Experimental games are a hit or a miss. I’m not entirely sure that you will ever find a near universal opinion on any game but games that find themselves outside the standard mould are especially prone to that. People will either absolutely love new and different games and mechanics or they will resoundly reject them.
I use that as the intro to this review because experimental is an appropriate catch-all term to describe Her Story. It’s a mystery game that sees you dig through old police interrogation videos to determine the truth in a 21-year-old case.
It might not have a proper win state. It might rely on FMV in the style of a, well, 21-year old video game. It might be a game that’s only combat is your brain against itself. But it’s easily the best game I’ve played this year so far.
Her Story follows the case of Simon Smith some 21 years after his disappearance and murder. That’s not a spoiler. Among the first things the game tells you is that Simon was murdered. Following through the case, the game has you digging through clips from police interviews with his wife, Hannah, in the aftermath of his disappearance and the later discovery of his dead body.
The closest thing Her Story has to a gameplay mechanic is how you sort through the videos. You have access to a police database where the interview videos have been broken up into small segments (from five seconds to two minutes long). To access the videos, you have to search keywords that will turn up in the video’s transcript. You can click on those videos to watch them.
The trick is that the database will only show you the first five videos with that keyword in chronological order of the interviews. So you have to keep adding additional keywords or trying new keywords to see all the videos that you need to find the solution to this mystery. The seven interviews have been cut into 271 pieces that span a little over an hour of actual video. Without a cheat that Her Story gives you in the end game, you aren’t going to 100% the game without that cheat. Some of the hard to get videos are literally yes and no questions played out in a three-second video.
The one shame about Her Story is that I can’t really go into too much detail about the content of the videos because that would spoil the game. It’s such a brilliant mystery that I think it needs to be experienced by anyone with even a passing interest in mysteries. This is truly a great game for the armchair detective.
I’ve always fancied myself an armchair detective and have a hell of instinct for correct hunches. My instincts were right with the solution but it wasn’t until I tapped out (the game asks through an instant messaging program if you’ve seen enough and if you’ve figured it out which I hadn’t conclusively done at that point) that I started picking up on just the subtlest hints that I should have caught on to sooner.
It’s a real testament to the writing of Sam Barlow that I can look through the videos and go “well, this can’t be a coincidence so this must be true” to having an actual legitimate “oh sh*t” moment while trying to solve the mystery. It was just a tiny little detail in a video that made me snap forward in my chair and just lean into the screen while pouring over video after video to see if I had just caught onto something massive.
Once I had that moment, I was actually able to realize that things Hannah said that I just took as little coincidences (either to build the story she was trying to tell or just pure chance) was actually part of the bigger story. It’s just brilliant writing that allowed all these little pieces of dialogue that seem like throwaway lines that someone might say if they were nervous while being questioned by the police actually tied together in a meaningful way and in a far deeper way than I initially gave them credit for.
I suppose that’s a result of the non-linear nature of the storytelling. You’re not watching all 271 videos in chronological order but bouncing around based on your search results. The game starts you with the search “murder” and you get clips from both the first and last interviews. Bouncing around in time lets you have those legitimate “oh sh*t” moments of discovery.
So Her Story is going to get a fantastic score, a score I haven’t given out since Mass Effect 2. But why isn’t it getting a perfect score? Well, as good as Viva Seifert is in her role as Hannah Smith, she isn’t perfect. There were a few moments where I was taken out of the mystery because she just felt a little flat and not quite believable. It’s a nitpick, yes, but it’s enough of a nitpick that I can’t give this game a ten and this game came damn close.
I’ve never been a particularly big fan of puzzle game though I love a good mystery. The mystery here was like the proverbial onion. As I dug down deeper, it just kept getting more interesting. I was expecting a casual little game where I watched some videos, answered some multiple choice questions and won a game. Instead, I was completely enthralled to the point where I was desperate to know if I figured out the answer at the end.
This is the first game of 2015 that I’m going to confirm for my best of 2015 list. It’s probably got a good chance of securing the top spot too. And, yes, I’m going to get very annoyed when big publications don’t put this on their best of 2015 lists.
Her Story was reviewed on Windows PC but is also available for OS X and iOS. Your impressions of the game may differ depending on platform played on, PC specs and whether you actually want to solve the puzzle or have it solved for you.