"Her Story" starts like a mystery.
"You think it's murder?" says a woman, speaking to an unseen detective. The video flickers, and then it hisses and clicks like an old VHS tape. Then it cuts out, and the battle of wits begins.
"Her Story" quickly unspools from there. The crime becomes secondary to the lives of the people behind the murder and the events that led to it. The game is told entirely through video. The only action available to the player is to put words into a browser and search.
Maybe a name. Maybe an object. Listen carefully. Did the woman just say something about Rapunzel? Try searching the term "fairy tale." It worked. Of the more than 200 short clips in the game, seven contain those two words.
"Her Story" puts the player in the role of an interrogator, trying to piece together the scattered remnants of seven old police interviews in the hopes that one word will lead to the "aha" moment that cracks the case. The player's role in all this — who the protagonist is, and why this decades-old case is of such interest — isn't revealed until the game's final moments.
Until then, "Her Story," one of the finest games released this year, lets the player revel in the head games.
"You're watching a video of a young woman pour her heart out and talk about very painful things," says creator Sam Barlow. "Or you're watching a video of someone trying to cover something up."
Though it may look like a relic from the mid-1990s, complete with its retro operating system and full-motion video, "Her Story" is entirely modern, playing on the voyeuristic tendencies of our social media age. It's like trying to find the truth by surveying YouTube, and it toys with a player's own assumptions and biases.
If this woman is accused of murder, why is she laughing? Should she really be volunteering to sing a song when her freedom is on the line? What does it mean that she spilled her coffee? Is she nervous? And wait a minute, that request for a lawyer seemed a tad forceful.
As entertainment, "Her Story" — inspired largely by Barlow's love of the retired NBC series "Homicide: Life on the Street" — fits somewhere between the podcast "Serial" and HBO's
It can be played somewhat passively (think more interactive television) or as I did, with pages in a notebook filled with scribbles, diagrams and questions. Did the woman just say her name is Hannah? Did she just contradict herself about the placement of a watch?
"Her Story" is entirely fiction, and it becomes convoluted quickly, but it feels real. Credit the acting of Viva Seifert, or Barlow's writing or the way in which it taps into one of the media's favorite cultural obsessions. It's no accident, for instance, that the accused is a woman.
The trials of Casey Anthony and Amanda Knox recently dominated news cycles; Barlow studied them, as well as how Internet commenters and media personalities treated the cases. Such observations figure into the game: One can get lost searching for the woman's mannerisms or her preferences for coffee or tea.
"If you read the commentary, it kind of drilled down into the expectation of how, emotionally, a woman should act in these scenarios," says Barlow, a 37-year-old resident of Portsmouth, England. "So much of the commentary in the media — and no one would listen to the evidence — was, 'Well, if she really didn't do it, she would be sad. She's laughing. That's not how she should act.'"
The coverage of the women stirred Barlow's empathy. The result is that the accused in "Her Story" never feels like a monster. There's an overriding sympathetic tone toward her life, her upbringing and her thoughts on motherhood. At times, one feels more like a therapist than a detective. That was intentional.
"A lot of these interviews are so intimate," says Barlow, a veteran of the mainstream game industry who previously worked on "Silent Hill: Shattered Memories."
"You have these people who have done very bad things, and oftentimes it's because they've had very painful lives," Barlow continues. "This police interview is the first time they get the chance to sit and talk about this stuff. The artful homicide detective tries to be a kind of psychiatrist, someone they can talk to."
While I suspect most players will want to be completionists, "Her Story" is flexible enough that one could spend time focusing on the character's relationship with her deceased husband or an ill-timed trip to Glasgow. Or her odd upbringing. It's common for games these days to have branching narratives, but here the narrative is dictated solely by what the player chooses to search.
Barlow likes to say that, if you can understand Google, you know how to play the game. When "Her Story" reaches its conclusion, generally after a couple of hours of digging deeper into the video clips, how the player feels about the main character will depend entirely on which videos were uncovered.
It's something of an experiment in player control, and it's driven entirely by speech. Players, for example, don't get to view evidence for the case, only hear descriptions of it. Barlow initially had scripts for the interrogators, who are never seen, and images for "lots of nice little props." He cut them.
"This is all the stuff I've seen in cop shows and cop novels," Barlow says. "The detective sits there for 12 hours, and his partner comes in the next day and he's still asleep in the chair. He's just been staring at the screen all day. This is about the eureka moment.
"This is the detective game where you get to sit in the dark for a few hours smoking cigarettes and scanning a computer."
Developer: Sam Barlow
Platforms: PC, Mac (Steam and Humble) and iOS