So, turns out I really like mystery stories.
The past few months, more often than not, I’ve caught myself binging on Sherlock Holmes (the ones with Jeremy Brett of course!),Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, the Midsommer Murders, Columbo. True Detective is easily my favourite show of the year so far and that is just scratching the surface.
If last year was the year where I was going through every horror “thing” I could find, then this year is the Year of the Poirot.
This latest interest of mine has been reflected in my video game purchases too. L.A. Noire was a game I am currently playing, and even though I admire its atmosphere and tech, so far it has failed to make me feel like a hardboiled police detective in the 40s. Video games are, in my opinion (although this is my blog, everything is in my opinion, anyway) at a disadvantage when it comes to the mystery genre. You see, you can simulate the aim of a soldier with a keyboard and mouse, you can execute acrobatics with a controller, but all the interesting juicy stuff of a good murder mystery, happens in the mind. The player, or viewer/reader, is invited to try and solve whatever mystery Miss Marple or Lt. Rust Cohle before they do. That was something that the new Sherlock Holmes mini-series have failed to deliver for me. Too much showing off, too much “let’s look cool” and too little mystery.
Video games though are all about the player doing things. And how can gameplay deliver the mostly cerebral process one goes through when trying to solve a mystery (This is not counting Puzzle Games)? L.A. Noire’s answer to that was a , so far, lackluster “Press X to investigate”, “Press O to solve mystery”. I was not feeling it.
That is when a little game came along, a game called Her Story. It is an FMV game (of all things) a genre that rose and fell in the 90s. In Her Story the player basically searches through an old database of videos of 7 police interrogations of a woman about a missing person case. The nearly 300 videos can only be found by searching for words that are said in them (A search for “Pub” would result in videos where the woman talks about their local pub etc.) Every new video you see, will probably give you enough information to search for other videos.
The interface through which all of this happens is a Windows 3.1-esque one, with screen glare from the lights bouncing on the CRT monitor. The whirl of the fan and the buzz of the neon lights of the old police station are enough to create an extremely immersive experience.
The only gameplay is searching for new videos.
And this is why magic happens.
You see, to a casual observer, searching for videos might be a fairly unengaging experience, but trying to figure out what the video you just saw means, how it fits to the greater picture and what you should try to find next is probably the closest any game has made me feel like a true detective.
There are no checklists with “Find the suspect, find the weapon” that get ticked, there is no progression tracker. You don’t know if you have figured out the truth. All you have, are the words of this woman. There is no indication whether you have reached the correct conclusions, there is no game over. It is all up to you. There is no “proper order” you should see the videos. You will see the videos in the order that make sense to your brain, through what terms you decide to search for.
And that is probably what makes it so real.
The woman is played by Viva Seifert, and she delivers a fairly demanding role admirably. It won’t take many videos to forget you are not looking at actual old video tapes.
All in all, I really really enjoyed Her Story, it is a game with characters that will stay with me long after I have stopped playing it. It is a game that reminded me that immersion does not come from ultra realistic graphics, it doesn’t need expansive worlds with a working ecosystem, it can be achieved with a rudimentary interface, a woman talking to an unseen detective and the sound of neon lights flickering.
With good characters and a good narrator a story can leap out of the imaginary and sit in our brains, almost indistinguishable from “real” memories.
Combine that with a small nudge from gameplay that actually enhances the experience in a creative way, and our “fake” stories, characters and situations, become as real as you and I. All this is the kindling for our imagination.
And as Terry Pratchett said, it is our imagination, not our intellect that makes us human.