Cha's Games of the Year 2015. Her Story
I'm a tragic fan of FMV games, and you've no idea how excited I was to see a new example other people actually seem to like.
Her Story is a beautiful example of small scope – it knows exactly what it is and isn't. A lot hangs on the performance of a single actress, but she pulls it off. Looking through this character's old interview tapes it at times touching, or chilling, or most often faintly unsettling without necessarily being able to pin down why.
I spent years working as a research assistant, and became good at digging through information. Coming up with appropriate keywords was a significant part of my job. It's an aspect of research that's become more difficult over time, as databases keep expanding. Internet searches in particular are huge and never as smart as I need them to be. I have faith in my Google skills, and ability to trawl an ocean of data using a fishing net full of holes. It's genuinely hard-won expertise.
By contrast, Her Story's database feels rather cute and accessible, despite being presented as a broken '90s relic. Perfect transcripts allow keyword searching, but the timestamps are missing and it's only possible to bring up the first five hits for common words. The limitations are contrived, but make the mystery satisfying to chip away at. The story assembles gradually like a jigsaw instead of following a linear progression.
Her Story's database can be beaten. There are tricks to watch each video clip in order and subvert the whole premise, even. But it's far more satisfying to follow trains of logic and see where they lead.
Even as someone who does a lot of this sort of thing, making links between ideas is incredibly satisfying. It's not often I have the chance to apply these skills in a recreational context. There aren't many video games about playing with words and connecting topics in quite this way. Maybe interpreting an obscure hidden object clue, or working out an occasional riddle or anagram puzzle. But this pure use of the brain's ability to link ideas isn't something I can come up with many examples for. Summoning objects in Scribblenauts, maybe.
The story is definitely melodrama, and I'm happy about that too. As though there's still a little bit of love for the hamminess of classic FMV. Evolving without being a jerk about it. It's unsurprisingly full of tropes, being a crime drama on the surface, but with an underlying skeleton of gothic fiction that means things function on an unreal, dreamlike level. Making good use of the logic of fairytales and other myths.
Or, as someone less educated in literary traditions I personally link Her Story to soap operas, which is probably a modern version of the same thing. I have a lot of thoughts about the value of shows like Desperate Housewives and why those stories are scoffed at in the way equally trashy shows about superheroes or etc. aren't. I'm not going to dig far into it here, but it's interesting that Her Story seemed to avoid the worst of this prejudice, probably thanks to the overlying vibe of gritty crime drama. But the major criticism I've seen does unsurprisingly involve that soap opera level, and it's interesting which fantasies people are more or less trained to accept.
I haven't played anything else quite like Her Story. I'm not sure it's a good template for other games to work from, but as a once off idea it feels natural, effective and memorable.
[Spoilers incoming after the image]
The framing story turns out to be that you're a daughter searching for information on your mother and trying to understand the past. As has been pointed out elsewhere, developer Sam Barlow used exactly the same concept in Silent Hill: Shattered Memories. I think it worked better there, and since Shattered Memories was a new version of a pre-existing story it was valuable to recontextualise. Here it felt less meaningful, but was a way to create a concrete ending which isn't easy to pull off in something this non-linear. I'm not completely satisfied with this approach but don't have a better suggestion.
There are two major theories about what's going on in Her Story, but only one of them holds up. The unlikely version that is that this is a story about a woman with multiple personalities. And I say multiple personalities rather than dissociative identity because I do mean to refer to a fictional tradition rather than any reality. It's a relief we didn't have to go there, the theory quickly falling apart if there's any accuracy in the presentation of timelines and locations. There are dangers in working with old and sometimes particularly tired tropes, but this at least meant there's nothing quite as terrible as it initially seemed.
The "more credible" option that leaves is fantastic, involving a secret twin sister who lived in the attic and was kept a secret from everyone for many years, even unknown to their parents. This is the sort of story more concerned with symbols than realism.
The story is told through police interview tapes in which you can only hear her/their responses and not the questions being asked. Or apparently so. But at least some of the interviews are clearly more along the lines of a psych evaluation, including asking her to interpret a series of pictures. I was inclined to think that a significant chunk of the tapes are about this character being invited to tell fictional stories (and sing songs!), as a window into her mind. Or alternatively that imagination is just how she handles the world and bad things that have happened (which I can relate to somewhat).
It makes it even harder to guess at the truth, and provides a way to reject the aspects that feel like a stretch if you have the sort of brain that demands a more believable tale. I could easily imagine two perfectly normal twins telling stories and casting themselves in fairytales. As well as seeing what they could get away with when it comes to impersonating each other, of course. The games just turned darker and more adult here.