When Her Story wrapped up after five hours, I checked the word count on my open Google Doc to see how many notes I'd written. All in all, the final count tallied up to around 1000 words—quite possibly the most anyone has ever had to think about a full-motion-video game.
Of course, Her Story isn't your standard FMV game. While live-action video comprises most of its content, you're asked to do a lot more than sit back, relax, and occasionally hit a button to advance the story. In fact, most of the actions you'll be performing (like my copious note-taking) exist completely outside of the game itself. Sam Barlow's unique reinvention of the interactive murder mystery—guaranteed to generate plenty of asinine "Is this a game?" conversations—might not operate on the same terms as your Danganronpas or Ace Attorneys, but if you're willing to give it a chance, expect to stay glued to the screen until every last clue is set free from its pre-recorded prison.
As a mystery, Her Story works extremely well by hiding everything from the player. Upon starting the game, you don't know who you are, or why you're staring at a searchable database of police interrogation footage. And the subject of these video clips—a young British woman—also has her identity shrouded in mystery; even revealing her name in this review would be a spoiler. Her Story simply presents you with a search engine, pulls up results based on the videos' transcripts, and then asks you to make sense of them. There's no fail state, no win state, and no real goals to meet. If you think you've solved the mystery, good on you—Her Story will never let you know.
If this setup sounds bafflingly simple, Her Story adds some restrictions that make the act of searching into a game itself. Seeing as the engine can only pull up five results at a time, most of the experience involves starting with broad terms, watching the videos presented, and narrowing down your focus from there. Most clips average around 30 seconds, and they're rarely presented in context; figuring out their chronology involves looking at the recording date, what the subject is wearing, and at what point she seems to be in one of seven interrogation sessions. So, let's say you search for "door" and pull up a clip where the woman explains how a certain door was unlocked. Which door? Whose door? Why "door?" These are all questions you'll have to answer for yourself.
Her Story at least provides one in-game tool to assist with sifting through its various videos: a playlist function of sorts, which allows you to arrange your choice of clips on a timeline—though it's not the easiest thing to use. The game also allows you to mark every clip with your own annotations, a helpful feature that makes it so you don't necessarily have to replay videos if they happen to pop up in further searches. Her Story also keeps a running (though vague) tab of how many of its total clips you've exhausted, which makes for some creative wordplay sessions in those final moments as you struggle to figure out what unexplored words or phrases could lead to some kind of truth.
To Her Story's credit, the game never shows you too many cards. While plenty of clips yield juicy details, no single one involves a dramatic confession, or an explanation of the mystery as a whole. In fact, it's the seemingly useless clips—the ones lasting a few seconds at most—that shed the most light on the underlying mystery once given some all-important context. The most rewarding moments of the game actually came in my final hour, when I stumbled upon new revelations upon visiting old clips that formerly made little sense. When the time came to end my search—a completely voluntary act—I had a general grasp of whodunnit, but many of the details can only be described as "foggy." Just as most of my sleuthing took place outside of Her Story, I have a feeling I'm going to spend the next few days combing Twitter and message boards for answers to questions I couldn't quite figure out myself.
A while back, I had the idea to write about mystery novels as a sort of game, based on my recent fascination with the genre—then quickly realized some subject matter is even too esoteric for USgamer. Yet I found myself having the same literary experience with Her Story: taking copious notes, checking timelines, and not necessarily being rewarded —outside of my own brain's dopamine system—after getting to the bottom of things. Keeping that in mind, Her Story is a game that requires a significant amount of patience; it's not boring, of course, but you're ultimately left to your own devices, and provided no rewards outside of Steam achievements for finding rare clips and hitting certain milestones. If you're cool with undergoing this kind of unguided experience—or simply willing to give it a shot—you'll find there's no greater mystery than the one you're allowed to solve yourself.
Don't let the FMV trappings of Her Story fool you; it uses this format as a tool, not a crutch. Sam Barlow's murder mystery uses pre-recorded video to its advantage, giving the experience a gritty, voyeuristic feel that only adds to its sense of intrigue. Simply put, you've never played a detective game like this before.