There’s something missing from indie narrative experiment Her Story: namely, the “story” part.
To be fair, Her Story does some interesting things with the idea of video game narrative. The focus of the game is on discovery and research. Settled in front of an ancient (and completely ridiculous) police database computer system, the player uses search terms to uncover interview clips of a certain woman as she answers questions about the murder of her husband. There are tons of such clips and hours of interviews, and the entire game is about picking up on keywords and concepts during one clip to search for new ones. Over time and with enough videos, you’re slowly able to put together what happened to this woman, her husband, and a number of other people, although you’re still left with plenty about which to speculate.
As a narrative, Her Story trades on the fascination derived from discovery, and its Internet search-esque take on delivering a story puts you in a sort of virtual labyrinthe, one that’s intuitive but still strange and unknown. Each of the clips also delivers something special, often recontextualizing what you’ve already heard with new tidbits as you delve deeper.
The trouble is, Her Story is the middle of a story without a beginning or an end. All its chunks of narrative are jumbled, existing out of context and free of structure. The novelty of Her Story is the means through which players explore the narrative and uncover different pieces, but the game never gives you a good reason to care about uncovering those pieces. Like most games, it’s just a system for you to interact with: watch videos, learn about a murder. When you’re done, you go about your business.
The middle of a story without a beginning or an end.
Her Story falls into the same trap many games do: it completely lacks context. It doesn’t tell a story, it relates information. You can give a bit of a pass to Her Story because its creator, Sam Barlow, has made something that’s almost a proof-of-concept, experimenting with the possible ways of passing story onto players in an interactive and interesting way. But its far from the only game that functions on the assumption that because you’re an active participant in uncovering scraps of narrative, you’ll be compelled to instill them with some kind of meaning – allowing those games’ creators to skip things like character, structure and arc; the elements that are actually used to construct stories. Those troubles crop up all over, from Tomb Raider or Bioshock to Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture.
Also recently released, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture is a great illustration of the issue of the lack of context in game storytelling. The title drops you into an empty British town and lets you just … walk. Stumbling on the right spots uncovers bits of a story, out of order, lacking cogent details or even models of actual people to make it easier to understand who is saying or doing what. Most of all, it’s a game about watching a story that has already happened to someone else. There’s no hook and no characters to relate to; the game expects you to spend hours finding out what happened here, without showing you why you should care. You have no stake in the tale.
Dropping players into a situation with no idea of who they are or why they’re there is a widespread trope in games. Often, player characters have amnesia – convenient for skipping filling out their backstory, and using it as a “mystery” later on – or you just find out what happened later, through flashbacks, like it’s not important to know what’s going on as long as you’re shooting, jumping, or solving puzzles.
Like it’s not important to know what’s going on as long as you’re shooting.
Games are constantly expecting you to just go ahead with the action without knowing why you’re doing what you’re doing, and it’s not just jarring, it leaves players with no investment in seeing the tale through. You rarely see that in other forms of media or storytelling. Movies and novels will often exercise the technique of in medias res, where you’re started off in the middle of an occurrence that gets you right to the action, but it’s usually used as the hook to get the reader or viewer engaged in the story. Watch any horror movie, for an easy example, and it’ll usually start with a kill to catch your attention, and then settle down to let you learn about the family in trouble, the sheriff with the drinking problem, or the kids who are about to get slashed up. The action gets you hooked, the context pulls you in, and the events of the plot are more meaningful for your investment in character and setting.
Even games whose focus is on story struggle with creating context and relevancy with players, though. Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture never even bothers to give an inkling of who (or what) you are and why you’re stuck in this empty town. In The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, you’ve missed the entire story, with the conclusion basically rendering everything you’ve done completely moot. In Bioshock, you swim down to a ludicrous underwater city after a plane crash and it turns out you’re from there-something you don’t find out until the last act of the game. In Tomb Raider, you have no idea who Lara is, where she is or, what she’s doing, until you’ve spent a couple hours hunting animals and avoiding bad guys. Gone Home has you digging around in the trash of someone’s home without ever giving you a compelling, character-driven reason to do so.
In some cases, it seems the problem is fear. Especially in Triple-A games, it’s as if developers and publishers don’t trust you to hang around if you’re not immediately and consistently murdering folks. In other cases, the problem is money: Why put you in the middle of an unfolding story when it’s cheaper to scatter some audio logs around an empty town? But as Her Story demonstrates, even games where story is a major focus don’t seem to quite know how to merge the ideas central to how we tell stories with an interactive experience.
The fact is that structure matters. Characters are crucial. Background worldbuilding through lore is not the same as telling a coherent story in the present, one that players push forward. And games’ ability to tell their stories well is not just some vestigial requirement of throwing some writing into a mix of gameplay, but a necessity because humans are driven by storytelling. It’s not incidental that many games have stories, it’s central to the experiences they create.
Her Story has found a novel, intuitive way to let players delve into a narrative, and other games can learn from its approach. But like other games, it’s missing crucial ingredients. As games look to convey deeper, more compelling and more meaningful stories and experiences, they’ll need to find ways not only to make unlocking those stories interesting – they’ll need to find ways of making us care about doing so.