual information.

Her Story also makes it clear that there’s a linear story going on, but instead of progressing through that story linearly, the game almost immediately allows you to navigate on your own. I’m not even sure what a good metaphor is for the experience: a crystal, with views from different facets? A palimpset, reconstructing a text? Or maybe the best metaphor isn’t actually a metaphor at all, just a description of what’s going on: you’re conducting a murder mystery, trying to piece together what happened from the clues that you come across (that you notice!) and from the unreliable subjects you’re interviewing.


In Tacoma, you could say that the game mechanics focused on perspective, reifying that concept in a changeable viewpoint on a three-dimensional (or, really, four-dimensional) space. In Her Story, in contrast, the travel occurs along a one-dimensional space; and that, in turn, means that the navigation alone is less interesting from a game point of view. So the game has you navigate via conceptual controls instead of thumbsticks, reifying those concepts in the form of search terms that allow you to dip into portions of the timeline in an unpredictable fashion.

Or at least it seems unpredictable from the outside; one of Her Story’s most impressive accomplishments is how it uses what seems like an unpredictable method for controlling how you navigate the timeline and nonetheless ends up with a story development that’s satisfying in a surprisingly traditional way. Because, when reading a novel (a mystery novel, perhaps), I start out getting a picture for the basics of the setting and the problem that it’s presenting; then I start understanding the possible solution space, and thinking about how it might unfold, and what surprises might be in store; then I come across some twists that lead to new levels of depth and predictions; and eventually it all comes together. And, somehow, I went through that same experience while playing Her Story, despite the player’s behavior being aleatory from the designer’s point of view.


(Here’s where the spoilers begin in earnest, for people who want to stay away.)


Concretely: I started out just trying to get a feel for the situation, assuming that I was trying to piece together the events that led to the murder. I searched words that seemed important in the initial interview segments, leaning a bit towards proper nouns.

I’m not sure exactly when I realized that there were two different women appearing in the interviews: I must have heard Eve speak a few times before I realized that she existed. I think it might have been when I heard the name of the midwife, searched on that name, and then heard the whole story about their birth? But at any rate I transitioned quite gracefully into a second act of the game, which mostly centered around learning how the two sisters grew up, but also (from a gameplay point of view) had me asking questions like which sister was speaking during which days.

At some point I happened across a clip where there was a guitar sitting on the table, with no explanation whatsoever. So then I had to search for the term “guitar”, which led me to the first part of the song, and then I quickly found the second part of the song. If I’m remembering correctly, this was the transition into the third act of the game for me, trying to understand the sisters’ points of tension with each other better, and also trying to figure out what happened with Hannah’s parents.

And then I learned about what had happened between Eve and Simon; and eventually about Simon’s death; by then I’d seen the vast majority of the clips, so after a bit more searching of random words I’d jotted down, I declared victory.


In other words: I experienced a very satisfying unfolding of the story, broken down into four coherent acts, with significant parts of the story remaining hidden for quite some time, only appearing once I had the context to appreciate them. And yet all of this came out of a game with a random access interface, driven by search terms!

I still don’t know how the game did that, and how much I got lucky. I imagine quite a lot of it isn’t luck: presumably there are key words that don’t occur in the initial clips? I’d certainly be interested in seeing a graph whose vertices are the clips and whose edges are words shared between clips; does that turn up clusters that are dramatically meaningful?

But of course it’s not just a graph theory puzzle, for a few reasons. If you search a popular term, you don’t see all the clips; so we’d have to reflect that in the graph. (And of course restricting the clips you see in that situation by time order means that, all things being equal, you get more Hannah and less Eve.) And people don’t search words at random: I’m sure I’m not the only person who gravitated towards names and other proper nouns at the start, and in general people are going to search for words that seem meaningful. Finally, people aren’t restricted to searching for terms they’d heard: e.g. I searched for “guitar” not because I’d heard the word spoken but because I saw one.

So, somehow the game manages to balance all those considerations and still help the plot unfold. And I think it does that without cheating; it does say something about one volume being corrupted, but it said that at the start of the game and still says that at the end of the game, so I don’t think the game has been been hiding anything from me, or at any rate that it hid anything that hasn’t remained hidden?


I say “I” above when talking about my experience with the game, but I wasn’t playing it alone: I was at the keyboard but I was displaying it on the TV. Liesl watched a fair amount, and Miranda seemed basically just as involved as I was: at a lot of key moments I was following Miranda’s suggestions for what to type.

The game worked very well in that mode: we could talk about what we thought was going on, Liesl and Miranda both noticed things that I didn’t (e.g. I think Liesl was the first person to notice the tattoo), and the words I searched were mostly words that had been spoken whereas the words Miranda suggested were mostly thematically appropriate ones that may or may not have been spoken recently. So, between the three of us, we jumped around more and saw more stuff; yay for games that support that sort of shared experience.


Her Story of the most interesting games I’ve played this year. I won’t say that I want to play a whole bunch of games using this mechanic, but maybe actually I do? Certainly it’s a reminder to not stay stuck in a rut; and it feels like there’s some sort of deep lesson in the game about how to guide players’ experiences without prescribing.

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