In detective stories, computers have become shorthand for easy answers. It’s not surprising, really; they provide us with all the resources to learn things more easily than at any other time in human history. Mysteries, though, often take this almost as a promise: When Rust Cohle sits down at the dingy archive computer in the back room of the precinct, he’s going to find everything he needs to know. It’s technology as a rationalist panacea, a guarantee that the world makes sense even in the face of the seeming senselessness of unsolved mysteries. Ultimately, that guarantee is about understanding each other and knowing that even the fuzzier elements of a crime—things like human motivation and passion—are comprehensible. When the credits roll, you’ll understand who did it and, more importantly, you’ll understand why.
Her Story begins as one of those detective stories, though it quickly spirals into something harder to describe. It sits you down at the interface of a computer loaded with archival footage of a woman talking to the police. She’s a criminal, presumably. You can dig through the archive via a basic search engine, pulling up at the most five video clips at a time. The first keyword has been entered for you: “MURDER.” Did this woman kill someone? Who? Is she guilty or wrongfully accused? These opening questions form a simple mystery that Her Story spends the rest of its time challenging and complicating. Her Story is about finding answers, but it’s less self-assured and less faithful to the god of rationality than those other detective narratives sometimes are. It lets the player decide what questions to ask, and what, if anything, is to be gained from answering them.
It owes a debt of influence to classic text adventures and the full-motion-video games of the 1990s. All the archival footage is performed in live action by actor Viva Seifert, and your only means of interaction is through the fake database interface. You can search keywords, save clips for future reference, and write tags and marginalia to go along with each clip. A database viewer you can open tells you how many clips you’ve viewed out of the total available. At a certain point, the game ends, and that’s it. You just keep entering search terms and uncovering more of the woman’s testimony until it ends or you walk away feeling satisfied.
The videos can be viewed in any order, so the unfolding of this woman’s story will be different for everyone who plays it. The journey from moment to moment is built from fragmented anecdotes and your own tiny hunches. The woman speaks about family, lost loves, childhood, hopes, and dreams. You listen and try to make sense of it—try to make sense of her—but you never see the people asking the questions. Sometimes it feels like there are important pieces of the story missing, lost to time and decay and the uneven process of digitization.
This is how the veneer of rationality and clarity implicit in Her Story’s investigative premise begins to unravel. The narrative Seifert’s character offers is fragmented, complicated, and contradictory in all the ways real lives are. I began with a clear sense of what I wanted to know and focused on the grisly matters of the murder at the story’s heart. But like the woman’s sliced-up testimony, that question was shattered into a hundred smaller mysteries. As she became more real, I wanted to know her. I wanted to follow the tidbits about her life and piece them together into a more intimate picture.
There’s no one to connect the dots here but you, and no one standing over your shoulder to confirm that your beliefs are the right ones. The directorial eye of a traditional detective story lets you know when the “Aha!” moment is on its way, when the right piece of evidence has come to light. Here, all you have is your own subjectivity, and there’s no guarantee that when the game ends you’re going to be any more certain than when it started. Her Story understands what those stories often don’t: People are always a little unknowable, and computers can’t ever give us more insight into someone’s life than what someone decides to offer. Her Story refuses to buy into the rationalist fantasy that technology and attention can give us satisfying answers. Instead, it gives us an act and a person and challenges us to understand them even as it suggests that our understanding will never be complete. You can’t ever really know other people, after all. But the empathy and intimacy that Her Story evokes is a reminder that the strides we can make—incomplete and uncertain as they are—can be reward enough.
Developer: Sam Barlow
Publisher: Sam Barlow
Platforms: Mac, PC
Reviewed on: PC