Her Story: interactive fiction is not dead


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I’ve tried for so long. Since its publishing, I’ve tried to resist buying Her Story for stupid reasons I won’t explain, but every now and then it came back to me. Now it seems it was time (maybe because of in4mal and our last brainstorming about Sherlock & the Internet of Things): the other night I bought and finished this videogame. This story. This experience. Whatever you call it.

What’s Her Story?

Sometimes it’s defined as a video game story, sometimes as a crime fiction game with non-linear storytelling, sometimes as a FMV game. Long story short, Her Story is a videogame by Sam Barlow (writer and designer of Silent Hill: Origins and Silent Hill: Shattered Memories) and it’s pretty simple, yet astonishing. You have the chance to browse an old police database through keywords you choose, trying to found out what happened to a missing man while listening to his wife interviewed by the police back in 1994.

I warn you. If you decide to buy and play this game, you will be stuck even when you’re done playing. Here I’ll try to analyze Her Story both as a game and a narrative with almost no spoilers.

Story or Game?

In our digital era, immersed as we are between collective intelligence and convergent media, it doesn’t make too sense to state whether Her Story is a story or game. It is both. It is an interactive storytelling based on 80s/90s models, but also a video game (and, by the way, the two things do not exclude each other). Here, you can read Adrian Chmielarz arguing that Her Story is actually a video game.

Plus, it is maybe one of the best example of digital narrative in our time. Stop with all the transmedia bla bla. 

You start with an interface: an old computer with an open window and some files and icons on the desktop.

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If you open Readme.txt and REALLY_Readme!!!.txt, you’ll get the basic instructions and the context to start the game. You can open also the Rubbish Bin (and find a sort of Reversi game) and the DB icon, which gives you access to the main interface of the game: the L.OG.I.C. database.

There is already a query, MURDER, and its results: the first videos of Hannah you get the chance to view. Then? It’s up to you. Enter any keywords you think it could lead you to understand the scenario and go on. Watch all the story unfold.

Until the end.

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The game is not that long, it took me about 2/3 hours to complete, but it remains accessible even after the credits scene. And trust me, you will stay in the game, trying to unlock all the clips you did not unlock the first time and trying to figure out all your questions remained open. Because there will be a lot of open questions. A lot.

This brings us to the next big aspect of the game: the community.

Theories & Reconstructions: when the players have some ownership of a story

There’s two phases to playing Her Story. The first is sitting in front of the game’s virtual computer. The second is sitting in front of your real computer, going and finding some forum on which people are discussing all of the details and arguing over theories, to see what you missed or to at least confirm your suspicions, searching for more and more scraps of information that others might have left behind. In short, you end up doing exactly what you did when you played Her Story, but now the game’s gone.
http://www.wired.com/2015/07/her-story-live-action-videogame-obsessed/ — Chris Kohler

As said before, we live in an era of media convergence and collective intelligence. According to Pierre Lévy, who coined the term:

[Collective intelligence] is a form of universally distributed intelligence, constantly enhanced, coordinated in real time, and resulting in the effective mobilization of skills. — Wikipedia

That is exactly what happens with Her Story.

Consumers become hunters and gatherers moving back across the various narratives trying to stitch together a coherent picture from the dispersed information. — See more at: http://henryjenkins.org/2007/03/transmedia_storytelling_101.html

Back from Star Wars, Matrix, Harry Potter, Lost and endlessly on, one thing is always successful when you need to emotionally engage people (viewers, users, players: VUP, as Stephen E. Dinehart once said) and it is agency.

Whether the creator has planned to give some role to the user or not, the user will get some agency in the moment he/she decides to enroll within the experience in a grade that can vary depending on the user.

In a certain way, even when you have a closed and defined product — a book, a movie — an open ending or new layers you give to the plot can bring the users to future speculations. It’s been 20 years now that Fight Club first came out as a novel and 17 in the movie theatres, and there are still people speculating about Tyler Durden. In Pan’s Labyrinth, you ask yourself “Was everything in the girl’s imagination?”, “Was she really the princess of fairies?”. Both versions are valid. In the end of Inception, you ask yourself whether the spinning top stopped or not. Yes, and no. Does it really matter? And there are tons of other examples, you can find yours.

It’s one way and the other: it’s the agency that the creator gives to us and the agency we take. We need it as human beings reading, viewing and experiencing stories: we fill in the blanks. It is due both to the game aspect (collaboration with others — all together we try to find out the results — and competition with ourselves — we have the urge to solve the enigma) and the narrative aspect (the need we have for linearity and coherence, for cause/effects).

The imagination does the majority of the heavy lifting when you’re enjoying a story and I think it’s cool to give some ownership of that story to the player, let it live on in their heads. That’s certainly how a lot of my favorite stories work.
Sam Barlow — http://www.appunwrapper.com/2015/07/10/help-interrogate-sam-barlow-about-her-story/

This is how Sam Barlow answers to AppUnwrapper last July.

When the brain steps in to fill in the blanks, our imagination do the trick. We complete the picture with our experiences and our peculiar point of view (nonetheless with our cognitive bias as well).

We know that stories create our memory and, consequently, model our identity. Thanks to the stories, that act in the very deep of our brains, we know how to live, to interact. Basically, we have evolved thanks to stories.

But let’s get back to Her Story. One strong point of this game is that it plays with us, it provoke us. We have a beautiful picture with missing pieces and we crave to understand what are those pieces.

The main question is… I mean, if you played the game, you already know it. Again, Adrian Chmielarz has his version of the story, including a suggestive parallelism with the case of Evelyn Lancaster.

Here, to satify our linearity needs, you can check out all the video clips in chronological order: http://www.appunwrapper.com/2015/06/30/her-story-walkthrough-all-video-clips-in-order/ (thanks to AppUnwrapper).

Game Aspect: 5 at times

You get access to the video clips resulting from your query, but even if the result gives you 10 occurrences, you can view just the first 5 clips.

This way everything is more challenging. If you want to access the last hidden clips, you have to find new keywords.

It’s dopamine acting in our brain: we write a word, we get a result, we get a shot of dopamine. We want to do more. This time we don’t get any results (it would be too easy, then) but the next time, again, a result.

Multiple experiments showed — here’s one with monkeys — that we get a stronger dopamine hit when a reward for our actions is of “reward or nothing” type, rather than of “always some kind of reward” type. http://www.theastronauts.com/2015/08/what-her-story-tells-us-about-the-current-state-of-video-games/

Recurrent themes

There are some recurrent themes in the story. The döppelganger, the mirror, the reflection, the fairy tales.

Adrian Chmielarz, again!, points out an interesting parallelism of the famous fairy tale.

Eventually, everything here is about the story. I am talking about a primordial form of storytelling. You can call it myth or fairy tale.

Do you want to hear the story? It’s a real life fairy tale.
Eve

About the distinction between myth and fairy tale, you can read this article that, starting from Tolkien and Campbell, tries to sum up what we’re saying here.

[…] I spent the large majority of the development time working on the story and the layers that it contains, so it’s super, super gratifying to see people react in this way and seeing the players take the game as seriously as I did when I made it! — Sam Barlow

In conclusion, Her Story is a great video game and an entertaining, collective storytelling experience that confirms the power of stories in video games and that the current of the interactive fiction is definitely not over.

[…] You have nothing. And all these stories we’ve been telling each other… Just that. Stories. — Eve in her last interview. Her Story

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