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Using search to shape storytelling


Not a gamer but know how to Google? You must play Her Story….

Released in June this year, Her Story kept me up at night. Like a box set binge, I couldn’t stop. I don’t go in for online games, I don’t have Candy Crush on my phone (although much like Frank Underwood I did succumb to Monument Valley) and although I love to read about games that focus on story, I have spent minimal amounts of time following through, controller in my hand. But that didn’t stop me. Because as creator Sam Barlow explained, ‘if you can Google, you can play Her Story.’

Sound fun? No, really, it is.

The basic premise is simple. As the player, you’ve been asked to review a database of archived video clips from a 1994 cold case in which a woman is being questioned about her missing husband. You can search the database using any terms you like, but each search will only pull up the first five video clip entries.

‘How to find the threads to follow, what to believe, what to read into things all come into play as you decide what rabbit holes you’ll willingly tumble down.’

And so it becomes your job to investigate further and try and make sense of what happened, picking out potential leads from the woman’s answers in each clip that might lead you off at tangents, or deepen your understanding of events, as well as your understanding of the subject herself.

In other words, you’re role-playing as a detective – and it’s completely compelling. How to find the threads to follow, what to believe, what to read into things, it all comes into play as you listen intently, trying to tease out the truth or decide what rabbit holes you’ll willingly tumble down. You can go off on tangents that seem to take you nowhere, only to happen across a flicker, a moment, that could hold the key to the whole case. And every player’s experience will be different. And no player’s experience will be complete.

As an experiment in non-linear storytelling where you, the as the audience, are entirely in control, it’s absorbing and eye-opening in equal measure. It makes voyeuristic TV detective drama fade into the background and leaves you hungry for more, even when the final clip has been viewed and you’ve been asked for your verdict.

‘This makes voyeuristic TV detective drama fade into the background and leaves you hungry for more…’

A leader in the world of storytelling games and experimentation with non-linear narratives, Barlow wanted to create a game that brought into question the principle of the YouTube jury, where content saturation has turned us all into armchair detectives, influencing our opinions on – and even the course of justice for –suspects like Amanda Knox or Serial’s Aden Sayed.

Her Story certainly does that. You become totally engrossed in the tale unfolding under your fingers, shaping your opinions of the woman you see in the clips and creating a life for her in the world that you piece together – all defined by your own decisions, principles and prejudices.

So it’s powerful as a piece of social commentary and engrossing as a game. But it also marks an interesting point in the ever-evolving nature of storytelling, where search – something practical and function based – becomes a narrative device and our technological development as a society continues to inform the way we could shape and tell stories.

So much to think about, so little space to write. All I can say is go play it. Now.

You won’t regret it.


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