You fire up the dusty old computer. A search engine fizzes through the scan lines. In the text box, a single word: MURDER. Below, five videos, each with the same woman. You play one. The women begins to tell her story.
This is how the latest game from former Silent Hill: Shattered Memories writer and designer Sam Barlow opens. There are no tutorials and no hints. Like a 1950s noir detective novel, players are left with a single word and a mysterious woman. From there, it's up to them to utilise the ‘90s-era search engine and examine the results, in the hope of discovering the truth.
I was trying to come up with something that would make sense as my first indie project,” says Barlow on the origins of Her Story.
It had to be something that could be achievable in a way that it would be the best version it could be – I didn't want to make an indie game that looked like a triple-A game made on less money. And it needed to be an idea I could fall in love with.
I discarded a lot of ideas that were interesting because they didn't have that magic combination. I'd been focused in on the idea of a policeproceduralgame – partly because no publisher would ever invest in one – so it felt like I was doing something that my new-found independence would enable.
"I had an idea that I could zoom in on just the interrogation room, which had the advantage of removing a lot of scope, but also highlighting some things – dialogue, personal interactions – that games often skim over. The specific idea of Her Story just popped into my head during this process – the idea of combining video footage with the database mechanic.”
It Her Story's real-action video that holds the key to its appeal. Actress Viva Seifert is the sole presence throughout the hours and hours of interviews – each clip begins with a response, leaving players with all of the answers and none of the questions.
Once I started developing it and prototyping, I fairly quickly established the specifics of how it might work,” explains Barlow.
The complete lack of scripting, the freedom and non-linearity, the details that helped it come alive: that you never heard the detectives speak, that the database would limit the number of clips you received and be ordered chronologically.
One thing I was reluctant to leave behind when making a jump from triple-A to indie was the experience of working with actors. I knew the concept I was exploring required a level of detail that just wouldn't be possible in real-time CG unless I had a lot of money to spend. So compared to that option, the live video shoot was very economical. We have the best hair physics and lighting model of any indie game on the shelves. The video really helps sell the concept to a wider audience too – it doesn't turn off people who've not recently played a video game; it feels approachable and understandable.”
THE TRUTH IS OUT THERE
Upon release, Her Story became somewhat of a cultural phenomenon in games, inspiring online discussions and rumour mills akin to conspiracy-stirring television shows like Twin Peaks, The X-Files and Lost. Players have continued to debate the game's deliberately ambiguous ending and narrative, with Barlow keeping shtum on a definitive explanation.
It's important to me that a game which engages its players' imaginations and lets a lot of its story take place there doesn't steal that away in its final moments,” he says.
I love the idea that the story and characters will continue to live on after the game is finished. A lot of my favorite stories do this – the ending is a springboard for you to extrapolate and imagine the rest of the characters' lives. Video games could do to leave a lot more to their players' imaginations.”
Not everyone likes having to work for an explanation, and esoteric titles can put off players looking for an easier ride.
I wasn't too worried because I wasn't trying to appeal to a big 'gamer audience', and I was committed to the idea that by doing this differently I was offering up something unique,” Barlow enthuses.
Even if the audience wasn't huge, there would be people who appreciated what this game was doing.
I was thinking of a broader audience that might appreciate a police procedural setup, or a dark, personal story. I imagined that a lot of that audience would have access to a computer or an iPad or iPhone and could enjoy the game.
"I knew that the mechanic at its heart would make Her Story accessible, so it was aquestionof finding that audience and putting it in front of them. I think the 'wider gaming audience' is probably well served with traditional games and so on – I struggle to see myself addressing them directly.”
"Video games could do to leave a lot more to their players' imaginations."
Like many developers with a unique concept – but not a sure-fire commercial hit – Barlow utilised Steam's Greenlight platform to build momentum for Her Story ahead of release.
I had an advantage, having shipped games before and having something of an existing – if small – audience who had played Shattered Memories or Aisle,” he states.
I was somewhat reserved about the Steam audience early on – there is a vocal minority on that platform that can be outspoken and try and run any 'not games' out of town. But, since launch, the reception has been fantastic; the game has over 90 per cent positive reviews and at one point it was in the top couple of chart positions.
My experience of the platform has been a very positive experience. I think the issues devs face on the system are becoming the same as on other more open marketplaces: How does your game stand out? Why should anyone buy your game now, for that price? One of the things I was very focused on with Her Story was making sure I knew the answers to those questions before I even started the game.”
Her Story was also released on iOS and, although a story-driven title with an interface directly inspired by PC may seem a misfit for touchscreen mobile devices, the platform actually accounted for almost half of sales.
The appeal of iPad and iPhone was that the game plays well as a 'sofa' experience,” Barlow reasons.
The input is primarily keyboard and clicks, so it works well on mobile. And those devices are now such a part of how we consume video, and how we search the internet, that it felt natural that a game that revolved around those ideas would work well there. I was also very interested in trying to reach an audience that wasn't necessarily playing traditional games – those that might not have a Steam account.
But I didn't really have a clear expectation of where I would see my sales – I knew the game was very different in many ways, so I was trying to spread my risk. The fact that both audiences have responded so well to the game is testament to the fact that the idea is so accessible and yet has a depth to it.”
THE NEVERENDING STORY
Players continue to pore over Her Story, attempting to crack Barlow's virtual enigma.
The success of his first foray into indie development is a resounding success, and thousands of players are set to wait with bated breath for the next