Spoiler-free review: Her Story

Her Story wins ‘most original’ game of the year. It’s a gameplay experience unlike any other I’ve had. The closest I’ve come before to experiencing the same sensations as I got from Her Story was during my play of Myst… And if you think about that for a second, that’s a big deal.

Her Story can loosely be described as a puzzle game; slightly more accurately described as a “mystery” game (which is just a more specific type of puzzle game). But to be perfectly clear, Her Story is a game in which the player solves a mystery – in a more straight-forward sense than has ever been in a game before. But what’s original about it is the way you go about doing this.

This game’s platform is a simplistic interface of computer windows. Gameplay is clicking through files and programs just the way you would on your real computer. That’s it; there’s no character movement, no looking around, no anything like that. However, there is plenty of exploring – just in a different way than you may be used to…

The player is given the ability to look through a stash of old videos via this police-records archive software. There is a file on the “desktop” that explains how the software works, and that is where the explanations end! From there, it is up to the player to not only solve the mystery hiding in the videos, but decide what mystery they are trying to solve in the first place! There is literally nothing spelled out for you in this gameplay. And there is literally no incentive given for exploring the videos. The only incentive present in the opening moments of the game is the player’s own – to figure out why we are looking through these videos. And all we have to go on to find an answer to this – and whatever other questions we may form over time – is the many words of the girl in the videos… her story.

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The functionality of the in-game software is where nearly ALL the gameplay difficulty lies. It’s not as simple as just watching the videos and learning the truth. The software only finds videos from the archive once you’ve searched a keyword. And after you’ve searched a keyword, it will only display the first five videos containing that keyword. So if you want to see more videos, you have to choose different words or be more specific – grabbing words from other videos that may be relevant or picking a new word going completely on a whim or a theory. At first, this practice feels like an open book, but eventually defining your searches becomes a compelling challenge.

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Uncovering the story comes in layers in this game, and it’s brilliantly mapped out by the pre-production and writing. The first thing you’ll learn is why she’s on camera, and learning this will probably make you curious about something else, which will reveal another angle of the story and make you want to dig even deeper… Your first discoveries are simple, but your last discoveries are complex and difficult to find. Amazingly, the game does become more difficult and more compelling as you approach the limit of knowledge despite the fact that all the pieces are layed out in front of you from the very beginning. Every video is available to you, and if you knew the right way to search, you could uncover the most important information very early on. But the challenge of this game is figuring out what you are looking for, how to find it, and eventually (in a brilliant turn) why does it matter? These questions do not receive answers until you’ve put in your due time investigating, and given thought to all the pieces of the story you’ve collected.

This was such a fascinating experience for me, personally. I sat down to try out the game and didn’t get up from my chair for four hours! I did not expect to get that invested in the game, especially since that effect is so very rare these days. Like, the recent early access game, Stranded Deep, and the classic, Myst, the game gives you no hints as to how to progress or what potential mysteries await. It’s invigorating trying to uncover these things, completely taking the direction from your own logic. Unlike most games which have an objective marker telling you where to go, these games allow you to take whatever actions you feel necessary and don’t punish you for standing still. It’s only once your own care for the story and its world compels you to get creative that you actually start to move forward.

And I think that is the most successful gameplay style ever conceived. It’s been said that first-person shooters are the ultimate gameplay experience. But I disagree.

Since this is a review, I must mention what negative thoughts I may have about the game. There aren’t many; overall this was a thrilling game and would be on my list for best of the year. But it’s not perfect.

The ending is a bit awkward, mostly because its vague to define an ending in this game. There does come a point at which you can accomplish certain things and get to see credits. But when I reached that point, I didn’t feel like it was over. Or at least, I didn’t feel like I had the amount of information that I wanted to have. In fact, I still don’t feel quite satisfied with my competency of what really happened. And I’m not sure if a further competency exists or if I know as much now as I ever will. It’s just little unclear.

Another thing that bothers me a tad: there is a methodology to viewing the videos that makes it really easy. I’m not going to say what that is, because I don’t want to spoil it for anyone reading this who hasn’t played it. The fun way to go through the videos is to do how I described earlier — searching by keywords you suspect she says in the videos. Luckily I didn’t realize the easier method until I was very far into it. I was actually stuck and found it very hard to progress before I realized it. Once I did, I quickly finished what I was trying to do with ease. Then I realized I could have been doing this from the beginning… I think the game hides this feature well enough that it isn’t going to spoil the investigating fun for most people. I’m glad I didn’t realize it until far into the game.

And I must put my two cents into this topic: Viva Seifert’s performance. As I’ve heard thus far, her acting is hailed by many reviewers as one of the best things to come down the pike. But those people must not watch a lot of movies. Video games rarely get good acting, because most of the time that’s the thing players care least about and it ends up being not that important. But it’s a huge part of this game, and it’s understandable that un-seasoned audience would make a bigger deal out of it than they should. Seifert’s performance did not keep me from getting into this at all, but it could have been better. There were moments I found to be ingenuine. Maybe it’s the writing, maybe it’s the pacing, could have been many things other than her… One thing she was quite proficient at was establishing and keeping consistent the several personalities present in the video. That becomes an important when piecing things together.

her-story-reviewIf you like puzzle games, Her Story is one of the finest. It is the ultimate difference from put-the-peg-in-the-whole kind of puzzle games. It requires wit, note-taking, and reason, and is the most honest-to-goodness investigation I’ve ever experienced in a video game. It turns out to have a stunning and subtle emotional impact as well, which beautifully ties together the whole thing.

My rating for 2015’s Her Story for PC is…

★★★★

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