“We Had a List of Rules”: An Analysis of HER STORY

A fourth entry in my video series on detective games. It’s not real surprise that this game would end up in this series: I’ve taught it twice now (including in one class this term), I’ve written about teaching it, I named it one of the games of the decade, and right before the term launched I published a full transcript of it. What I didn’t expect was for it to be quite this long—definitely among the longer analyses of a single game I’ve done, in any format.

Script below the jump.

Hello everyone. I hope you’re safe and well during the pandemic and, at least in the US, a pretty much unprecedented period of social unrest. Now that that somewhat grave introduction is out of the way, welcome to the fourth video in a series I’ve been doing on detective stories in games. Don’t worry, you don’t have to have watched the first three to understand this one.

There are a lot of detective games. In fact, the just in recent years there’s been a drastic increase in the number of games being released with mysteries as their subject matter, or detectives as their player-characters. Part of the reason I inaugurated this series last September was to examine this Cambian explosion of detective games, explore the forms these games have taken and why they’ve recently become so popular. I have some more I want to say on this topic, but I’ll save it for the conclusion.

Of all the detective games I’ve played, there are many that I find interesting—several of which have been subjects already in this series. And there are those that, in addition to finding interesting, I also have a deep and abiding affection for, and have gotten a lot of pleasure out of.

But there are two games in particular that go even further—that aren’t just interesting, and that I don’t just like, but that I genuinely think are masterpieces of game design. When these games came out, they re-wrote the rules on what it was possible to accomplish in a mystery game, breaking with the form’s longtime reliance on old adventure game tropes, or heavy-handed uses of design crutches such as vision modes, establishing new ways of making the act of investigation itself mechanically satisfying. These two games are HER STORY, from 2015, and Return of the Obra Dinn, from 2018. I’m intend to get to both of these in this series. Don’t ask me for a timeline as to when I’ll get to Obra Dinn—due to a variety of outside factors, this series has progress much more slowly that I would have liked. Today, I’m starting with HER STORY. And, fair warning: if you have not played HER STORY yet, I will be spoiling it in this video. I’ll start with light spoilers pretty much immediately, and I’ll give you one final warning before we get to the heavy and thorough spoilers.

What is HER STORY?

HER STORY is a 2015 game from Sam Barlow. Barlow was a writer and designer with Climax Studio, who wrote, among other things, Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, a game that I retain some real affection for, despite the fact that it has some undeniable flaws and was never really going to be what people wanted it to be. He also wrote the interactive fiction piece Aisle, which perhaps serves more as a preface for what he would eventually do with HER STORY.

HER STORY itself is a full-motion video adventure game—a genre that had pretty much gone fully extinct by the time Barlow returned to it in 2015. Full-motion video games had briefly flourished in the mid-90s on the PC, Sega CD, and 3DO as developers adapted to the possibilities of the CD-ROM. Taking advantage of the then-unprecedented storage capacity of disc-based media, these games eschewed real-time graphics for pre-rendered video files, either created with CGI, or, more notably, using flesh-and-blood actors, captured on heavily-compressed video. These games’ reliance on fixed video assets necessarily meant that they were slower and less responsive than your average game. In short: they were shit. And that, combined with the fact that they mainly flourished on over-priced disc consoles with failure-prone lasers, ultimately spelled doom for this short-lived genre. The fact that some games used the video format to show skin extended the genre’s life by a little, but not by much.

HER STORY returned to this live-action format, and did much more interesting things with it than the original games ever did. In fact, it got so much buzz, and won so many awards, that it basically single-handed resurrected the full-motion video adventure game. In the five years since its release, we’ve seen a flurry of other FMV games released—Contradiction just a little later in 2015, followed by The Bunker, Press X to Not Die, Late Shift, two games from D’Avekki Studios, The Infection Madness of Doctor Dekker and The Shapeshifting Detective, with a third on the way. You could even include things like Netflix’s Bandersnatch in here. And, just last August, Sam Barlow released his own follow-up to HER STORY, Telling Lies. I have more to say on Telling Lies, but I’ll save it for the conclusion.

Why did HER STORY do to revive the genre? Well, I’ll be devoting the entirety of this video to the things it does right, but to start at the most basic level: Because it didn’t have the 3DO and Sega CD as its target platforms, HER STORY was not limited to cursor-based gameplay. Instead, it makes extensive use of the keyboard: the main form of interaction you have with the game is searching for videos by typing in keywords. This is immediately more compelling than any previous form the genre took, and, as it turns out, is a very good mechanical fit for an investigation game.

HER STORY’s main assets consist of 271 video files, all of which can be discovered via text search. Each of them presents a woman’s respons to a question asked of her by police investigators. We never hear the questions themselves—only her responses. The in-game explanation for this is somewhat convoluted: what we’re watching are interview recordings the police made on VHS in 1994. In 1999 they were digitized, and fed into a then-state-of-the-art video database system. The interview’s transcripts were added as metadata to the video clips, which explains why we’re able to search them using keywords. But the system was abandoned, and the archives were trashed, so the clips with the officer’s questions were lost.

If you were to watch all of the clips that make up HER STORY lined up in a row, you’d see a total of seven police interviews, delivered in such a way that you only hear the answers to the questions being asked. The footage itself, although it consists of 271 video files, only adds up to about an hour and 37 minutes, meaning that the complete script is comparable to the length of the screenplay of a typical feature film.

If you watched HER STORY in this way, however, it would be both boring and cringeworthy.

Boring, because, taken as a linear screenplay, it doesn’t haven much shape. You have eight minutes of a woman reporting her husband missing in the first interview, eight minutes of her recounting the day he went missing in the second follow-up interview, a third, sixteen-minute interview in which she’s no longer talking about her husband being missing but instead talking about finding his body hidden in the basement, 30 minutes of her giving repetitive statements over the course of three more interviews, with the detectives on the case eventually asking some strange questions out of left field that leave her rattled and combative—but again, we don’t hear these questions, we only hear her responses, so we can only guess at the original questions, and then 35 minutes of a dramatic final confession, spilling tons of secrets. The seventh, final interview is disproportionately long, and not only back-loads a ton of exposition and storytelling, but also effectively re-writes so much of what we thought we knew that very little of what happened over the course of the previous hour meant anything at all. There are a few relevant plot points dripped out during the first hour—the revelation around the 16-minute mark that this is now a murder case, the revelation that she’s pregnant at the 20 minute mark, the introduction of a friend named Eve at the 39 minute mark, which the interviewee seems to regret doing for some reason—but overall, if someone presented this script to me, written out in a linear order, I’d tell them to study the 3-act structure and make significant re-writes. Its first hour is slow, and has massive redundancies—I’m talking massive, characters saying the same exact thing, word for word, repeatedly. And it’s not even redundantly presenting important information, since the overstuffed final third invalidates so much of what came before.

Cringeworthy, because the script is far too on-the-nose with its heavy-handed symbolism. The plot ultimately hinges around twins, one of whom constantly calls the other her “reflection.” Their names, Hannah and Eve, are both palindromes—a fact the script goes out of its way on two occasions to spell out for us outright. The man who was murdered was a glazier, and he was murdered with a shard of a mirror he made. It was a boutique mirror, crafted by traditional means that rendered it cloudy—the “perfect mirror for someone who doesn’t like to look at their own reflection.” The twin plot feels like something out of a fairy tale, which the characters constantly comment on, when they’re not actively spelling out the plots of fairy tales. Oh, and in case you thought the script let a few extra drops of symbolism go to waste, Eve not only has a name that’s a palindrome, but she’s also a sexually aggressive temptress figure. Although technically speaking she’s got more in common with depictions of Lilith.

But here’s the thing: as players, we don’t experience HER STORY in a linear way, all lined up like a feature film. We experience it only by searching words, and viewing the clips that come up, one response at a time. This means that the weaknesses I just named aren’t really weaknesses. Even the heavy handed symbolism—which I have to say would be outright unbearable in a film script—serves as just one more bit of connective tissue, helping guide the player’s attention as they navigate this sea of seemingly unstructured clips.

How does HER STORY work?

We access the 271 video files that make up HER STORY through a simulated desktop. This is presented as the actual user interface of the video database the police began construction of in 1999. And I have to say, as someone who used a variety of early digital video editing software suites in the late 1990s and early 2000s, before the emergence and eventual dominance of things like Premier and Final Cut, Barlow really nails the aesthetic of this era of hybrid analog-digital systems.

As soon as we load the game, there is already one search typed into the text search box: “MURDER.” It’s just waiting for us to hit enter, and go. This is very smart, for two reasons. 

The first is that you can go into this game in a state of utter ignorance, and within seconds you’re primed to understand that this is a murder mystery, and that you should treat it as such. All it takes is that one word, and anyone who is minimally genre-savvy will immediately start strategizing their investigation techniques.

The second is subtler—the fact that this search is already typed out for us tells us something about our player character. Even though the game is a direct presentation of a simulated desktop, we are still playing as someone. We don’t know anything about who we’re playing as—who this person is who is sitting in front of this particular computer, searching these particular old video files—but right of the bat the game cues us into the fact that they have an agenda. Their identity, and the reason they have this agenda, is revealed only gradually over the course of the game. But right from the outset it’s set up, in a subtle way, that we are in fact roll-playing in this game, conforming to the desires and motivations of an off-screen third party.

The initial search for “MURDER” brings up four clips. As you do subsequent searches, however, you’ll quickly find out that this database UI has a limitation: it only shows the first five hits for a given search term. Any other hits remain inaccessible. This feels a little arbitrary, but again, I used a fair amount of systems like this in the late 90s, and this particular stupid restriction didn’t feel all that out-of-place.

Of course, this restriction isn’t here because this is actually a 90s-era database system: it’s hear for gameplay reasons. The clips are organized in chronological order. If only the first five hits are displayed, chances are good that you’re seeing the instances of these words from the earlier interviews, which is not where most of the game’s secrets reside. In order to investigate, you’re going to have to learn how to narrow your search terms.

What actually happens in HER STORY?

There’s not actually any way I can go about this analysis without massively spoiling the twists and turns of HER STORY. So I’m going to do that now. Here’s the point where you should get off, if you want to go into the game un-spoiled. I’m about to recount all of the events that happen in HER STORY—lay out the whole “fabula,” to use the term that the Russian formalists used to describe the events of the story, in the order they originally occurred.

Unfortunately, since so much of what I’m going to recount now takes place off-screen, there’s not a whole lot I can do to illustrate this section dynamically. All I can do is ask that you bear with me for a few minutes.

Sometime around 1967, a woman gave birth to twins, with the help of a midwife named Florence. The second twin looked as if it was stillborn—but it wasn’t. Florence was unmarried and had always wanted a child, and, recognizing that the baby was actually alive, decided to lie to the parents, tell them it was dead and that she would go through the proper channels of disposing of the corpse, but then actually take the child and raise it as her own. She knew that, once the child got older, she couldn’t let her be seen publicly—it would raise too many questions. So the child, named Eve, would have to be raised entirely indoors. Complicating things further is that fact that Florence lived on the same street as Eve’s parents, just a few doors down. When she looked out the window, Eve could see her sister, Hannah, playing outside, under the loving eye of her parents. This created a long-standing association in her mind with Eve being her “reflection.”

Eight years on, Florence falls down the stairs and dies. Eve insists that this is an accident, but she says a lot of things are accidents, and there are reasons to be skeptical of her stories. Now alone, and never officially having existed to anyone else in the world in the first place, Eve introduces herself to Hannah, and moves in with her. They hide the fact that there are two of them from their parents: they trade places being “Hannah,” and whoever’s not being Hannah for the day hides in the attic, getting food snuck up to them. The situation is obviously completely untenable, but they accept it due to their shared love for fairy-tales, which they bond over.

Speaking of fairy tales, all of what I’ve said up until this point seems pretty far-fetched, right? There’s a significant chunk of players who have played HER STORY and concluded that none of this is real—that Hannah in fact has dissociative identity disorder, and that Eve is a personality she constructed and sometimes slips into as a way of dealing with psychic distress. There are several drawbacks to this theory, however. The first is that that isn’t really how dissociative identity disorder works, that’s only how it works in movies and soap operas. So making that substitution doesn’t really make the plot of the game more “realistic,” it just swaps one set of fantastical genre tropes for another, updated set of fantastical genre tropes. The second drawback is that the way the detectives are eventually able to catch her is through careful consideration of physical evidence, which only really makes sense if you accept that they’re twins. So, twins it is.

Hannah and Eve’s relationship is unhealthy in many ways, and this is only exacerbated once they hit adolescence, and start dating boys. While they’re dating, they still attempt to maintain the illusion that they’re one person, leading to messiness around both sex and emotions. Hannah begins to resent Eve, because she’s destroying her ability to exist as an individual. During one physical altercation between the two on the beach, Hannah almost drowns Eve. Eve, meanwhile, isn’t like Hannah—she can’t just get bored and leave their pact. She has no paperwork, no passport, no parents that would actually recognize her legal existence: she doesn’t exist in the eyes of the state, and is therefore trapped, dependent on Hannah in a way Hannah isn’t on her.

When they’re seventeen, Hannah falls for Simon, a boy who works at the local glazier’s. She sleeps with him without Eve’s permission, and she gets pregnant. As Hannah’s pregnancy progresses, she grows so physically dissimilar from Eve that they can’t pass for one another anymore. Only Hannah can present herself in public life. Making matters worse, her parents insist she marries Simon. She does so, and moves in with him and his parents. Eve is trapped in her parents’ house, with no public identity, no functional relationships, malnourished, and with an STI she contracted while trying to get pregnant to be able to pass for Hannah. In 1984, Hannah miscarries. Then, the same summer, Hannah and Eve’s parents die by eating poisoned mushrooms.

Again, Eve insists that this was an accident, and that she didn’t poison them. She definitely had means, motive, and opportunity however—she knew about poison mushrooms, she was secretly living in their house at the time, and, with Hannah’s baby out of the picture, she had some hope that Hannah would move with Simon back into the big old family home, and they could be together again. Hannah and Simon did end up moving in, but Hannah insisted that Eve couldn’t pretend to be her and sleep with Simon. Eve finally gives up on the dream of reuniting with Hannah, and resigns herself to the fact that she needs to establish an independent identity. She leaves, gets her own small place, scrapes together some cash income performing music at bars, and this is the status quo between the sisters for about a decade.

Until Eve meets Simon, independently, at a bar. She seduces him, as an act of spite against Hannah. She gets pregnant. Upon learning her sister is pregnant, Hannah decides to formally introduce her to Simon, reveal to the world that she has a sister, to give her familial support. But then she figures out that Simon is the father. She and Eve fight. Eve angrily takes Hannah’s car and drives to Glasgow to clear her head. Hannah, meanwhile, confronts Simon and ends up slashing his throat with a shard of a mirror he gave her as a birthday present.

Eve returns, sees what Hannah has done, and the two of them concoct a plan to make sure Eve never gets caught. They’re going to pretend to be one person again—dig up all of the old tricks to get their stories straight, this time to fool the police and cover up a murder. There’s some indication that they might have even planned ahead for something as elaborate as this when they were children—Eve mentioned that even then, they had a “list of rules that said what we could and couldn’t do in any given situation … for things that could only ever happen inside our imaginations.” Eve smashes Simon’s watch to provide some physical evidence that Simon was killed while she was in Glasgow—a trip which there are witnesses for. That should provide Hannah with an alibi. They hide the body in the basement, under the logic that suspicion will be most effectively dispersed if first it looks like a missing persons case, then it’s a murder with suspicion falling on Hannah, until finally Hannah reveals her air-tight alibi. So they go about enacting this sequence of events as best as possible—and that’s where the footage included in the game actually begins.

On June 18, 1994, they report the missing person’s case to the police. This is done by Eve, posing as Hannah. She recounts Hannah and Simon having an argument, and does not say anything about going to Glasgow—presumably, she does this because it will be more convincing if they wait to introduce that detail later. Marching into the police station saying “my husband is missing, and by the way I have an alibi” doesn’t exactly make you look less suspicious.

On June 25th, 1994, they make another statement to the police, still sticking with the “missing person” routine. This time, Hannah’s playing herself. We know this because she has a bruise on her cheek, from when Eve hit her during their argument. The lack of a bruise during the first statement also means that it wasn’t Hannah, but Eve, who made their first statement—presumably, they assumed that she’s be the better liar in this situation, since she wasn’t under the stress of having just killed her husband.

Once you begin to parse out who is who, you begin to notice the small differences between them—for instance, Hannah is more likely to wear her hair up, and has a preference for tea which contrasts with Eve’s preference for coffee.

During this interview, Hannah talks a lot about Simon, his job, his co-workers, and the mirror he gave her for her birthday. Her stories about Simon tend to be expansive, thick with all sort of detail you would imagine the police don’t really care about—for instance, she describes their wedding day:

I want to pause for a moment, and sing a little praise for the way the game’s script works. As I’ve said already, we never hear the questions, only the answers given to them. We’re rarely totally ignorant of what the questions were, though—the answers are written in such a way that you can guess the question that proceeded them, without being  obnoxiously over-expository. For instance, in the immediately prior clip, Hannah says that her and Simon’s parents met together and “decided they should get married.” The next clip begins with her saying “I guess you could call it that?” Call it what? Well, presumably the question we don’t hear here is something like, “So you’re saying it was a shotgun wedding”? It’s good writing, cueing us into what the question was, without having Hannah obnoxiously repeat it back. It works the best if you view the clips in sequence—which you’re unlikely to do while you’re actually playing the game. The game’s writing holds up and rewards you even when you re-examine it in ways that the average player is never going to see.

Anyway, Hannah screws up a little bit in this interview—there’s one brief moment where she slips into talking about Simon in the past tense. (“Everyone loves Simon. He was so … nice”) Eve seems to be the better liar. But it’s not a disaster of an interview, and they’re well-poised now to make the shocking revelation of the body, two days later, on June 27th.

Eve takes Hannah’s place for this police interview, and makes one massive failure in preparation: she doesn’t give herself a bruise. It’s only two days after the session Hannah sat in for, and suddenly the bruise is gone. This might seem like a rookie mistake, given how much experience the sisters have ensuring that they’re physically identical, and even injuring themselves in the process. Hannah gave Eve a black eye once, to match her own. Eve tore Hannah’s hymen with a hairbrush, so that Hannah wouldn’t bleed the first time she had sex with a boy they were sharing. But this objection is countered by the fact that the sisters are rusty in their game. They haven’t played these Parent Trap shenanigans of pretending to be the same person for at least eight years. They’re out of practice—and for Hannah the whole thing has long been a source of resentment, anyway.

But, anyway, it’s a definite screw-up. And although we learn next to nothing about the detectives conducting these interviews—their point-of-view has been fastidiously scrubbed from the final game—we might venture a guess that this is the first time they’re clued in to something being amiss. Meanwhile, Eve narrates the story of finding Simon’s nearly two-week-old corpse wrapped up in trash bags in the basement. This is now a murder case, and Eve judges that now is the time to introduce the alibi. She changes her story, and now says she made a late-night drive to Glasgow on Friday the 17th, the night of the murder. She insists that Simon’s stopped watch must rule her out as a suspect. She also announces that she’s pregnant, after a bout of morning sickness. She says that the argument with Simon was about the baby—which is a half-truth, actually.

During this interview, the detectives give Eve a psychological assessment. Barlow chooses to write this in the most overwrought, soapy way possible, with Eve alternating between telling the story of Rapunzel … and blurting out her own childhood trauma of being raised by by Florence. She also tells stories about siblings, mistaken identities, and apparently guilty parties not actually being guilty. Like I said, a lot of the use of symbolism in the game’s writing is over-wrought, and feels kind of ripped out of an eighth grade English course. But I don’t think it’s necessarily bad writing—given the unpredictable and self-directed sequence in which players encounter these clips, sometimes it’s necessary to hit us over the head with themes, to get us thinking in the right direction.

The fourth interview, on June 30th, is Hannah again, I think, based on the fact that she asks for tea and her hair is up. The bruise is gone now, which I guess means it has legitimately healed by now. Seems a little fast, but whatever. 

The sisters wanted suspicion to be pulled away from them following the interview on the 27th, but things aren’t going their way. The police are slow to catch on, but incongruous physical evidence is amassing. 

In this interview, they ask Hannah about hair fibers from a wig found in her home—it’s a blonde wig that Eve used while performing, and during her rendezvous with Simon. They also ask about fingerprints found in her bedroom that don’t match either her or Simon. They’re Eve’s, obviously—and this line of inquiry puts the multiple-personality theory to rest. Hannah and Eve had fooled many people for many years, but they never had a genuine forensics team on their trail, and therefore never actually realized that identical twins don’t have identical fingerprints.

When pressed about the fingerprints, Hannah launches into a a tangent about her mother-in-law’s cleaning regimine, which turns into a separate tangent about how successfully her mother-in-law hides her smoking habit, which leads her to blurt out that it’s amazing that people can keep secrets for so long, even from spouses, which … oops, probably shouldn’t say things like that, Hannah.

Hannah narrates the moment when she discovered that Simon was missing. It’s not an interesting story, but it will become interesting later on, with context.

The police ask Hannah if Simon was having an affair, and about their sex life, generally. Hannah is very offended by this, and seems to have an aversion to talking about sex, in general. She has no such compunctions about talking about violence. The detectives ask if she’s ever fantasized about hurting anyone, and she launches, dangerously, into the story about when she once tried to drown her “friend” Eve. She regrets this immediately, muttering to herself on-camera, only to too-late realize that the camera was recording while she was muttering to herself.

Hannah makes one last slip-up in this interview: she says that her miscarriage in 1984 left her infertile. She quickly corrects herself and says she only “thought” she was infertile. But even accounting for the correction, it’s an odd thing for a currently-pregnant woman to accidently say.

Interview 5—the next day, June 1—is Eve again, making a series of fuck-ups. First, she recounts the moment she found Simon missing again. It’s the same story as Hannah told before, obviously, but the phrasing is so eerily, uncannily identical that it’s clear this story was written out and extensively rehearsed by the sisters. This is one moment where it seems this police department’s investment in video technology paid off.

Immediately after telling the story, Eve spills coffee on herself. The department offers up a clean t-shirt for her to change into, which she does, in the process revealing her tattoo, which Hannah very clearly did not have. Up until this moment, Eve has been wearing long-sleeved blouses to cover it up. The detectives ask her about it, and she has one final moment to salvage things and say she got it recently, but instead she tells the truth—that she got it “eight years ago.”

The detectives ask her to describe her marriage with Simon, and she defaults to talking about their wedding again, but this time it’s very different. Whereas before Hannah gave a very first-person account of what it felt like to dance with Simon, here Eve talks about how good the photos looked. Which makes sense, for two reasons. One, because she wasn’t there. But two, because the wedding is an early instance of Hannah and Eve no longer “synching” their memories to try and act as one person. Eve is much more convincing at describing Hannah’s childhood than she is at describing Hannah’s married life. Again, they’re out of practice pulling these sorts of shenanigans, and Hannah has accumulated years’ worth of memories in the meantime.

There’s also a great moment hear where Eve outright describes the wedding as “a shotgun wedding,” with an air of dismissiveness. Which Hannah pointedly did not do. But again, you can only realize that if you do a bit of interpolation, and make an educated guess as to what the detective asked her. God, the script of this game is really good, sometimes. Lots of little payoffs.

Eve is very comfortable discussing sex. It’s like she’s had a complete personality transplant since the interview one day prior. If you the full story of what’s going on, you can feel Eve’s building flippancy and resentment. The police were supposed to have bought their story by now. She wasn’t supposed to have to continue to cover for Hannah through an extended criminal investigation. The detectives ask her to sing a song to demonstrate that a guitar they found on the scene is hers, and she belts out a ballad of two sisters who fell for the same man that’s an obvious allegory for her relationship to Hannah. It even includes their scuffle at the beach where Hannah held her head underwater.

Also in this interview, the detectives keep asking Eve about a traffic ticket. It seems totally innocuous, but it’s a crucial bit of physical evidence that proves she was in two places at once: out driving and getting a ticket, while she was also clocked in at her job. They haven’t announced it yet, but the detectives already suspect that “Hannah” is actually two people.

In the sixth interview, on July 2, they do announce their suspicion, laying out the evidence—the traffic ticket, the fingerprints, the rehearsed answers. It doesn’t go well, and this is a short interview.

On July 3th, the seventh and final interview, they get Eve to take a polygraph, and she comes clean about everything. This takes up a tremendous amount of screen time, and it mostly covers the backstory, which I’ve already laid out. The police have Eve in custody, and are trying their best to pin the murder on her. She pleads innocence, but almost everything related by her and Hannah so far in the game has been a lie, so who knows. In her final words in the game, she emphasizes that everything she’s said, including what she’s saying right now, is just a story. Hannah is apparently still at large, and Eve says the police will never find her, but who knows—that’s all we have of this particular tale.

Well, not quite. As the game progresses, we get moments where we can see a face reflected on the monitor. Our player-character—the woman, in-game, who is typing all these search terms out—bears a striking resemblance to Hannah & Eve. Once we’ve seen the most crucial clips—the ones where Eve actually narrates the murder—our friend “SB” checks in to see if “we understand why our mother did what she did.” Through these roundabout means, the game provides an epilogue to the story—presumably, we are Eve’s daughter, rifling through an archive of police interview footage to learn about our mother—who, presumably, gave birth to us while she was incarcerated.

So, that’s the fabula of HER STORY. But you don’t experience the fabula in the way I’ve just laid out—you can experience it in a multitude of ways. In fact, according to my calculations, there are approximately … 180 … zillion ways to experience the story of HER STORY. How the hell do you structure a story like this, where theoretically any one of 271 discreet video clips could pop up when a player types a word or two into a search box?

But, really, how does HER STORY work? I mean, actually?

One tactic that Barlow uses to obfuscate relationships and plot points is to tightly clamp down the script’s use of names. Again, even if we’re coming in completely ignorant of the game and its conceit, the first word we see when we boot it up is “MURDER.” So we’re probably going to guess that we should be solving a central murder mystery—especially once we watch those first four clips. Murder mysteries are all about finding and eliminating suspects, and to do that we need names. So of course players are going to be especially sensitive to names, trying to understand the cast of characters and potential suspects in this thing.

Now, so far in this video, I’ve spoken 5,771 words, and said the name “Eve” 58 times. 

The script for HER STORY consists of about 11,300 words, and the name “Eve” appears in it seven times. 

The name “Hannah” appears more often—but we only actually hear the woman who’s speaking clearly identify herself as Hannah Smith twice. Unless you’ve seen those two clips—or a third, in which she repeats the name Hannah in an instance of talking to herself—you have no reason to suspect that Hannah is anything other than an acquaintance of this woman, who for some reason she talks about the most during her final interview.

This means that the central relationship—the one I spent pretty much the entire plot summary talking about—is actually, when you’re playing the game, a huge twist, one that you’re unlikely to happen upon until you’ve already done a fair amount of digging.

How much digging? Well, I’m going to trace through my own playthrough. I first played HER STORY way back in 2015, so I don’t remember it 100% clearly. But thankfully, I took notes while I was playing, and your save file retains the list of searches you do, so I can reconstruct my playthrough fairly clearly.

The initial pre-typed search, “MURDER,” doesn’t give you much to go on, except a name, “SIMON.” So that was my first search. I’d be utterly shocked if it wasn’t the first search of 99% of players. From there, the game offers you what feels like leads: a workplace, Ernst Brothers Glass, and a favorite pub, the Rockington Arms, a.k.a. The Rock. Then we get a whole list of people at the Rock: Peter, Susan, Helen. Remember, players are likely to gravitate toward character names in a mystery story.

Peter and Susan are dead ends. Helen only gets mentioned in two clips, but the second clip is useful—she mentions an argument in it. What sort of argument? The first hit for “argument” is clip D108, which gives a good run-down of the original story the sisters give of Simon’s disappearance. It mentions and Eric, who it turns out was Simon’s boss. I searched some more about Eric, his wife Diane, the glaziers business, and its employees—nothing much was coming up. On a whim, I decided to search for “watch,” since in clip D107 she mentions Eric giving Simon one. This brought up clip D334, which introduced me to the trip to Glasgow. 

But because of the peculiarities of the English language, it also brought up clips D434, where Hannah talks about holding Eve’s head underwater and “wanting to watch her drown.”

Now I had the name “Eve,” and you better believe I searched for it. But, like I said, the name doesn’t actually appear very often in the script. The results I could see were three clips where she talks about “her friend Eve,” one clip where she agonizes over talking about Eve when apparently she shouldn’t have, and a final clip where she says that her mother called her Eve. All very confusing, and remember: at this moment, it’s very possible for the player to have never seen this woman introducing herself as “Hannah.” She does so in the very first clip of the very first interview, but of course we don’t watch the clips of the game in order. She does call herself by name when she’s admonishing herself for talking about Eve, but the way she moans it is very ambiguous, and confusing if its’s the first time you’re hearing the name. 

When was the first time I actually heard this woman introducing herself as Hannah? Well, I knew that Simon worked at a glazier’s, and I was still trying to piece together who he worked with to chart out the relationships between the characters. So I searched for “mirror.” And mirror brings up clip D102, where this woman talks about Hannah being her name and Hannah being a palindrome and almost, but not quite, a mirrored version of itself. So now I had two clips: one where this woman clearly identifies herself as Hannah Smith, and another where she said her mother called her Eve. So what was up with that?

And that’s precisely what I mean when I say that the overwrought symbolism shot through this script is forgivable. A lot of the times, it doesn’t really function as symbolism qua symbolism. It’s there to give you a list of words—glass, mirror, reflection, palindrome—that hook together what would otherwise be very disparate conversations. These symbols act as the ligaments of this script. I ended up first encountering the name “Eve” through a peculiarity of the English language: that “watch” can either be a noun, or an unrelated verb. But there are other times in which Barlow is very deliberately “stacking the linguistic deck,” so to speak, to ensure that particular terms are especially fruitful.

This type of deck-stacking can be used in two ways. It can be used to make it more likely that we’ll happen upon a pivotal clip. For instance, maybe you see this clip of Eve getting way too in to telling the story of Rapunzel, and wonder what’s up with that. So you search for “fairy tale,” and there are seven clips, and the fourth one aludes to this woman being raised by a woman who wasn’t her mother. So you wonder what’s up with that, and search for “mother,” and clip D720 comes up, and maybe this is how you first encounter the name Eve.

Or, it can be used to make it less likely that we’ll see a clip until late in the game, when we’ve really discovered how to refine our searches. The limiting of search results to the first five chronological instances of a word is a blunt tool, but it gets the job done. 

So for instance, the murder weapon is a shard of a mirror. But you’re not going to learn that just by typing “mirror” into the search bar, because it’s used in too many other places in the script. The word has usefulness, as we’ve already established—it’s what allowed me to first encounter the name “Hannah.” But if you search for it, it brings up eleven clips. The first five talk about the name Hannah being a palindrome, about Simon’s work at the glazier’s, and Simon’s present. You’re not going to see the clip where Eve actually describes the murder, which is the tenth clip out of these eleven. You’re not even going to see the clip where Eve talks about what it was like growing up watching her twin out of the window, which is the seventh clip out of these eleven. You only see the first five, which are the least juicy—though still helpful. Our access to the later clips is delayed.

Now:

Which clips might Barlow want to delay players from seeing?

Well, I know exactly which clips Barlow wants to delay players from seeing too soon, because the game actually marks them as such. Out of the 271 video clips in the game, there are 33 that are flagged as important for the player. This is done in three ways: either (1) they trigger a musical cue (one of several sad, thoughtful piano cues that interrupts the usually softly propulsive synth theme), (2) they cause the lights to flicker, allowing us a brief or sometimes not-so-brief glimpse of the woman at the keyboard that we’re playing as, or (3) they do both.

I’ve confirmed that these clips are flagged to always behave in the same way. I’ve installed the game on several platforms, deleted my save and started over a half-dozen times, and the game always triggers these things immediately after these clips are played.

I think this is a great system. Other mystery games might mark you finding an important clue by automatically adding a note to your diary. That’s … fine, but it leaves you feeling like the detective work is automated, and you’re just along for the ride. HER STORY keeps you firmly in control. It just uses these musical moments to heighten your emotional response to a revelation, encouraging you to realize that yes, you are on the right track, and yes, you should keep going.

Clip D605 is a great example of this. The entire script of the clip consists of just nine words: “Twins? Really? Are you really asking me that question?” Out of those nine words, “really,” “are,” “you,” “me,” and “that” occur far too numerously to be useful terms. Technically, you could get to the clip by typing either “asking” or “question” into the search bar, but it seems very unlikely that a player would do so. So that leaves “Twins.”

So let’s say someone was in my shoes when I had played the game: they had encountered this woman saying “my mother called me Eve,” and encountered another clip where she said her name was Hannah, and was wondering why apparently one single woman identifies herself in two ways. You type in “twins.” Clip D605 is the first hit. You hit play …

… and there’s that music. Her dialogue doesn’t say “yes I have a twin.” Her dialogue is a denial. But the music tells me otherwise: the music says “Yes, you are on the right track. Keep following this particular investigative thread.” Players may stumble upon plot points accidentally, but the game always lets you know that they are plot points. The distribution of these moments may be unpredictable, but the music lets you know which reveals are dramatic and which ones aren’t.

So what are the other 32 clips, besides D605, that are marked this way? For the most part, they’re very heavily concentrated in the seventh interview—any times Eve is actually explaining her back story, how she was separated from her parents and raised by Florence, later reunited with Hannah, etc. Aside from those, it’s pretty much the two times she mentions twins in interview six, and the three times she mentions being pregnant in interview three.

Six Degrees of Interview Seven

So, interview seven is the longest interview, and it’s also the interview that’s most chock full of these music-triggering clips. It’s also the most heavily protected interview—by which I mean, the game goes out of its way to ensure that its clips are harder to view. You know how the search function limits you to five clips, and their organized in chronological order, starting with the earliest interview and proceeding from there? That’s because the game is trying to hide the seventh interview from you. Not forever, obviously, but it’s hiding these clips from you until you learn more about the story, and learn how to refine your search parameters accordingly.

I want to take a close look at how this works, using two music-cueing clips in interview seven: D722, and D767. They’re not only music-cuing—they’re also among most spoilery clips in the entire game.

So, first up, let’s take a close look at the exact wording for the script of D722, where Eve admits that she and Hannah are twins:

Across the road, when my parents first there, was a midwife called Florence. When Hannah was born, I was born at the same time. The midwife was there to help. I’d been throttled by the cord, probably wrapped around my neck by Hannah. The midwife told my mother I was dead. But I wasn’t. She wrote all of this stuff in a diary. Amazing what people will admit to on paper.

First, lets look at the words that aren’t here: Murder and Simon aren’t here—those relate to the initial murder mystery, and Barlow doesn’t want us to realize too quickly that there’s a secondary mystery about the twins’ identity. So those are out. The word “twins” doesn’t appear—Barlow instead uses circumlocution, by having her say “when hannah was born, I was born at the same time.” When the player thinks to type “twins” in the search bar, they’ll get access to these two clips from interview six, and the game gives us that musical cue to let us know we’re on the right track. But Barlow doesn’t let us ride that word all the way to the final revelation. We have to think about ways around this blockade. Think of this as an elaborate exercise of search-and-replace on Barlow’s part, as a way of delaying and stair-stepping the confirmation of certain plot elements. “Sister” isn’t here either. Nor is “Eve.” 

What is here? “Parents” is here, but “parents” occurs too many times earlier in the script for it to be useful on its own. Same thing for “dead.” “Hannah” is here, and this is actually one of the earlier clips to call Hannah by name. So if you’ve gathered the name Hannah—not in itself necessarily an easy task—you can see this clip the first time you type it into the search bar. Another possibility is typing in “Florence”—a name that it’s actually possible to have already before you see this clip. Along with her initial denial, searching for “twins” also brings up clip D723, where Eve says “Mother hadn’t been expecting twins and had a healthy baby. I guess she was just happy for Florence to clean up.” On its own, that’s cryptic, but if you search for Florence and see the prior clip things begin to quickly become clear.

I’m willing to bet that upwards of 90% of players first see clip D722 after searching either “Hannah” or “Florence”—and get to those names after searching for “twins,” or, possibly, as was the case with me, “mirror.” It’s theoretically also possible to get there by searching “born,” which players might search for in relation to the various pregnancies in the story, but that seems less likely to me.

Now, let’s take a similarly close look at the wording of the script for clip D767. This is probably the most pivotal clip in the entire game: Even narrates the circumstances, motive, and method for Hannah’s murder of Simon.

Her story was that she’d waited for him to come back. She put on my wig, some of my clothes. Pretended to be me. They talked. She’d enjoyed being me. He said he wanted to be with me. Then he took out a present. Another mirror. Just like the one he’d given her earlier. That unique present. She went crazy. Smashed the mirror. They argued. Screamed. He hit her. So she grabbed a piece of the mirror, just swung it round. She cut his throat clean open. She’d only meant to scare him off.

Again, note the words that aren’t here. This clip is actually about the murder—the mystery that the player is immediately aware of from the moment they boot the game. But this clip doesn’t contain the word murder, or the word kill, or weapon … body, motive, means, opportunity, Hannah, Eve, Simon—not even Simon! Simon’s name isn’t mentioned in the moment he’s killed.

And what words are here? Wig is here, but the word “wig” also appears in six other clips that occur prior to this one, so you’re not going to be able to watch this clip just by typing in “wig.” Same with the murder weapon, “mirror,” which as I already mentioned appears in nine clips before this. “Throat” is here. “Throat” is actually useful. “Throat” only appears in four clips, so if you type in the word “throat,” you have immediate access to this confession. But when might you first suspect that the method of killing Simon was cutting this throat? One vector into that particular realization might be clip D307. And how might you stumble upon D307? Well, you might get there by searching for “body,” which would be pretty smart of you, but you could also get there by searching—wait for it—“glasses.” Which admittedly isn’t the same as “glass” (and the parser does make a distinction between the two), but once you’ve discovered that Simon is a glazier who wears glasses then you might decide to search for that word.

But let’s go back to the original clip—even if you manage to access this clip in record time, by first typing in the word “body,” and then typing in the word “throat,” you’re not going to actually understand the content of the clip unless you understand who Eve is in relation to Hannah, why Hannah would wear Eve’s wig—the conceit of mistaken identity absolutely saturates this clip, but none of its foundations are spelled out. You wouldn’t be able to untangle it, unless you took all of the separate steps to discover clip D722, and then began to merge the two threads of the twins and the murder together.

The use of language in the revelatory clips in interview seven is very careful and precise. It had better be, because in the end HER STORY is a game in which the challenge comes from language. Things like word choice on Barlow’s part become the obstacle that we’re fighting with as we try to get to the bottom of this mystery. It’s like this game’s final boss is Barlow’s thesaurus.

One final note on interview seven—the search box not only lets you type in one word, but also two. It’s a “both/and” function—typing in two words only brings up the clips that have both words in it, narrowing down your results accordingly. What happens if you type in the two-word title to this game into the search box? Three clips pop up. The first is Eve talking about Rapunzel. The other two are from interview seven. One of them is D767. The other is—well, it’s not D722, but it does include the name “Florence,” which certainly gets you close to unravelling the whole mystery. There’s no way this isn’t deliberate—it’s a troll by Barlow, hiding some of the most useful search terms in plain sight. It’s very gutsy and I kinda admire it, even if it does undercut the careful precision with which he’s obfuscated things elsewhere.

Epilogue

I mentioned that I had some things to say about Telling Lies, Sam Barlow’s 2019 follow-up to HER STORY in the conclusion. And, well, here we are. Telling Lies came out right when I was in the initial prep phase for this whole series, and so I played it immediately—I was wondering if I should maybe substitute my analysis of HER STORY with an analysis of it, to offer up something more timely.

Obviously, I … didn’t. Telling Lies is a very impressive game. From a mechanical perspective, it’s an evolutionary leap from HER STORY. The search bar no longer just brings up a short clip in which the word you typed is said, at some point. Instead, it directs you to the exact timecode in a longer video in which these words are said. The clips in Telling Lies are minutes upon minutes long. Again, we’re only hearing one side of a conversation—but unlike in HER STORY, the other side of the conversation actually exists somewhere. By paying close attention to dialogue, you can guess at what the other character may have said—much like the “shotgun wedding” moment in HER STORY—and then go out and find the other half of the dialogue, and gradually piece everything together. It’s in many ways much more robust and adventurous as a game mechanic, and it represents a lot more work on Barlow’s part not only in writing these scripts, but getting the metadata to all line up properly to allow for this sort of search function.

Ultimately, the reason I ended up still making this video about HER STORY is that even though Telling Lies is more impressive just as a piece of interactive video software, HER STORY is a clearer-cut example of a detective story in game form. The pre-filled-out search term you start out with in HER STORY is “MURDER,” which immediately focuses you down certain investigative paths. The pre-filled-out search term you start out with in Telling Lies is “LOVE,” which sends a very different message: this is a sprawling, novelistic story about lies and relationships, one that’s quite rich, but doesn’t scratch a particular genre itch.

The thing is, though, I think that Telling Lies tells a story we need right now—much more so than HER STORY. When I started writing the script for this video, I was cooped up do to shelter-in-place rules, and not much else was going on. Now, as I’m recording the final draft of it, I’m hoping that the constant drone of police helicopters overhead in my city won’t be picked up by my mic. The story of Telling Lies is sprawling and frankly a bit unfocused, but its basic plot points about US law enforcement infiltrating a peaceful protest group, trying to push them toward violence in order to entrap them, has much more relevance at the moment than some soap opera-ish tale of secret twins.

Which brings me back to a point I made in passing at the beginning of this video: in recent years, there’s been a drastic increase in the number of games being released with mysteries as their subject matter. Many of these games have cops as their protagonists. In social media over the past few days I’ve seen people involved in making media that positively portrays police forces within the US come to a newfound reckoning with the ways in which their media works as propaganda. I’m certainly wary of promoting games that do so given the behavior of police forces in the US at the current moment. Making these videos is a hobby for me—it’s not like I have much of a platform. In order to have any real meaning, my support of the Movement for Black Lives has to take place in the real world. And that’s the form it has taken so far: I’ve attended Black Lives Matter protests, given to bail funds, mutual aid networks, and Black youth organizations, and I’d encourage you to do the same. As far as my channel goes, the content is going to align broadly with my politics—no more games that positively portray police, which means we’ll never get a Deadly Premonition video in this series. I’m not laboring under the delusion that this teeny-tiny platform has any effect on the greater world, but the literal least I can do is keep its content aligned with my own values.

Alright, that’s a heavy end to this video. But these are unprecedented times. Stay safe, everyone. Justice for Breonna Taylor. Justice for George Floyd. Justice for David McAtee. 

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