by Brooke Werdlow
Her Story is a 2015 FMV detective mystery game by Sam Barlow. Throughout the game, the player acts as an unidentified investigator of sorts, gleaning through a police database of video clips from seven interrogations of a woman, Hannah Smith, to solve the murder case of her husband Simon (initially presumed missing) in 1994. The only information on the game’s objective right off the bat comes in the form of saved files on the desktop that explain the premise of searching through clips and compiling the story behind the murder case. As a player, you type keywords into the database’s search bar to unlock clips that include the words you searched, but only have access to the first five clips that appear from the interrogations chronologically. The game begins with the word “MURDER” already typed into the search bar, which primes the player for perceiving the game as a murder mystery. Other functions accessible as a player are the tagging function, which allow you to add tags to video clips to sort them into related categories, and the add to session function, which saves video clips in a bar at the bottom of the database to return to later. The Database Checker on the home screen indicates how many clips out of 271 available, varying in length and content, the player has already viewed. The ChitChat app, a messenger program, appears on the screen after unlocking most of the story, at which point the player can finish the game without having viewed all of the interrogation clips.
The game’s lack of chronology emphasizes the self-directedness of the player unravelling the narrative. Beyond the initial keyword given, “MURDER,” it’s entirely possible for players to find clips in arbitrary orders as there’s no set approach to uncovering the mystery. Where one player might decide to search “Simon” after watching a few clips, another may opt to look up “Dead,” which would result in an entirely different set of search outcomes. This feature ensures the game doesn’t feel simply like a passive movie-watching experience, but instead like a proactive deep-dive hunt into a tangled web of secrets, searching for discrepancies in the story. The player never hears the questions asked to Hannah Smith, only the responses she gives to the questions, although the game’s dialogue does well to suggest what might have been asked.
As the player progresses through the database of clips, getting bits and pieces of the full, convoluted story based on seemingly important phrases uttered by Hannah Smith in her tapes, it quickly becomes clear that the narrative isn’t as simple as a vengeful wife murdering her husband. Through various keywords that are casually dropped into the dialogue, like “blonde,” or “mirror,” the player soon realizes that Hannah Smith might not be just Hannah Smith. Or that, perhaps Hannah isn’t the only one involved in Simon’s death.
Her Story as a Detective Game
Marie Rodell in Mystery Fiction, Theory and Technique explains that clues in the detective fiction genre come in two varieties: tangible and intangible. Of the tangible variety, those pertaining to the five senses, clues must be adequately described in words such that they are recognizable to the reader (50). For intangible clues, such as the appearance of an item whose function or origin is unknown, the reader must be given a realistic opportunity to determine its significance in the plot (51-52). Because of Her Story‘s FMV video game format, most tangible clues in the game are not presented to the players themselves, but instead to the detectives within the game who investigated the diegetic crime scene; clues like fingerprints, fibers from a wig, a guitar, and a broken watch all appear as key clues within the game, but are revealed to the player through Hannah’s acknowledgment that the detectives discovered that evidence, not the player’s own discovery. The few tangible clues given to the player in the game come through the form of visual observation, things like a tattoo, hairstyles, and a bruise. Intangible clues on the other hand, which are important to deciphering the mystery of twins at the heart of the game, result from close observation of the dialogue. Once the player has discerned that Hannah could also be Eve, a secret twin sister, the way the two sisters talk about subjects as mundane as coffee versus tea or as personal as sex is potentially the only way to rule out who is who. Additionally, some of the clips to uncover during the investigation process are essentially duplicates of the same question or scenario answered in slightly different ways, such as clips on separate interrogation dates regarding Hannah and Simon’s wedding, answered from what seems like different perspectives, or two “blink and you’ll miss it” clips of both Hannah and Eve staring into the camera and asking if it’s recording. Rodell argues, “It is from the actions and words of such suspects, and their behavior toward other characters in the story, that the detective and the reader deduce the probability of motive in the suspect,” (56). Actions and words are at the core of uncovering what “her story” is.
Actions on behalf of Hannah and Eve, such as theories regarding which twin uses her left hand as the dominant one and which uses her right, or attempts to decipher the “knock-code” that Hannah and Eve use to communicate to each other in the interrogation, are of great importance. Words, however, are potentially even more important than actions. Because of the twin mystery at play, Eve and Hannah’s attempt to line up their stories occasionally fall short, their details not adding up to one coherent story. While one accidentally claims infertility before correcting herself, the other mentions being pregnant at the time of the interrogation. Where one, as mentioned previously, seems to prefer coffee and talking openly about sex, the other prefers tea and keeping intimate affairs private. The player’s ability to keep track of these minute details affects the ultimate interpretation of the game’s ending, considering there is arguably some ambiguity regarding who truly killed Simon in the end, and who is subsequently sent to jail for committing the crime. One of Her Story’s major strengths is that its subtlety allows for several interpretations to the ending. Have these interrogations clips been Eve pretending to be Hannah the whole time? Did Hannah and Eve collaborate in covering up the murder and from then on been tag-teaming the interrogation and struggling to keep their stories straight? Did Eve kill Hannah in an attempt to lead her own life for once? These, among other theories, are all plausible.
Rodell also argues, however, that, “If the criminal is caught in the end because he forgets at some moment to be alert, praise for the solution of the mystery cannot fairly go to detective or reader: the solution has depended on a weakness of the murderer’s, not on a talent of the detective’s,” (57). Slip-ups in the twins’ narratives are pretty crucial in realizing that they are, in fact, twins. While this may be considered a weakness in detective fiction, because the ability to pick up on the discrepancies or failure to be “alert” on Hannah/Eve’s behalf is dependent upon the player’s listening ability amongst a large number of clips found on their own rather than being guided toward specific details by an author, Her Story never comes across as a disappointment in terms of discovering its myster/y/ies.
The nonlinear format combined with the ability to only view five chronological clips at a time delays the revelation of mystery over time, since the majority of the story is revealed in the seventh and final interrogation, which is likely to be hidden from the player in the first five clips accessible on any search. The game’s dialogue drops heavy-handed hints, however, that lead the player down a trail that early on suggests where the story is going. For instance, the repetition of words and themes like “mirror,” “reflection,” and “symmetry,” even in the protagonists’ names–palindromes Eve and Hannah–as well as the Easter egg of a mini game called “mirror tiles” hidden in the trash on the desktop clues the player in to the fact that twins are a possibility. Additionally, clips that reiterate the fantasy-like narrative by mentioning fairy tales such as Rapunzel thematically manifest the game’s plot: the storybook tale of twins separated at birth, one bound to the other by the fact that her identity is intrinsically linked to the other’s existence, share a life together and fall for the same Prince Charming.
Her Story’s mystery comes not only through deciphering how exactly Simon was murdered, who committed the crime, and why they did it, but also who exactly you as a player are embodying. Because the player isn’t sure who they are, the motivation behind wanting to explore this mystery is also unknown, and isn’t revealed until the very end. Before suggesting via the ChitChat function that you are done investigating, which prompts the ending sequence of the game, the only clues to suggest the player’s identity are flashes of a reflection on the computer monitor which only appear whenever a key video clip to the story has been viewed. The layered mysteries presented in Her Story add not only intrigue to the experience of playing the game, but also push back against complacency in its completion. Will finding all 271 clips result in a more fleshed-out understanding of the plot than ending the game? In terms of the ultimate ending that every player receives, no. But, the player’s individual opinion on the story is likely to be determined by the clips that they found and what they gleaned from each individual clip.
Rodell, Marie. “Clues.” Mystery Fiction, Theory and Technique, Duell, Sloan, and Pearce, 1943, pp. 49-60.