The Stories We Play: Her Story

Her Story is the first game created independently by game creator Sam Barlow. Sam would start Half-Mermaid Studios, expanding his scope and narrative on each subsequent project. But it’s his first independent adventure, Her Story, that left an impression on gamers and the industry as a whole.

Sam’s first three games do not follow the traditional video game format. There are no game over screens, no combat, and very little in the way of interactivity. His games could be described as FMV, but that is a bit derivative of the games he creates. His games, including Her Story, feature full-motion video over graphically generated images. However, the distinction is that the player has no control over the game’s outcome. We can only watch and attempt to discern the story before us.

Gameplay As A Story

Her Story starts with the player sitting at a computer logged into a police video database. The interface allows for search terms; the first is already given to the player: Murder. The search results in four separate videos of a woman. The same woman. In three different police interviews. The player never gets to know the questions the police ask the woman, only her response.

There are five separate police interviews, resulting in two-hundred and seventy-one different clips for the player to discover. The mechanic of the game is finding the right search words to unlock more clips. The game’s magic is that regardless of the order in which you view the clips, the game tells a complete story.

Photo Credit: Sam Barlow

Telling a story out of order isn’t necessarily a novel idea. Tarantino perfected it with his film-making, and games like Devil May Cry 3 and Uncharted 2 used a similar technique to give players a sense of scope for the game. But Her Story makes a non-linear narrative the entire crux of the experience. Her Story’s true “game” aspect is building a story from out-of-context clips.

Her Story also works so well because the game’s narrative is actually good. The interviewee in question, Hannah Smith, is the only character shown in the game. Viva Seifert, a relatively unknown British musician, plays the part beautifully and brings Hannah to life.

Telling Lies And Finding Truths

Throughout Hannah’s different interviews, we understand that Hannah isn’t being completely honest. Her husband, Simon, was found dead under suspicious circumstances. And Hannah is the main suspect.

Hannah’s story, Her Story, is an intricate weaving tale of familial tragedy and fairly tale-like exposition. The story takes shape and makes sense, but the fun is finding the tidbits on your own. Searching key terms as they show up in Hannah’s interviews.

One seemingly inconsequential word can be searched to reveal more clips that, in turn, send the player down a rabbit hole of truths and lies. The player starts with no idea of the full story. They can slowly and methodically peel away the layers and learn the truth about Hannah’s story.

Photo Credit: Sam Barlow

The real magic of Her Story is that in whatever order you find the clips in, the story works. A film or book tells a narrative in a certain order. Even when the events are not presented chronologically, the creator still controls when key elements become known to the audience. Sam Barlow lets the player decide when they learn new information. A task that only video games can do.

Sam and his studio, Half Mermaid, went on to create two more games using the same format. Telling Lies and Immortality are infinitely more complex. They are telling larger stories with a bigger cast and bigger budget. But even after these bigger and bolder releases, Her Story remains a masterclass in storytelling.

One person is telling the story, but we, the players, hear it. And we decide when and how we hear it. That fact that this all works. Regardless of the order in which we hear the story, we all still come to the same conclusion, which is nothing short of video game magic. Few creators have the talent, let alone the audacity, to leave a story in the players’ hands.

Photo Credit: Sam Barlow

Stories are told and crafted with delicate care. Structure, cadence, and character development are all delivered at the right time and in the right place. Her Story, in some video game magic way, delivers all the aspects in the right way, at the right time, but at the player’s choosing.


  • Joe Moore

    Joe Moore is a freelance writer at bosslevelgamer. He can usually be found listening to pop-punk, playing story-driven games, eating chipotle, or all three at once.

Written by Joe Moore

Joe Moore is a freelance writer at bosslevelgamer. He can usually be found listening to pop-punk, playing story-driven games, eating chipotle, or all three at once.

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