Review: Her Story

Presented as a film, Her Story might have made an interesting story presented though an unusual framing device, but as a game, it's a story let down by the means by which you are left to experience it. Coupled with over-acting from the actress of the titularly-implied character, stilted and unnatural exposition, a very bizarre and frankly inappropriate plot turn, and a lot of chaff in an already short game, I simply cannot recommend Her Story. There's some value to be found in exploring it the one time and discussing it, but this is a game you can easily replicate watching it on YouTube; very little from the experience is lost.>
Review: Her Story
Date published: Jun 29, 2015
2 / 3 stars

Editor's Note: Maiyannah's copy of this game was provided free of charge by a reader. Additionally, while the playtime is listed in Steam and as a result here as 18h, there was a lot of multi-tasking inflating that play-time. The real play-time is probably closer to 3 or 4 hours at best.

Her Story is a narrative game developed and published by Sam Barlow, of Silent Hill: Shattered Memories fame.  It's been hyped to the stars and back, so perhaps I should have tempered my expectations going in, but I have to confess dear readers: my first reaction upon "finishing" the game the first time around was to exclaim: "that's all?!?"  Her Story promises innovation and powerful story-telling.  It lacks the former entirely; the latter is a more complex matter.  Let's dig into it, shall we?

The presentation of Her Story is decent,
but undercut by over-wrought acting and lack of subtlety

Her Story is presented through the lens of an old, Windows 95-esque computer, purported to be granted "guest access" to the player so they can investigate the crimes of a woman that with a twin sister whom they were both living the same life, or so you are told.  The investigation is a game of watching clips, but we'll touch on the mechanics a little later, lets touch on those clips first, as they are the focal point, most certainly.

The FMV is presented in a stylised old VHS format, though I'd argue they have the classic problem of modern FMV games replicating retro film in that they are presented in far greater clarity and high definition, which an old VHS tape most certainly would not be.  Nonetheless, the principal photography is quite decently done, with good prop use, and decent make-up.  Post just loses it in a somewhat common way, no doubt because people would complain if it was blurry and indistinct.  I am personally not too fussed about that one aspect.

What I am fussed by is the over-acting the actress does in the game.  I've been unable to avoid people practically queuing up to tell me the acting in the game is brilliant, but it really ... isn't.  I couldn't say it's particularly bad, don't get me wrong, but it's very amateurish.  It comes off as mechanical, and I amused myself by imagining how she must have been reading script directions off in her face.  It's unreal and unbelievable, and quite frankly, I'm not sure why people got so drawn in by this aspect.  Perhaps it's because gaming doesn't exactly have a long and storied history of strong acting in games.  This is probably good compared to most FMV games of the Sega CD and early Windows games, but it doesn't hold a candle to a good film or the classical Tex Murphy series.  And in a game so dependent on FMV, to be blunt, this is a deal-breaker.  A FMV game needs good acting.  This doesn't have bad acting, but it isn't good acting, either.

Her Story lacks a proper conclusion

While I can already hear some people flocking to the forums to tell me this is the point of the game, don't worry: I know.  I just also don't care.  The reason this game has been left open ended is to preserve the vague strokes of its story - if this was a solid and well-conceived story with a clear beginning, middle, and end, you would quickly realise that other than a couple moderately interesting story-telling points, this game doesn't have much to offer in its story, because of the lack of agency.

Let's back up a moment.

As I explained previously, the game's framing device is searching through a database.  Once you're a certain length through it, you'll get a "chat" prompt reminiscent of the original AOL asking if you're done.  If you tell the guy asking yes, that's it.  Log off the computer and roll credits.

No, I'm not joking - that's literally the conclusion of the game.  There's no grand reveal, the story untold, or even the sense that you really accomplished something, except I suppose for the same sense of "well I done finished that game" you'd have regardless.  When the feeling I have when I know I'm done is relief, it's not a good sign that the game's going to get a good rating, let's put it that way.

It feels, quite frankly, like a cop-out - like the money for this project ran out and it got shoved out the door.  Perhaps that's what happened, perhaps it's not, but what I can say with some certainty is it doesn't feel done.  And that seems to be the intention, as it brings with it the fawning, hemming, and hawing of the interpretive art scene.  Quite frankly, and at the risk of being somewhat aggressive: my interpretation of your game is that it is pretentious and unfinished.  I guess I won't be getting invited to the indie clique luncheons anymore.

There isn't much of a game here, either

The final nail in the coffin here is the game itself is very lacking.  I could perhaps be forgiving of some shallow and typical sort of story with it's couple wierd turns if the underlying game presented some interesting mechanics and deductive thinking, but that is sadly quite lacking here.  The game mechanic ... yes, there's one game mechanic, is simply entering search terms into a database.  There is no failure state, nothing that causes the game to end prematurely, except yourself, or perhaps the game crashing, and this is definitely something so lacking in mechanics and direction one could be seen quite justified in arguing it isn't a game.  I'm not really going to weigh in on that classical debate though, because I have a simpler answer: whatever it is, is not good.

The problem here is that presented in another way, say as a TV episode or a short film, or watched simply as the five interview sessions uninterrupted, Her Story is much more interesting, comes off as less stilted, and in general just flows and tells it's story much better.  It not only fails to take advantage of the interactive storytelling available through a PC game, it is actively sabotaged by its format.

The Final Word: Not Recommended - Ultimately, Her Story feels like an arty festival film that got pretentious and decided it had enough of your rules, man, and wanted to be a game - but there isn't enough here to jusitfy anything beyond a single play- through, and to speak frankly, you aren't missing much at all in the experience were you to simply watch a play-through on YouTube.  I can’t really recommend this one, except perhaps on a deep sale of its already slim price.