Her Story: an interactive murder mystery
Her Story is a new kind of game. An interactive murder mystery using database video footage of a woman whose husband has gone missing. We talked to Sam Barlow, the man behind the game.
Sam Barlow isn’t new to the games industry. The word ‘veteran’ is thrown around a lot, and gets applied to people who are on their second or third game. Maybe if you have managed to survive that long in a notoriously tough games world, it could be warranted.
But Sam Barlow, the man behind one of the most original games to emerge in recent years, Her Story, can be called a veteran. He has earned his pixel stripes as a games designer, and now he is using all that gathered experience and knowledge to bring to us a unique experience.
Sam spent over a decade working as a designer and game director on console games, including two Silent Hill titles, ‘Origins’ and ‘Shattered Memories.’ But in 2014 he went independent to, as he says, “try my hand at making smaller games that explored types of play or types of story that would be harder to pitch to traditional publishers.
It was also partly because I was, frankly, jealous of the amazing work being done by other smaller scale devs like Simogo, Cardboard Computer and inkle!”
His first game as an independent is Her Story, which is being made entirely by Sam with occasional input from other talented folk; “if I was being fashionable, I would call this a ‘micro-studio’” he jokes.
The question we always ask, though, is what got him into, not only gaming in general, but into game development and design. Now, for lots of people, it is seen as a viable career path. The gaming market has changed immensely, but if you hop back a few years, that wasn’t always the case. And as a child of the 8-bit home computer era, Sam started out making games “just because… that was what you did. Typed in stuff from magazines, modified them to pass them off as my own. Slowly picked up how to do that from scratch.”
It’s quite a common route into game design, rather than the college/career path. It is something that people just love doing, and their hobby somehow becomes their way of making a living. Which isn’t always easy.
“I used to make offensive little games to share with friends,” Sam says, “and hand them out on floppy disks at school, that kind of thing.”
Then once he got to university and discovered the internet (as it was then, which is a very different beast to the high-speed networks of today) he discovered the community of writers and developers who were “rekindling the concept of ‘interactive fiction’” and went on to make a title called Aisle.
Aisle is a text game that played with conventions of how that kind of game should unfold. However, at that point, it still hadn’t occurred to him that you could make a living creating games. He went out to work in the U.S. for a business software company, “planning to make my millions.”
That didn’t happen, however, which is a familiar story, and he ended up back in the UK a few years later looking for work.
But then one of those things happened where a friend suggested he try for a job as an artist for a games company… So being proactive he applied to every developer in the UK, heard back from one, and that, amazingly, got him his first job “working on Serious Sam: The Next Encounter. This was initially as an artist, then as a level designer” he explains.
The journey into games
Of course, from there the journey that he embarked on, in a career in games, was only just beginning. Which, as anyone will tell you, can be a long and difficult journey. For Sam, though, he admits to being lucky. In his own words: “lucky in that I’ve been able to work on cooler and cooler projects as I’ve moved forward in my career. I should emphasis the word: ‘lucky’. So much in an intense, creative industry like games is down to luck.”
As much as there is an element of luck in any industry, in any career path, as there always is, it isn’t all down to whether you have the lucky gene. There is a lot of hard work to it too, even if it is just to be able to take advantage of the opportunities that might come your way.
“Right time, right place. You have to be open to things happening, always on the look out to make the best of a unexpected circumstance. We made a movie tie-in game for the Nicholas Cage movie Ghost Rider, and that finished at just the right time to step in and work on Silent Hill: Origins. Another studio had problems on the title and we had to step in to save the project. Coming straight off Ghost Rider, the team worked really well together and we were able to rapidly adapt our tech to work with Silent Hill.”
They went on to produce, what Sams says, was “something that was half decent despite having half the time and half the budget to play with…”
But then a bit later, after another few lucky breaks (them again…), they got the chance to make their own Silent Hill game, ‘Shattered Memories’. For the first time this was a chance to really push forward his ideas about how you could tell stories in a game, a chance, with Konami’s backing, to push the envelope.
And from there, it is onto Her Story, which is a game so very different from what we are used to seeing.
Simply, the game sits you in front of an mothballed old police computer and allows you to access its database of video footage.
In this particular database are hundreds of clips taken from a series of interviews with a woman whose husband has gone missing. By watching these clips you can piece together ‘her story’.
The catch is that to find the clips you have to search them out in the database by typing words… say you search for ‘murder’, you get the clips where the woman uses that word in her testimony. The additional complication is that the database only returns the first five clips, even if there are more, so you have to be more specific in your searches to ‘dig out’ the more juicy stuff.
Essentially you are using the woman’s own words as the bread-crumb trail to explore her story, hence the title of the game.
Although it doesn’t have the physical exploration you’d get in a more conventional game, the game gives you much greater power to ‘explore the story’ than you’re used to. It can feel conversational and also more like real detective work, without the hang ups that come with trying to actually simulate the second-to-second action of a detective story.
“The thing that’s exciting about game writing is that you are directly engaged with that process. You can really get hands on with the interaction, rather than being one step removed as you are with movies or books…”
As I have said, it is a very original concept, and a game which should please a side audience who have been eagerly waiting such a game. Everyone wants to be a detective, and solve puzzles.
“I’ve always been a huge fan of police procedurals and crime fiction,” says Sam, when explaining how he developed the idea for Her Story. “I’ve been wanting to do a game in this genre for forever. It slowly dawned on me that the way to make it work was to simplify the game-play and make it more abstract… rather than trying to make a ‘cop simulator’, over-complicating the game-play. This kind of combined in my head with my love of performance and a desire to use the availability of digital video as a way of putting a performance front and centre of an indie game.
It really is a non-linear storyline, where he challenged himself to come up with a new angle to a game. Most of the ideas that appeal to him start as new formats, new structures, fresh takes on ways to tell a story interactively.
“I need that kind of hook to get excited. But after that, once I start to put flesh on the bones, it’s the story and characters that take over. So with Aisle it was the idea of a ‘one turn game’, a game where ‘players were punished for suggesting silly actions’. With Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, it was a combination of ‘A game where your are psychologically profiled’ and ‘A game that uses fluid motion controls to make looking around more intuitive’. Those hooks are what gets the ball rolling.
However it wasn’t simply just watching an episode of Columbo and any other police/detective drama and thinking that it should be interactive. But rather that Sam was trying to “take everything back to its simplest form… so the action adventure that tells its story through audio diaries, reducing that down to just the audio diaries. And then building it back up… how do I add interactivity to this to make it more interactive, more player-driven?
“The story is frequently just doled out to the player chunk-by-chunk… how can I give the player more agency and more interesting involvement in that process?”
Her Story is most definitely a game though, despite it’s fimatic approach and it’s feel. “It’s a game, in as much as that word is used to describe digital experiences that require the player to perform actions and react to what’s happening. It’s not a traditional game, clearly. ‘Game’ is an awkward word, but it’s the best one we’ve got!”
The question, though, is whether we can look forward to seeing more games, following this style, being made once Her Story is released.
Maybe not the same concept of Her Story, as such, but games that focus on a higher sense of interactivity. We can certainly take a move away from the Call of Duty type games that flood the market, with its increasingly formulaic game-play and graphics.
“I’d love to see more developers make games that don’t assume direct control is essential to interactivity.” Sam says.
Going on to say that he would like to see more developers make use of video. “I’d like to see more developers tell stories that sit outside the well worn genres and settings. If I can inspire just one developer to do that, that would make me happy”
It is his experiences of working on games such as Silent Hill: Shattered Memories that have aided in this, and also with Aisle. Essentially they share the same DNA.
“There’s a bit in Silent Hill: Shattered Memories where you hack into a computer in the high school’s principals office. So the sensation of telling a story within a fake computer has been something I’ve been working over for a while.
There’s a whole theme running through that game of video footage. And there’s the use of the formal interview (there, a psychiatrist) which I think is a great fit for a video-game. It gives it structure. I think all the games are trying to do similar things, but they’re perhaps trying to do it in different ways. So it’s not a clear progression, it’s more scattershot than that I guess! With Shattered Memories we weren’t trying to build on top of the existing survival horror template.
We said to ourselves: “If no other horror games existed, what might you come up with?” And here it was similar: “If no detective games existed, how might you make one?”
So the experience of working on major games has proven invaluable, but would he be tempted to take the helping aid of the major publishers for Her Story?
Well, no. Early on a few contacted him and he simply told them that “When I said I was making a game that publishers wouldn’t want to touch, I really meant it!”
He really is his own person, and has the confidence to pursue his own dreams and creations. He isn’t afraid to push boundaries and experiment.
“I think the only thing that is important is to be truthful. If you’re repeating other people’s ideas, if you’re borrowing conventions without making them your own, sometimes that honesty is lost. So I think it’s vital to always start with the possibility of making something new if that’s where your heart is leading you.”
And with this, the equation of game developing, designing and writing really is about story telling. About putting in the middle of the narrative.
“I’ve always been a huge fan of police procedurals and crime fiction, and I’ve been wanting to do a game in this genre for forever…”
As Sam says, “all writing is strongly interactive. The great writers understand that they’re putting ideas in people’s heads and helping them create the true story in their minds… the thing that’s exciting about game writing is that you are directly engaged with that process.
You can really get hands on with the interaction, rather than being one step removed as you are with movies or books.
And for the writers, non-games writers that is, that inspire him?
“Too many to list! A few off the top of my head… every month I treat myself to reading one of Andre Dubus’s short stories, I love the authenticity of his character’s voices; Shirley Jackson… her stuff just kills me; Jim Thompson, who writes the hardest, blackest of all the noir; one of my favourite books is Damage by Josephine Hart, such an amazing little book…
I love good writers, but I really love good writers who can write short books”
This is a man who is focused on bridging the gaps that can occasionally appear between the games world, and the story telling. They should inhabit the same space, but the story telling can sometimes be lazy and unfocused, instead relying on clichés and well tread paths.
For Sam, though, the immediate focus is on Her Story and helping it find its audience.
He is hopeful that he “can show that there is an audience for this kind of game… a broad (and plentiful!) Audience. From there, I’d love to raise the stakes and follow up with something as ambitious, but on a bigger scale. I have ideas…”
Her Story is out now, available on PC, Mac and iOS from www.herstorygame.com.
This article first appeared in Issue Five of IND13 magazine, which is available for free download.