Sam Barlow, a game developer best known for two of the more recent Silent Hills, was quite disappointed with a few contemporary attempts at investigation-based video games. He thought that LA Noire, and Phoenix Wright to a lesser degree, did a poor job of conveying the actual experience of being presented a case, putting together relevant clues, and solving the mystery. I haven’t played Phoenix Wright, but in regard to LA Noire, I completely agree. The player can easily skip every cutscene and randomly pick every dialogue option and still crack every case like Columbo. But while it’s true that those games don’t come anywhere near approximating what it’s like to sift through evidence, makes connections, and solve a mystery, it’s also unclear how a video game ever could simulate such a complex, cerebral activity.
The problem with detective games is that investigations take place almost entirely within the detective’s mind. The evidence itself may be physically represented, but examining and organizing the evidence is entirely mental. How can a game transpose mental dexterity into an interactive process?
Life is Strange managed to create some pretty compelling investigative gameplay, albeit for a short period of time. In the 4th Chapter, Max arranges all of the clues she had gathered throughout the game thus far into a series of bullet points and photos grouped by specific categories on a bulletin board. The player can then examine the clues and select particular bits of evidence. If the properly related clues are selected, a progression triggers and the selected clues are put against another set of new clues, until a final group is reached, and Max solves the overall puzzle. It works quite well, except that the relatively small number of clues at each level means the player can easily trial-and-error his way to success. But again, seeing a work around for this problem seems like an impossibility. After all, the player has to do something to indicate to the game that he has actually figured out the puzzle.
With Her Story, Barlow created the first game to actually simulate the experience of being a detective and investigating a crime… at least if the player is up to it. The key to the game’s ingenious design is that the vast majority of “gameplay” really occurs in the player’s mind, and not through any directly interactive actions with the game itself. Though the game’s interface presents the case and the evidence, it is the player who does all of the heavy lifting. As a result, more of Her Story happens in the player’s head than on his computer.
Here’s how it works. The player’s interface is that of a mid-1990s computer in a police station. The player has access to an archaic database system containing video files ranging in length from six seconds to over a minute, concerning a series of police interviews of a woman who is possibly involved in a murder. But instead of having all of the video clips neatly laid out in order, the player can only access clips by typing in key words which then produce five (possibly) random videos which contain the key words. From the given starting key word, “murder,” the player is free to type in any words or phrases he wants, but presumably tracks along patterns laid out in the already viewed videos.
Granted, it’s a convoluted framework, and but it does a fantastic job of setting the player up as a detective who has to do real mental legwork to solve the case. With no restrictions on key word entry, players will tend to follow radically different paths as they attempt to piece together the woman’s narrative. After four or five videos I grabbed a notebook and began writing down clues. Five full pages and 1.5 hours later, I realized that I had been far too disorganized in my records. I wish I had broken down every interview into minute-by-minute segments so I could precisely follow the woman’s line of thought and any potential contradictions in her story, especially in light of THE BIG TWIST.
I have played very few games in my life which were anywhere near as compelling as Her Story. It may have only lasted three hours, but my mind was consumed by the mystery. I had to keep track of so many different story components, so many clues, so many of my theories, and yet I was enthralled by the tale the entire time. This is truly innovative, exciting storytelling in gaming. This is something I have never seen anywhere else, except maybe in brief moments in Heavy Rain and Life is Strange. But in those games, the detective aspects were merely minor components of a larger, more traditional story wrapped in (at least now) well-established gameplay mechanics. Her Story’s approach is a marvel of design rarely matched in creativity by games on the AAA or indie markets.
I don’t even mind that Her Story doesn’t technically have a challenging win state. Basically, a messenger program in the computer asks if you have figured out the mystery, and you can either say “no” and keep exploring the videos, or “yes” and trigger the win state, at almost any time throughout the game. That’s fine. The point of the game is to solve the mystery in your mind. There is no way for the game itself to actually determine whether or not you figured anything out at all, so it wisely avoids the mechanical trap that Life is Strange fell into. Regardless of a lack of explicit indication of my victory, I felt an enormous sense of achievement when every major plot twist clicked in my mind, and I finally put all of the pieces together. Again, few games have managed to provoke such a feeling in me.
The most amazing aspect of Her Story is how much it does with so little. This game was made by a single person with a next-to-nothing budget, and consists of an ancient computerized interface with maybe an hour and a half of video footage of a single woman speaking in one location. And yet this game also manages to spin an exciting tale stretching across nearly three decades with lots of interesting characters and huge reveals which kept me on the edge of my seat the entire time. Part of me almost thinks I should be giving myself credit for visualizing the story so well in my mind, but I would be remiss if I didn’t credit the story’s power to the game’s carefully crafted design decision to provide an outline of a story and trust the player to fill in the blanks.
As for the story itself, I enjoyed every second of it as it was unfolding before me, but after taking it all in, I am slightly befuddled by its more kooky aspects. When I first finished the game I assumed Hannah and Eve were identical twins and not one person with Multiple Personality Disorder. According to my investigation, Hannah killed Simon after finding out that he preferred Eve, then Eve helped her cover it up by going to Glasgow to create an alibi, and then they pretended to be one person during the early interviews, with one occasionally switching out for the other (by spilling coffee, throwing up, etc.) for unknown reasons. But Hannah got freaked out during the penultimate interview and fled, thereby leaving Eve to take the heat, so Eve came clean about everything in the last interview.
Upon reading some other write-ups of the story, I began to doubt myself as most people seem to prefer the MPD explanation. As evidence, they cite the odd deaths of Hannah’s parents (possibly instigated by a deranged Hannah), the tapping communication in the interrogation room which the other twin shouldn’t be able to hear, and the general implausibility of Hannah and Eve leading a secret Alfred Borden-esque scheme for their entire lives… and for no apparent reason.
On the other hand, the MPD explanation creates its own set of bizarre contrivances, and arguably collapses the entire plot. If Hannah and Eve are the same person, that means that she applied and removed a tattoo between interviews (or maybe even in the middle of one, I can’t remember) and she somehow created the Glasgow alibi while killing Simon at the same time. Even more troubling is how to explain her pregnancy. Were the doctors wrong when they told her she became infertile after her first miscarriage? If so, did Hannah put on a blonde wig for no reason and seduce her husband? And did her husband buy her two copies of the same birthday present and confess his love after somehow mistaking Hannah for another woman he was cheating with? Or were all of these parts of her story just hallucinations?
See, that’s the main problem with the MPD explanation: if Hannah is just an insane person who can’t tell reality from delusion, then how can we known anything she said throughout the entire game was true?
Unfortunately, there is no correct answer in the game’s content. Instead, Sam Barlow decided to give Her Story an “ambiguous” ending. Sadly, art critics love to confuse being vague with being profound so I’m sure a lot of players found this intended incoherency to be delightful. I consider it to be a letdown. It’s nowhere near as bad as Life is Strange’s ending, and ultimately doesn’t detract much from my immense enjoyment of discovering all of the story’s details, but it does leave a little bit of a bad taste in my mouth from what is otherwise a fantastic game.
For what it’s worth, despite the lack of a canonical answer, I think the twin explanation still makes more sense. Accepting either theory requires a lot of plot contrivances, but at least the twin theory doesn’t break the fundamental building blocks of the story in the same way the MPD explanation does. Normally ambiguous endings drive me crazy since it essentially leaves the plot without end, but since the vast majority of Her Story’s investigation process occurred in my mind, I guess I’m comfortable with saying that my explanation of Simon’s death is the objectively correct one.