It's pretty clear that the game industry is experiencing a real golden age at the moment, one that doesn't necessarily mean "stellar budget, dizzying graphics and open and immersive worlds".
The presence of multiple indies with scarce financial resources has led to bursts of creativity and innovative concepts where testing new game forms is the norm, and visual performance concerns are far less important than a strong narrative aspect and singular mechanics.
A small but very active community of contemporary developers are conducting an experimental trend very similar to what cinema experienced in the mid-90s through to the early 2000s: the 'found footage' genre.
For those who don't know what we are talking about, found footage is a particular cinematographic approach where a substantial part of a fictional movie (or indeed, the entire movie) is stitched together from video recordings, video footage and home video movies. Although it's a fictional work, the intention of the directors of this particular genre is to give viewers the idea that what they are watching is real, or at least credible, as if it was a documentary movie.
A striking example of it is 1999's The Blair Witch Project, where the use of "dirty" shots - i.e., infrared cameras, hand-cameras and non-professional actors - is a way to make the audience believe that what they are watching is real. And, ironically, the more the images are "dirty" and imperfect, the more the watcher's eyes are cheated, and if it's proof that what they are watching it's plausible.
A similar practice is the basis of Her Story, the new game by Sam Barlow, better known for his work as lead designer and writer of Silent Hill: Origins and Silent Hill: Shattered Memories.
Here, Barlow sketches out a tasty crime story built entirely on the consultation of a big video archive in a police department, which contains video from several interrogations of a young English woman related to the murder case of her husband back to 1994.
Our task is to find and store the various clips, using gradually more elaborate keywords in an attempt to solve the murder case by combining the various information we gradually acquire. To find the videos that we need, we use a search engine on a computer the operating system of which mimics Windows 95.
At the beginning we have only a few video clips, but as we listen to the answers given by the woman during her interrogation, we try to understand what kind of keywords will let us dig deeper into this murder case. At first, we are forced to use a rather basic approach, with simple keywords as "husband", "murder", "alibi". But as we gradually refine our research - thanks to the discovery of new details emerging from the various interviews - we can finally extricate more files within this archive and discover new information that allow us to shed light on the complex story underlying this murder.
The non-linear narrative structure present in Her Story is probably one of the most fascinating aspects of the whole project. This aspect gives the player complete freedom in how to conduct their own investigation, and because of it every game is different from player to player. There isn't a right way to get the resolution of the case: it depends exclusively on how you decide to proceed in the reconstruction of story, clip after clip. And that's why, in fact, Her Story becomes Your Story, in which the player and their Sherlock Holmes' intuition are continuously encouraged, trying to understand and research the truth behind this unusual murder case.
In this regard, in order to understand how many clips are still missing until we resolve the case, or simply to see if the concatenation of keywords will lead us to discover a new one, we have a helpful Database Checker, which visuals the collected clips as a coloured grid,
where red clips are ones you have yet to discover, green are clips you've found and yellow are clips you still need to need to scan properly to extract the relevant information.
It's really useful, especially when you are near to the resolution of the game and you don't know what your next step is to find a refined clip. We won't reveal, of course, any details about the plot; but be aware that the first suspicions begin to emerge after only a tenth research. And the final result is incredible.
Another aspect that fascinated us in Her Story is in its retro polish that characterises the entire game. All the clips - played by a real actress Viva Seifert, have the feel of being run off some old VHS tape, while the computer interface you interact with has the feel of an older operating system. Barlow's went all-in on making this feel like a 90's product: icons, the instant messaging program, those "read me" texts you can find on the desktop, the sound effects... everything has been perfectly reconstructed to allow a full immersion in our role as investigator/archivist. And the simplicity of the interface is crucial because it allows the player to focus solely on the narrative, the one and only fulcrum around which the whole experience has been created. And once again, the result is surprising.
Charming, cryptic, mysterious, intriguing. Her Story combines the best of TV crime series - something that reminded us of the highly acclaimed HBO series True Detective , where the purpose of the plot is not to discuss the murder itself, but the dark and mysterious story that lies behind its protagonists - with very simple and basic, yet intriguing, gameplay mechanics.
The choice of a non-linear narrative structure, which gives full freedom of movement to the player, is perhaps the most interesting aspect of the entire project, as well as a hearty dose of refreshing creativity. As interesting and highly appealing experiment, Her Story is a compelling cross-media product that we strongly recommend.
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