The 2015 game Her Story, by Sam Barlow, is designed so that the player “wins” by drawing their own conclusion to the ambiguous story, rather than just reaching the end credits. The game’s mechanics maximize the player’s immersion in the role of the avatar, a character who, much like the player, is trying to make sense of the ambiguous story. The blending of immersion with narrative reinforces the game’s themes of dual-identity by highlighting instances where the game deliberately breaks that immersion as a function of the story. The player does not reach the end goal to experience a positive emotional response, but rather, reaching the satisfying emotional response itself is the end goal of the game.
The mechanics of Her Story do not present all the necessary plot information to the player in a linear timeline, and establishes the player’s goal to make sense of the story. The player must watch short video clips and use keywords spoken in the clips to search for other video clips in the game’s police-database-themed user interface. To trigger the end credits, the player will be asked if they understand the story, to which if the player answers “yes,” they can logout of the game and the end credits begin. If the player answers “no,” or if they say “yes” but do not log off immediately, they can continue watching clips they may have missed until they are satisfied. Although the video clips themselves cannot change, it is the order in which they are watched that is dependent on the player; the game’s form of allowing expression is in how the player approaches and interprets the story with the limited information they are given. The game’s ending is not defined as a binary completion of tasks, but rather asks if the player is satisfied with the experiences that they have drawn from the game’s story and if they want to finish the game. The player “wins” the game when they are satisfied with the emotional responses they draw from the game, which also means that each player's ending may be different depending on how they interpreted the vague story.
Being immersed in Her Story is key to engaging the player with the complex narrative, so everything from the controls, to the point of view, to even the player's own thoughts are made to play a role in the game. The game is played in a first-person view through the eyes of an avatar, later revealed to be named Sarah, who is focused entirely on a computer desktop. The game lacks controller support, and can only be played with a mouse and keyboard, this method of control means that Sarah is typing the same keys, looking at the same clips, and clicking the same objects that the player is; “the game’s designers heighten the connection between player and avatar by requiring players to wear custom helmets designed for the experience” (Isbister, 15). Both the avatar and the player begin the game (for first time players) with no information and as the player learns by watching clips, that same knowledge is learned by Sarah in the game's universe. The controls work to immerse the player in the role of Sarah by performing the player’s actions and following the player’s train of thought as the player.
The aesthetics of the game play on the narrative themes of duality, confusion, and double-lives. On the desktop, the player has access to a recycling bin with a playable mini-game called “Mirror Game” (a renaming of the board game Reversi) with the player controlling both sides of the board. When the player finds a video clip containing essential plot information, a sound cue will trigger and a reflection on the will shine on the game’s virtual desktop to reveal a blurred image of the avatar's face (Sarah). The dual-color, two-player mechanics of “Mirror Game” and the reflection of the avatar’s face as a sign of discovery plays on the game’s themes of duality and reflections. “Mirror Game” creates unease with its two player controls in a game that, up until this point, could be played single player, and the reflection of Sarah temporarily breaks the immersion to remind the player that they are playing as someone else. The narrative themes of two individuals sharing one life is reinforced outside of the video clips by including a mini-game made for two players in a one player game, and by reminding the player that the avatar they are playing as is not themselves.
Although the plot has an ambiguous ending, the game is finished when the player is satisfied with their own interpretation of the events-- the story that the player takes away from the game is its own reward for finishing it. By the end of Her Story, the player avatar is revealed to be Sarah, the daughter of a women who used her twin to live one life as two people. but whether the twin existed, or if it is an elaborate story, is up to the player. The interpretations may vary because of how the player approached the videos, and how many they watched before being satisfied with the story they were presented with. s Robin Hunicke states, “Expression comes from dynamics that encourage individual users to leave their mark,” the “mark” being the different interpretations and approaches to discovering the story (Hunicke, et al., 3). The dynamics of the game are not so much focused on making it to the end, but rather the aesthetics in being absorbed in the narrative, and forming arguments and interpretations, is the goal of the game.
Her Story, Sam, Burlow, 2015, PC
Hunicke, Robin, et al. “MDA: A Formal Approach to Game Design and Game Research.” North Western Education, 2004.
Ibister. “A Series of Interesting Choices: The Building Blocks of Emotional Design” How Games Move Us, n.d., 21-66.
A note from the author: this article was originally submitted as a written assignment for an Intro to Video Game Studies university course. It has been edited and uploaded for posterity.