Her Story: a compelling murder mystery game with a tragic flaw
This mystery where you solve a crime with a search engine is brilliantly made—but it has one big problem.
You could argue that Google has ruined a lot of life's mysteries. In days gone by, we could debate endlessly in bars over what celebrity starred in which movie, or what the lyrics were to a song—but no more. Thanks to the instantaneous recall of smartphones, our uncertainties now last only as long as it takes to type the right string of letters into a long, white bar.
The idea that nearly all human knowledge can be retrieved by entering words into a search field is increasingly hardwired into our brains; this is the way we have grown accustomed to solving the uncertainties of our lives. In Her Story, that's exactly how you investigate a murder: by following a trail of keyword clues through a database of interrogation videos to unravel the secrets of a 1994 killing.
Her Story is brilliantly made; it feels both intuitively familiar and like nothing I've played before. The design is clever. The acting is excellent. And the story is both well-crafted and, well, a big problem. Let's dig in.
It would be wrong to say that the game begins with a murder, since it's hard to say where it begins at all. The first thing you see is a Windows computer desktop ripped from the '90s, littered with README text files. A database search program is open, with one keyword already entered: "murder."
Push return, and the database retrieves several short video clips from police interviews, all featuring the same British woman, presumably during different interrogations. You never hear the questions, only her answers. In the third clip, she insists, "I didn't murder Simon. You've got it wrong. You've got the wrong person."
After you finish watching, the database sits blankly, like an open mouth waiting for food. It would like another word. What will you give it? You know the name "Simon" now; the woman also mentions an event that happened in "February," and also something about a missing "murder weapon."
Think of every sentence she says as a series of corridors, and every word as a potential door. Keywords are your leads, and searching is how you investigate. Most digital natives will understand this instinctively; after all, this is how we have been finding our news, our recipes, our advice about breakups and job interviews and medical problems for all of our lives.
Although the first few searches feel obvious—of course, you're going to search "Simon"—it quickly becomes a much more free-form experience, where you can direct your queries in any direction you like. Scrap paper is recommended so you can scribble down notes, listening for the words in each interview that feel more buoyant, that glow in your mind like hyperlinks. You can go rogue as well, and enter any goddamn word you like. What happens when you search for "knife," or "cats," or "sex"? Sometimes nothing; sometimes a revelation.
The openness is both surprising and exciting; it's the sort of freedom that so many games end up simulating rather than actually offering. Nothing is gated or limited here, except by your imagination and ability to ask the right questions. Much like in Google—and in the text parser games of yore—all of the answers are there waiting for you, if only you can discover the magic words that summon them to the screen.
You can track your progress on a "database checker," where each video you unearth fills in a little green square on a grid that looks a bit like a disk defragmentation map. There are over a hundred different clips—some only a few seconds—taken from seven different interviews unfolding over the course of several weeks.
Since you're accessing them by keyword, however, your experience of them is entirely out of order. There is no single video clip that will reveal the ultimate answer and allow you to "win," only the gradual process of piecing together the story from all the non-linear fragments you collect, holding them next to each other in your mind, and trying to figure out what they mean.
The story of this game isn't a single, linear street with occasional cul-de-sacs branching off the sides; it's a river covered in countless stepping stones, where the path you choose across it, hopping from word to word, is entirely your own. The way I experience the game will not be the same way you experience the game, and even after we've both finished we might not agree on exactly what happened.
There's something in the way that Her Story unfolds, however it unfolds, that feels not only like the way we access memories but way we tell stories, the way we piece together the scraps of what has happened after the fact. We begin at one moment, and it illuminates the next. Or we find ourselves walking in circles, missing steps, or doubling back; we say, "wait, let me start again." We wander.
Major spoilers follow. If you haven't played the game yet—and want to—stop now, and come back for the deep dive on the game's narrative issues when you're done.
As is often the case, the roving squads of self-appointed authenticity monitors who patrol the imaginary borders of games have deemed Her Story "not a real game" for the usual reasons: because it's cerebral, it stars a woman, and anyone can play it. To make a game like that in the current climate is something of a refreshing, rebellious act; those "criticisms" are the precise reason the game feels so fresh and enjoyable, and are best read as unintended compliments.
But there are relevant criticisms worth raising about Her Story, especially around that way it depicts mental illness, a theme that becomes apparent only after you've collected enough video fragments to see the larger picture emerge. Perhaps the biggest red herring of the game is its name; Her Story sounds singular, and implies that we're looking at one woman, the same woman, in all of the videos. As we learn over time, this is almost certainly not true.
She's initially introduced to us as Hannah, the wife of the murder victim, Simon. In her initial interrogations, she seems quiet and cooperative. Other times, she's defensive, outgoing, even aggressive. That's because at least some of the time the person we see on screen is not Hannah at all, but an identical woman named Eve who was having an affair with Simon.
There are two theories you can arrive at to explain this: Either Hannah and Eve are twin sisters separated at birth through what I would describe as a highly unlikely series of events, or Hannah has Dissociative Identity Disorder—what is more popularly known as Multiple Personality Disorder, and Eve is not a separate person but another facet of her self.
Although the game remains intentionally ambiguous on the subject, the most persuasive evidence points to Dissociative Identity Disorder, and at the very least raises the specter of mental illness as the explanation for the killing. It's a conceit that transforms Her Story into a whodunit mystery where the real question isn't who committed the murder, but who she thought she was when it happened. When Hannah's carefully constructed alibi starts to fall apart and it looks like she's facing arrest, she looks at the interrogator and smiles: "Can you arrest someone who doesn't exist?"
I can't pretend that I played Her Story with no preconceptions, or that I've always fully understood the things I'm about to criticize the game for not understanding. My reaction was deeply colored and illuminated by a conversation I had about Her Story with former game developer and producer Courtney Stanton before I even picked it up. "Basically every media depiction I've ever seen of someone with a dissociative disorder—including Hannah and Eve—are wrong," Stanton told me. "And I know this, because I have the mental illness she's portrayed as having."
It's unclear whether Hannah is supposed to have dissociative identity disorder (DID)—where the barriers between different states of the mind are more developed—or dissociative disorder not otherwise specified (DDNOS), the more broadly defined diagnosis that Stanton can speak to personally. Both disorders exist beneath the same umbrella of dissociation disorders, at varying levels of severity. All are widely misunderstood, both by Her Story and society at large.
On the surface, Stanton says some details about Hannah and Eve do ring true. "When we hear that Eve wears a wig—it's not uncommon for different parts to present differently. And she slips between the pronouns 'we' and 'I' really well. But when you get into the game's depiction of how they they supposedly work as a system, it feels very wrong."
Indeed, one of the primary reasons why "multiple personality disorder" was reclassified as "dissociative identity disorder" was to avoid the misconception that Her Story vigorously promotes: that alternative personalities, alters, or parts, as they are variously called, are entirely separate individuals, rather than just different manifestations of the same person. "Parts aren't fully separate people, nor are there usually only two of them, and they don't interact with each other that way," says Stanton. "It's certainly not two women trapped in one body, jealously competing over the affections of one man."
Most troublingly, Her Story is ultimately a game where an impliedly mentally ill person is portrayed as a murderer. Nor is Simon her only victim; it's also suggested that Eve poisoned and killed Hannah's parents in order to regain more control over their shared life. And it is Hannah as a whole—the woman with a dissociative disorder—who is responsible for bringing death and harm to so many of the people around her, primarily because of her mental illness.
Therein lies the biggest and most unexamined problem with what is otherwise an exceptional game. Mental illness has long been equated with violence and criminality in media and entertainment, where the "insane murderer" trope remains hugely popular. Too often, people with mental illness are the bogeymen we summon into horror stories, murder mysteries or anywhere else we need a one-dimensional bad guy wielding a knife.
The impact of these stereotypes on people with mental illness are significant. The strong social stigma means that those who disclose their diagnosis are often treated with fear, suspicion and disgust, in ways that can affect their employment, health care, relationships and safety. In a 2008 study by the Canadian Medical Association, 42 percent of respondents said they would stop socializing with a friend who was diagnosed with mental illness; 55 percent said they would not marry someone with mental illness, and 25 percent said they would be afraid simply to be around them.
The reality of mental illness is far more dangerous—not for those who happen to be around it, but those who suffer from it. Not only are people with mental illness unlikely to be perpetrators of violence; they're actually more likely to be on the receiving end. According to one government study, someone with severe mental illness is eleven times more likely to be a victim of violent crime than someone without it.
Yet again and again, mentally ill people appear in our entertainment as axe-wielding psychos whose primary reason for committing violence is quite simply that they're craaaazy. Their mental illness is designed to provoke fear or fascination; other times, as in the case of Her Story, it's the prop or device that sets up the M. Night Shyamalan-esque surprise twist ending. "The game felt like it was using Hannah's mental health to execute a pre-existing plot, instead of thinking about what a character with DID or DDNOS would actually be like and building a story from there," says Stanton.
Her Story spends a lot of time exploring what happens when two separate but inextricably connected parts of a whole come into conflict. This ends up being a far better description of the game itself, where the clever mechanics and the troubling narrative coexist inside the same creative body, and neither can truly escape the pull of the other. The reasons I loved the game—the reasons I kind of want to finish this review right now and go play it again—are tied inextricably to the reasons it left me feeling deeply uncomfortable, and the unexamined stereotypes at its core.
In all honesty, I'm not actually sure I would have noticed these failings in the game before talking to Stanton about it. It's easy not to notice problems when they're so familiar that they blend into the background, especially when they don't affect you directly. It's easy, too, to hear the small, selfish voice in your head that wonders if it wouldn't be easier not to know these things at all, to just let the pleasurable aspects of your entertainment wash over you unanalyzed.
And of course, it is easier. But this is how we get better, both as people who consume media and people who make it: We listen, we allow ourselves to feel uncomfortable, and we learn. We look the flaws of the things we enjoy directly in the eye, and know them for what they are. When I look at Her Story, I see one of the most compelling games I've played this year, and a game predicated on an idea that I find harmful, all wrapped up in one complicated package. It's still a package I'm glad I opened. But I know it for what it is: the sum of all its parts.
“Coca-Cola: Blade Roller,” directed by David Fincher in 1993. (via ObscureMedia)
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