Jon Blyth on: Fixing Her Story

How to make the critical darling a proper, unmitigated game.

This article contains spoilers for Her Story.

Everyone's talking about Her Story, aren't they? And I don't know about you, but when everyone else is talking about something, it's essential that I wade in there, my jaw rotating in all three axes. And when I've built a hot orb of opinion plasma about the size of an R-Type charge shot, it's time to jam my freshly minted tuppence into the spinning doors of public discourse. And you can take that metaphor to the bank.

Before I lift up your wrist and honk my dazzling thinks into your armpit, let me first describe Her Story. It's like a jigsaw puzzle, made out of video clips of a fragmented police interview. The clips are accessed through a basic search engine, which trawls through the transcripts and returns you the first five clips with that word in. Imagine a jigsaw where you can't see all the pieces. You just shout "corners", and the four corners fire from the box into your face. Pleased with results so far, you say "edge bits", but thanks to those suspicious limitations, it spits out five edge bits that don't even join up. So you put them on a Scrabble rack and say "sky?"

Nothing comes out. No sky. So you look at the lid of the jigsaw box and it just says "innovative new method of storytelling". So you shout "dick salad" into the box, in case there's an Easter egg and a dick with coleslaw pubes crawls out of the box. Yeah, you know it's not going to happen, but you also know that if it did, this would instantly become your favourite game ever.

Her Story is such a passive creature, such a novel experience, and so unlike anything else - even previous FMV games, madly - that it's met with noble resistance from the Guardians Of What Games Are. This very important lobby group can generate thousands of derisive tweets and forum posts, so I'm reaching out to the developer, Sam Barlow. Sam. Mate. Barlow. Sam. Mate. Here's how to make Her Story a proper, unmitigated game, whilst preserving that inspiring core of originality.

MEET HAROLD, THE STAMMERING CLUE WOLF

I read that Barlow said that he was trying to recreate a promise that other games had teased him with, only to leave him feeling cheated. The feeling of actually investigating a crime. The alluring promise that a new line of inquiry had appeared in the doorway, hoiked up its petticoat, then run off giggling into a mist-filled corridor full of unmarked doors. Basically, he wanted a game that forces you to think through a problem, rather than patting you on the head for following way-too-familiar visual hints.

That's all very well, Sam. But I, and millions of people just like me, learned crime-solving from Scooby Doo and Phoenix Wright. So the first and most important change is to include a psychic sidekick who offers constant advice in an extraordinarily high-pitched voice.

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FILL THE RECYCLING BIN WITH PORN

The recycle bin has a game called "Mirror" in it. It's a straight-up remix of Reversi, a two-player game where the balance of power frequently swings between the two players, black and white. In the context of a single-player game, this is hugely resonant with the themes of the story, and goes to the core of the fascinating ambiguity at the centre of these interviews.

Why not drop a bit of porn in there, too? First, it builds the world. Makes this computer terminal feel a little bit more "lived in". Also, when you're making a 100% female game with so few game-like elements, you're inviting people to say that you're trying to destroy video games using only women as your weapons. Bit of porn'll settle that right down. Especially lesbian twin porn. Not saying it's right, Sam. Just saying you've got to look after yourself, to the exclusion of all other humans. Yes, even your loved ones. Shut up and do it, Sam.

GET AN ENDING

Her Story has no conclusion: no game over, no fanfare.wav. Just a growing sense that you're beginning to understand what happened, even if some of the clips remain unwatched. This approach would have been fine for a movie. But in video games, satisfying reveals need to be followed by ten minutes of walking down corridors, while the final boss taunts you over a tannoy system.

Here's what I'd do, Sam. Get onto my lap, Sam. That's nice. Put a little SOLVED IT button on the desktop. Press it, and you have to fight your way to your boss's office, through the corridor brawl scene from Oldboy. When you get there, he's eating his dinner and says "this had better be good, rookie - I'm enjoying this omelette". You tell him your theory, and he says "actually I'm the murderer, and you're next". Then you just have to bait him into stunning himself by charging into the walls, like in a real game.

MORE JEOPARDY

Games are built to engage simple human instincts: to solve, explore, learn, and empower ourselves. It's not very often we get to do this in our day-to-day life. And when we do, there's rarely a satisfactory sense of drama, or conclusion.

Sometimes, though. Sometimes it happens. For example, there's a deserted fairground in Berlin. It's called Spreepark, and it looks like Splatoon would, if it'd been developed by Epic Games. It's all fenced off, but there's a perfectly timed hole in the fence: it appears after you've seen enough destroyed beauty to decide you definitely want to break in, and just as you're thinking "ah, there's no way, let's not bother". That timing was so perfect, that me and my friends felt compelled by years of dramatic tension to go inside. Even the strangled, ferocious snarling of guard dogs tugging at their leads seemed to say "Hello! I'm a puzzle! Feed me drugged meat!"

While Her Story delivers in terms of discovery, and the way the different strands of the story presented themselves to me were brilliantly paced, the lack of any fail conditions robs the game of that barking-dog jeopardy. So hey Sam. Barlow, baby. Why not introduce "GHOST CLIPS"? Clips that, if watched, have a 10% chance of emailing everyone in your address book a gif of you licking the stumps of that dismembered Dead Island bust from 2013. Def Jeopard!

CASSOWARIES

Cassowaries were great in Far Cry 3. Cassowaries should be the new red barrels. COD should have a Nazi Cassowary mode. You should be able to smash open Cassowaries with a crowbar for ammo. Her Story is a tough fit for Cassowaries, but maybe when you log off, there should be a reflection of a Cassowary in the screen. You... you were the Cassowary all along. Sam! Sam?

(In theory, you could tag some of the videos "cassowary", so that they'd turn up in a search term for "cassowary", but if anyone thinks that's a decent substitute for a real cassowary then they're kidding themselves.)

HOLOLENS ME, BARLOW

If E3 taught me anything this year, it's that people will lose their collective toolbox of s*** over an absurdly optimistic representation of what Hololens will actually be. So if you want to attract anyone to your game apart from a bunch of story-drunk pretentious journo intellectuals, Sam, you need to dump that retro VHS vibe, and get full Minority Report on the sequel. This will boost production costs, Sam. Of course it will. You'll have to take on a massive development team and buy offices in a major capital city. But the number of snippy comments about how crap the game looks will reduce by around 5%.

One more good thing about a fully portable hololens: I'll finally be able to walk down the street, and automatically have smiling emojis superimposed over the heads of homeless people. I've wanted that since the nineties.

BETTER GUNFEEL

Maybe play Nuclear Throne a bit? Vlambeer know how to do a good gun.

OK Sam, I think we're done here. You can get off my lap now, as I've realised all of these points apply equally to Dear Esther, so I'm just going to do a quick Find and Replace and get double bubble on this one. Call me, Sam. Love you. B-bye.

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About the author

Jon Blyth

Jon Blyth

Contributor

Log wrote about video games in most of the magazines for eight years. He left to run a pub in Nottingham in July, which upset everyone so much that GamerGate happened. He's very sorry.

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