You're looking at a British woman on camera, watching her movements through the static lines and washed-out colors of time. The year is 1994, and she says she didn't kill her husband. The accused and her case are yours to sort through, sending you questing among databases of police footage and other data — if you can use a computer, you can do this work. You can uncover this story, you can play this game.
Sam Barlow's upcoming Her Story is a game about a woman talking to the police. The player's job isn't simply to review fictional interview tapes and documents — it's to understand her. Although the game has a vintage look and feel, it reflects a shift we're seeing across many of our modern detective dramas and police procedurals: From whodunnit to portraiture, away from clues and forensics and toward character studies. Think shows like Top of the Lake, True Detective, or even the resurgent popularity of Twin Peaks.
"The thriller is different to the classic detective story because the detective in a thriller is also the victim — he's part of the story," says Barlow. "The struggles are frequently internal. We are interested in the psychology, the social pressures that surround the crimes."
Barlow wanted to make a game about a woman's story that anyone can play. While classic detective games — and stories, for that matter — use a familiar structure to guide participants to a conclusion, Her Story breaks away from the traditional gatekeeping of linear storytelling. "I realized it was more fun to drop all the shepherding, and this meant that you could very quickly 'solve' the crime, if you were lucky," he tells me. "So it naturally emerged that the real experience is about getting the 'full picture', getting all the angles. The classic detective story has already happened, and you're an archaeologist looking over the bones trying to piece together a full three-dimensional skeleton."
Her Story promises a "straightforward" interface — you type in search terms, watch videos and perform other research tasks that don't require any particular reflex or literacy. As Barlow puts it, "this is something the majority of people with phones or computers or tablets or whatever are doing each and every day. So I'm injecting some 'game' into their existing interface."
There are no time limits or penalties, nor an emphasis on avoiding 'failure.' "The game invites you to play with it, but doesn't then rescind that invitation because you failed some arbitrary challenge," Barlow says. "There's nothing wrong necessarily with challenge and failure conditions in a game, but in a game that is very focused on exploring a narrative, having failure conditions bolted on can really discourage a lot of players. It's like being a bad-mannered host."
The modern entertainment climate has primed an entire audience of potential players for the fact that data-mining and records-digging can be fascinating — "the genre has set up the police interview as the gladiatorial arena between cop and suspect," says Barlow. "You're the bleary-eyed detective working through the night, sat at an ancient VDU in a police archive room; the tap, tap, tap as [you] work through records, looking for the Eureka moment that will move things forward. I've tried to create a system whereby players can create their own Eureka moments -— and also enjoy the happy accidents that frequently benefit real-life detectives working against the clock."
Two years of living in Tanzania with his family as a child gave Barlow the sense that you could always break away from life's expected structures. That's how he came to make video games, after a childhood spent among friends making playful text adventures about sex to tease one another — and subverting iconic British game mascots, like Dizzy the Egg, into social commentary (Barlow made a version where Dizzy visits a housing estate, the graffiti'd war memorial and some public toilets).
Aisle, a popular text game Barlow made as an adult in 2008, puts the player in charge of a spontaneous, Groundhog Day-style grocery-store encounter where only one move per game is allowed (you can play it for free in your browser right now and see how accessibly it does a lot with a little). With Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, Barlow wrote a game where you're quizzed by a therapist, and your responses shape the game experience.
"In Her Story, because the order in which information about the protagonist's guilt or innocence is revealed is down to the player's actions, different players can spin a different 'type' of detective story," Barlow says. "One player might get the specifics of the crime early on, so they're in a 'why dunnit'; another might slowly peel back the layers to arrive at the solution, and so they've had more of a traditional whodunnit. This ability to have players shape the story in its construction is something I find fascinating about interactive narrative."
Although it doesn't contain any overt messages about the court of public opinion, Her Story is also something of a reaction to increasingly voyeuristic elements of the crime genre — like the popular Serial podcast, and the discomfort many onlookers felt at watching the details of a real teen girl's murder play out in the public eye. While researching YouTubed police interviews, Barlow felt a pang at seeing suspects opening up at times they'd been promised were "safe" — only to be subject to analytical commenters and strangers years later.
"I've thought a lot about the Jodi Arias case," he reflects: "It's an unhealthy relationship where a man ends up dead; it's tragic. But when it becomes the trial-of-the-moment, there's a narrative that has to be added. Jodi becomes a femme-fatale. She's cold hearted, she's calculating… and this stuff is particularly gendered. Especially when it comes to questions of how someone should act, or emote. There's a lot of debate about whether this is because female murderers are so rare, they inevitably become 'special'… but I think it's more to do with how we treat women who break out of the feminine roles they're assigned."
"It's kind of harder to stomach because there are lots of scenarios where women are put into difficult situations where violence is their only option. The way the media treats these women, edits and re-frames their words is part of the problem," adds Barlow.
Viva Seifert will play the role of the suspect in Her Story. Games once turned to real-life actors for a phase in a prior age, or used or real video footage for the sake of immersion. There's something pleasantly touchable and nostalgic about how Her Story's old crime footage looks, how the concept of a VHS tape as important data feels. Barlow has compared the game to "True Detective via Blair Witch," and says the aesthetic naturally emerged from a desire to create authenticity.
"I love the process of found stories, of stories told in everyday documents or objects, and I often aspire to creating invented found stories," Barlow explains. "So I wanted the clips to have the sense of something real, something you've just come across. I also wanted an element of… something mundane, not sexy. There's a sense I wanted to communicate of some of the work of police work, searching through the haystack to find the needle. So having the footage look crappy helps."
After originally shooting everything in HD, the aesthetic intention won out, and Barlow ended up piping it all through old VHS players and including authentic tapes from second-hand shops. "I love the texture of old VHS — the imperfections and artefacts are out of your control," he enthuses. "It's like painting watercolour: stuff just happens and you roll with it."
Her Story's 1994 setting — and the decades leading up to it that the story concerns — suits the desired aesthetic, but Barlow tells me he soon realized that he was mining memories of his own upbringing and family across that time period. "There was a lot of material about the limited life choices, limited roles available to women from a certain background, and the specifics of that material skewed even earlier."
"I think I set the dates in stone when I shuffled things around to make sure that a wedding could happen where Paul Young's Come Back and Stay would be the song they chose for their first dance," Barlow adds. "I had a VHS copy of the video for that song and watched it a lot to get my head in the zone. Looping back round to my bio-dump, when I lived in Africa we had one music tape which was a compilation album of hits from that year, and had Paul Young on it."
Barlow also realized he's been channelling Alan Bennett's Talking Heads, a television program from his childhood: "This was an amazing, classic BBC show that was a series of theatrical monologues delivered to the TV camera, from the late 80s -— mainly revolving around working class women (from Leeds, where I grew up) telling the stories that don't get heard," he says. "They were on TV, but also on the syllabus at school -— every school child of a certain age would watch Talking Heads in class."
While individual monologues tend to make for compelling theatre — you're engineered to pay close attention to a real person in front of you — it's more challenging to "sell" on film, where attention might wander given an actor saying the same words."But my feeling is it's something you can do even more in games -— drown players in chat," he suggests. "Because the interaction, whether it's constant, or intermittent, helps keep the involvement there… I think that's a strength that interactive stories have. We can be more organic, less disciplined, throw more crap at the screen, because the player is involved in the process."
Barlow says more indie games should use video, as independent developers have the freedom from lots of the constraints he thinks doomed the full-motion video (FMV) game genre on computers in the 1990s — games like Phantasmagoria and Night Trap starred real actors, but struggled for viability because of their relatively high budgets and a mixed reception to the kind of play experiences that game with them.
"I think the CD-ROM FMV game gold-rush was a super interesting time," says Barlow. "I think they were on to something — but they missed out because proper 3D came along and pooped their party, and because they were still shackled somewhat to traditional game stuff."
The need for the kind of "traditional game" signposting core audiences expect, like Game Overs, death sequences and other traditions, made FMV games repetitive and unappealing, Barlow believes. "But as a straight up concept, the idea of these games where you're watching real people, and the core mechanic is about listening, about watching… that's just interesting to me."
"Real acting is so powerful. People go on about 'games that make you cry', but I cry ever other ad break — all it takes is for me to see some young kid peddling his bike up a Yorkshire hill, a bit of violin, and I'm tearing up. Creating something interactive with that connection is really powerful."
Her Story is currently available for preorder.