Her Story Design Review – Revisiting one of the best video game stories of all time

I’m Kinglink and this week we’re talking about Her Story as well as some other FMV games including Late Shift, The Infectious Madness of Dr. Dekker, and Telling Lies.

Long time fans of the channel may realize I have a fondness for stories in video games and have enjoyed many visual novels, including Eliza, the first two Danganronpa, and more due to their stories. Yet I often feel that stories and narratives are poorly done in the video game industry, usually relying on how movies and books tell stories without considering the interactive nature of the medium.

This week I want to talk about a game I love, and I think maybe one of the most interesting video game stories of all time, and yes that is a high bar, but I also think it’s worthy of consideration. This game is simply titled “Her Story” and before people make assumptions on the content, let’s take a look at it.

Her Story has a simple premise. You’re looking at old cold case files focused on when someone was murdered and due to poor record-keeping, you only have the interview footage of the primary suspect. That means the entire game was created with a single actress acting as the interview subject. And yes this actress, Viva Seifert, does an incredible job with the performance and material. I may have mispronounced her name wrong, and I apologize if I did, but at least I didn’t say she worked on the Witcher 3, unlike the VGA awards.

Her Story is told out of order giving players the ability to find clips by searching the dialogue through an outdated system. But with the pieces of the story being out of order, players are forced to pay more attention or repeat different clips to make sure they understand the complex story that Her Story builds as the player discovers more of the narrative.

This is something that can only be done in a video game. To see a counterexample of this, here’s a Full Motion Video game called Late Shift. In this, we have a movie playing and our main character Matt gets involved in a major heist.

The big problem with Late Shift is it’s a movie, at least it is shot like a movie, with live actors and has minimal interaction with the player. Late Shift offers branching choices at some points with many of these changing only minor pieces of the story, though a few will show completely different scenes, locations, and characters.

The problem is, if you put down the controller or just hit the A Button at every choice, you’ll get a similar story. The experience is similar to watching a movie and I don’t feel making binary choices on a video is enough interaction for the medium. I mean we get the same experience from Bandersnatch on Netflix and I don’t think most people will consider that a true video game.

This is something that has annoyed me for a while. Having players make choices can be a good thing, but many choices in video games are false where players will get the same content no matter what they do, or it increments an unseen and mostly unnecessary counter behind the scenes.

I dislike this trend because it’s like a teacher in class asking a question. If you know the answer or don’t know, the teacher will continue with the lesson either way. That’s perfectly acceptable for education but I expect more in my entertainment.

Her Story feels more like a game because actively seeking out and finding new parts of the story involves the player trying to figure out which words or context clues are most important. This isn’t the deepest gameplay but the act of searching for different clips will keep the player engaged in the story as they listen for different keywords and think about what might be going on.

The story itself is a large part of the reason to play Her Story. It’s well-told but broken up in such a way that almost every player will end up with their path through the story depending on what keywords were searched and what clips were watched and in which order.

Using those clips to piecing the rather large narrative together though is interesting and there’s a lot to this story. There’s a clear level of craft necessary for Her Story to function as it does with the unique rules and limitations that have been set up. Sam Barlow, the writer and creator, has admitted to using a giant Excel spreadsheet just to figure out the way the narrative would be set up. He’s said the file was so large he had trouble opening it. Knowing Excel I totally believe him.

You can also see it as you type keyword after keyword. Her Story only shows a maximum of five clips for any search, so avoiding using the same word five times would be hugely beneficial. There’s a lot of design here that’s unseen, such as how Her Story layers in bigger and smaller pieces of the story together, ensuring that players can guess almost every keyword just from listening to the audio and making sure the context of the unheard question can be understood all have to be done at the same time.

When you start to consider the scope and challenges with writing a script you can see in any order, you start to realize how impressive Her Story’s writing is, and I give Sam Barlow a lot of credit for delivering on the narrative in a new format because the way the story is written becomes a major part of the gameplay. The smaller clips allow Her Story’s narrative to be broken up into multiple paths that players can progress through. Almost every clip will bring the players deeper into the mystery here.

To show how well this flows, we’re going to look at Sam Barlow’s follow up game. Telling Lies. This is another FMV game where players search through a database. In Telling Lies, there are multiple different actors in the game, as well as several background characters.

The main character here is David, he’s in almost every scene. Well truthfully, he’s in about half of the scenes. Telling Lies takes Her Story’s formula and evolves it. Rather than a police interrogation, players are looking at databases that show multiple calls that David has participated in. The challenge is that David and the other side of the conversations are stored separately.

It’s a great concept and the videos are well executed and a big reason for this is that many of these calls were acted out as video calls with both actors making the call and being filmed so the timing of the discussion is right. The writing is also unparalleled, similar to Her Story.

I want to call out that Telling Lies has impressive production qualities. The entire cast is great. The locations are amazing. Many characters move around during the calls, rather than just staring at the screen. You also get to experience many locations.

Logan Marshall-Green, who plays David, the main character, is impressive in his performances and the story hinges on him. They also got Kerry Bishé who people might know from Halt and Catch Fire. She delivers perhaps the best scene in the entire game during a seven-minute call.

The downside of Telling Lies though also happens in those seven minutes and throughout most of the game. There are over ten hours of video, which equates to about five hours of calls, with almost every video having a second view from the other person on the call as mentioned. So if the main character David calls Emma, You can find a clip of David’s view and a clip of Emma’s view, though you will only hear the audio of the current video.

That means when Emma delivers her amazing seven-minute monologue, you also get a video of David mostly nodding and listening for seven minutes. Logan Marshall-Green does a great job of reacting as David, and his face has so much emotion. His performance makes watching his side of the seven-minute monologue slightly interesting. The problem is this method happens on almost every call and a majority of these calls are over four minutes long, so there’s a lot of silence to sit through.

Let me put it this way, since only one person talks at a time on most calls, out of ten hours of footage, 5 hours are silent. Hopefully, that math is clear.

I think there’s a missing feature on Telling Lies and the absence of which hurts the experience. If you could choose two clips and play them simultaneously you’d see the properly recorded conversation. Someone has pieced the entire game together on Youtube and when watching it, I have a new level of respect for how natural these conversations flow.

But this feature doesn’t exist in Telling Lies. Instead, you have to either click between two clips without a seek bar, which is rather clunky, or you have to watch one of the scenes and then follow it with the other side of the conversation, sitting or scrubbing through the video for dialogue.

Before someone says this was a design choice, it definitely was. When you have one side of a conversation, finding the matched video is excellent game design and a clever and interesting puzzle that I’ve never seen before. I find that to be one of the best parts of Telling Lies. Once you have both clips, wouldn’t it be better to be rewarded with the simultaneous playback, rather than expecting the player to flip between the two clips like I’m doing? The conversations would sound and feel more natural if they both were playing at the same time.

There’s one last thing I want to say about Telling Lies, it’s the ending, but before we talk about that, let’s talk about Her Story’s ending.

I’m not going to give spoilers. Her Story is only a couple of hours long and players should play through and discover the story naturally. But there’s a piece of Her Story that elevates the game from merely a solid piece of technology to an impressive story.

I’m going to try to talk about this here without spoilers, but if you want, jump forward to the Infectious Madness of Doctor Dekker section in the seek bar or at the time on screen.

Her Story has room for interpretation. There are two ways of looking at the story, perhaps more but most fans seem to subscribe to one of two main theories. Think of the final scene of Inception, there are two rather solid interpretations of that scene. That scene was important because it stuck with people. That was the scene people discussed or brought up and that one scene helped cement the move because of the level of discussion surrounding it.

Her Story’s entire narrative is wrapped in a similar series of interpretations. When I finished Her Story I felt that one interpretation was obvious and it was the only possible answer. Over the years I’ve actually flipped on this decision multiple times back and forth, and each time I’ve enjoyed the trip because it’s such an interesting story and so well crafted it’s enjoyable to revisit the pieces.

While Sam Barlow claims there is a definitive answer, I think that he’s left enough clues for both possible interpretations that maybe there’s not a true answer. By leaving an unsolvable puzzle at the core of Her Story it keeps bringing my mind back to the game.

And this is my biggest issue with Telling Lies. There are some solid reveals, but by the time I finished my playthrough of Telling after seeing approximately 30 percent of the scenes, I had most of the story, and there’s a very clear narrative with limited ambiguity to be had. The story is well crafted, told, and delivered, but as I pushed on to see more clips, there was a limited number of reveals left to find and I stopped around the 60 percent mark.

Which brings us to one other game, The Infectious Madness of Doctor Dekker. In this story, Doctor Dekker was murdered, and players are in the role of a psychiatrist who has sessions with several Doctor Dekker’s former patients to learn about them and Doctor Dekker. The story tells you not to try to solve the murder, but of course, you will be expected to.

The entire game is set up to be more like a discussion than about guessing clues. Rather than looking for anytime a patient says the world “Hello” instead you are expected to ask questions. So you might say “What can you tell me about Doctor Dekker?” But as you’ll see in my playthrough here, I’m having a little fun with the system and as long as you use one set of keywords, the game will assume you want to see a specific video. Sadly that means “Who drank the bottle of Vodka?” will get the same video as “What is a bottle of Vodka?” And “Have you seen the bottle of Vodka that was sitting on my desk?”

Similar to all four games this week, The Infectious Madness of Doctor Dekker lives and dies on performances and writing, and I think the performances here are exceptionally well done. The writing as well is excellent, and the subject matter is extremely well handled.

The entire game mostly revolves around the idea that Doctor Dekker’s patients all think they have some level of superpowers, such as stopping time or repeating the same day. Rather than trying to dissuade his clients, Dekker appeared to be trying to enhance their powers and see how far he could push them.

To say The Infectious Madness of Doctor Dekker has interesting thoughts and scenes is an understatement. There are six main characters, five of which are patients and every patient’s story had me focused on them and I kept playing the game to find out what was going to happen next

The gameplay is mostly about asking questions and hearing responses, though I would say that not every question is obvious. You might have to go from “Who drank the bottle of vodka?” To “What did you do when you were drunk?” but because the questions are so specific asking “What did you do under the influence?” might not give any answer and spelling does matter. Sometimes you’re also expected to ask “Then what happened?” But it’s not clear what that’s referring to at times.

There is a hint system but it’s based on time so when you run out of obvious clues you’ll have to sit and wait a couple of minutes per use, and it makes hunting for the final questions painful to seek out.

It doesn’t help that the team who made The Infectious Madness of Doctor Dekker is British, and there’s some Britishism that you may need to know, such as the term for a lawyer is a solicitor. It may confuse some fans and honestly made me appreciate Her Story a little more because I didn’t run into many of the same cultural issues in that game.

But there’s another issue with The Infectious Madness of Doctor Dekker that should be mentioned, it boasts multiple endings as well as a different killer each playthrough to avoid spoilers. For a solid story, I don’t think that’s required, nor do I think it helps, especially when the full story is around ten hours long. Since most of the videos are the same, I don’t think it warrants multiple playthroughs and there isn’t even a way to replay a specific chapter. Also, the endings are already on youtube, of course.

But I have an issue for how The Infectious Madness of Doctor Dekker ends after the killer is revealed. The game tries to give a final video for each character either positive or negative, to summarize that character’s journey, but this is a binary choice to encapsulate a rather large and interesting story.

There are also final scenes that take away something important rather than add something. Up to that point, the story is left for the player to try to understand what’s going on and to consider if the patients are telling the truth. The finale on the other hand tries to give a definitive answer, but because there is an answer both positive and negative for each character it struggles to capture the same ambiguity the game has offered. It attempts to remove that ambiguity in some places and it produces a less interesting result.

Before the final scene, I probably would have raved about The Infectious Madness of Doctor Dekker, there are many clever scenes and pieces that started to make me question my recollection and what exactly was going on. There are many moments in the game that made me excited, but the finale took most of that away and left me feeling like I had arrived at the end of my journey and should exit through the gift shop instead of finding a place to discuss what I had seen further.

A good story such as Her Story doesn’t have to finish the narrative but only has to end satisfactorily, and leaving the story open to interpretation was the way to go for both Her Story and Doctor Dekker.

I really made this video so I could talk about the number of ways Her Story was able to innovate on how narrative could be delivered and how they executed on it while other games have failed to make their stories come to life. I originally planned to play through The Infectious Madness of Doctor Dekker and Telling Lies and talk about great FMVs, but instead what I found just reinforced my opinion of Her Story, that it is a one-of-a-kind game.

Her Story has an amazing ability to give the player a way to interact with itself and make them feel like they’re playing something that is uniquely available as a game. It gives players an experience that compels them to continue onwards at every step of the way, and it left the story in a state that I’m always willing to discuss due to Her Story challenging the viewer, not with the journey, but with the narrative itself.

That’s not to say the only video game story that works is an open-ended clip show. But when every game seems to want to plod along the same path of uninteractive or barely interactive storytelling, it’s a bit disappointing. The story at the core of any game might be as good, or perhaps even better,the method of delivery is what I struggle with. It’s just uninteresting to get the same experience from youtube as you get as you play a game yourself.

This isn’t to say all video game stories are bad, but the video game industry has been here for 40 years, and yet it still seems to turn towards the movie industry’s way of telling stories when the two mediums are vastly different and should be treated differently. And no, adding some false choices doesn’t count.

I think it’s time we stop pretending every video game story is a masterpiece and start recognizing some of the exceptional choices, the ones that pull us into the world and make us experience something that no other medium can provide.

Hopefully, I’ve shown you why I think Her Story is one of the best video game stories of all time, and while I’ve shown some shortcomings in the other titles, I’d probably put The Infectious Madness of Doctor Dekker, and Telling Lies relatively high on my list because both of them feel unique, which is something I prefer. I know the creators of Doctor Dekker have the Shapeshifting Detective that I purchased as I wrote this and Sam Barlow has been teasing a new game, so I’m interested in both of those.

That’s what I have for this week. I hope you’ve enjoyed this video and if so please consider subscribing and ringing that bell. I love making these videos and all I ask from people is to check out some of my videos and subscribe to support the channel. Perhaps it’s your turn this week. Of course, you can always share this video, that is how to be most awesome.

I’m going to pop up two videos here. I did a review of Late Shift, which is a little old but hopefully will make my opinions clear on that game. And I’m also going to link Death Stranding. Now admittedly it’s not a perfect game, however, I liked the story told by Death Stranding, and my main problem with the narrative was more how it was delivered, not what was delivered, so check out that video if you want to hear more about that, and you can even compare it to what I’ve said this week.

Until then I’m Kinglink and thanks for watching.

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