Her/Their/Your Story

“Closure is bullshit,” James Ellroy once wrote, “and I would love to find the man who invented closure and shove a giant closure plaque up his ass.” The author of LA Confidential is wrong about a lot of things, but in this case, he’s bang on. An ending with no loose ends, unanswered questions of other dangling prepositions is desirable in storytelling, but if you try and apply a similar narrative arc to a human life, you’ll only be disappointed. Fiction which attempts to embrace the ambiguity of life treads a tricky line between purposefully disappointing those engaging with it, and just wasting their time. It’s a tightrope which Her Story, Sam Barlow’s surprise hit PC title from 2015, manages quite wonderfully imho.

If that lack of closure is difficult to pull off in a novel, then it’s near-impossible in a video game. At the core of the art form there is a reliable system of feedback loops, where players perform certain actions and expect certain results. Press A, you character jumps. Hit a block, you get a coin. Play through every level, and you’ll reach the end. Her Story has none of that. Take that last truism of game narrative, for example: in most games, once you achieved a certain number of actions — collected every item, finished every mission, or simply played through every level — the game is satisfied with your progress, and deems you worthy of seeing the credits roll. You get the satisfaction that, according to the game, you have completed it. Her Story does not have a proper ending. There is no moment of final clarity which explains everything. You step away from it when you are satisfied. You reach your own conclusion.

The game unfolds as an investigation, albeit not one charged with any kind of urgency. You’re looking to solve a missing persons case — possibly a murder — but you’re not playing as a detective. The game does take place in a police station, however. The world of the game is limited to the desktop of an ancient desktop PC, with the CRT screen glare simulated on your sleek, modern LCD. Clicking on icons allows you to read txt files, play an Othello clone, rifle through the recycle bin or use a rudimentary instant messenger system. The meat of the game, however, is in the LOGIC system, a huge database of police interview tapes which have been digitised. The particular case you are diving into involves Hannah Smith, played by musician and former Olympic gymnast Viva Seifert. You search the database using keywords. Each search term will bring up a related video, or set of videos. You pick up on certain phrases, names or places of interest, in the clips, and follow threads until you reach conclusions or dead ends. You can save certain videos you believe to be important in figuring out what happened to Hannah’s husband, Simon, who went missing. The date in the corner of the videos — whose letterboxing and tracking lines imitate VHS camcorders of the era — tell you these interviews took place in the early nineties.

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Which is the extent of the gameplay, more or less. Enter words. Watch videos. It also focuses you entirely on the experience of Hannah Smith. She is the only person you see on screen…well, that’s not entirely true. Intermittently, the light of a passing police siren will illuminate the screen, and present the ghostly reflection of the character sat at the terminal: a young woman. There’s almost a Brechtian sense of drawing attention to the fact that this is a game, a fiction. Whilst the terminal setup makes it easy to immerse yourself in the game — you, too, are sat the computer whilst playing it, so the on-screen experience mirrors your own — these flashes remind you that this is not your story. In fact, the title could just as easily apply to the woman sat at the computer as Hannah Smith.

After a certain amount of time, a message will pop up asking if you’re done. You can say yes or no. You decide when the game ends, when the mystery has been solved, when you are satisfied. There is no final video which explains everything, popping up once you’ve linked together the correct chain of evidence, or found every single clip within the database (although you will get a Steam achievement for that). There is no definitive explanation, no ending. There can’t be, really, considering that the developer could not account for the order the player would find the videos; the timestamps on the clips let you know from the off that you are not watching events unfold in any sort of chronological order.

It’s odd, then, that the Wikipedia page for the game has a fully-written plot synopsis, complete with citations. To me that comes off as a fundamental misunderstanding of the game and what it’s trying to do. In as essentialist an art form as video games, it’s making a play for a degree of ambiguity, for the possibility of a plurality of readings of a text. According to the Wikipedia version of things (mostly cut-and-pasted from a Pocket Gamer article called “Her Story explained – the complete story walkthrough”; is there a more pernicious trend in pop cultural criticism than the article or video which claims to “explain” stories to people, rather than allowing for personal interpretation?), Hannah had a secret twin sister who lived in her attic as a child, with whom she invented a made-up language, could confide in, and would regularly swap places with. Hannah is shown to be relatively shy, withdrawn, polite; her “twin”, Eve, is bolshier, more flirtatious and outgoing. Which is certainly a reading, albeit one which ignores the video which comes up when you search for “twins” and the subject laughingly dismisses the assertion.

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For me, the name “Eve” is a conscious nod towards Chris Costner Sizemore, an American woman who was one of the first to be diagnosed with multiple personality disorder, now known as dissociative identity disorder (DID). When psychiatrists Corbett H Thigpen and Hervey M Cleckley came to write up Sizemore’s case, they protected her privacy by referring to her pseudonymously as “Eve.” Joanne Woodward would go on to win an Oscar for the film adaptation of The Three Faces of Eve, also written by Thigpen and Cleckley, in which she portrayed a character with three distinct personalities: the timid Eve White, the more volatile Eve Black and relatively stable Jane. To my mind, this works just as well as the identical twin explanation, the differences between the two echoed in Sizemore’s own switching between confident and the wallflower.

In that light,  light Her Story becomes yet another example of a psychological disorder being aligned with deviant behaviour. The equivalency of mental health issues with criminal behaviour is one we still desperately need to shake, something which continues to ostracise people who sorely need help but may choose not to seek it out. That’s if you take the “split” in Hannah’s personalities to be a literal one, however, as opposed to a figurative one. Another perspective on what is happening in the game can be found by looking through the lens of the doppelganger. In her fantastic autobiographical survey of exploitation cinema, House of Psychotic Women, Kier-La Janisse explores how the concept of the doppelganger has been classically used to explore issues of female identity, and how it fractures according to social pressures, among over things. She references Otto Rank’s original definition of a doppelganger, wherein “all instincts and desires that don’t fit the ‘ideal’ image are rejected and cast out of the self, repressed internally, and inevitably return externally personified in the double, where they can be at once vicariously satisfied and punished.”

You can head further down the rabbit hole, and further away from the all-too-neat and quotidian twins explanation, when you start considering the fact that Hannah (or Eve, or whoever) is the only person we ever see in these videos. Who’s to say she’s even being questioned? This article isn’t meant to posit theories — honestly, I’ve haven’t thought that last one out a whole bunch — but to argue in favour of allowing room for such theorising. The key themes of Her Story involve ambiguity, fluctuating identities, questions unanswered and mysteries unresolved.

What I would be far more interested in, rather than people arguing over the “correct” version of the events which unfolded in Her Story, is something like what Benjamin Rivers put together for his game Home. A superbly sinister horror game whose story is also open to interpretation, Rivers has shied away from giving any definitive answers as to what happened to its amnesiac protagonist trapped in a nightmarish version of his podunk town, instead giving players the space to decide for themselves. Literally: there’s a section on Home’s website called “What Happened?” where you can submit your reading of the narrative, and read dozens which have already been submitted, many of which hit upon almost identical thematic concerns but reach wildly different conclusions.

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At the “end” of the game, when you chose to logout after some nudging from somebody who has been sending intermittent instant messages throughout your investigation, there’s a little bombshell dropped. The character you have been playing as is Hannah Smith’s daughter, trying to find some answers about what exactly her mum’s deal was, and what happened to her and her father. How satisfied she is with what she found is parallel to your own satisfaction. You embody her role, and your choice to step away depends entirely on when your curiosity has been sated. It’s a game of intellectual processes in pursuit of an emotional goal. There is little objective closure to be found, just as in life there are no plaques informing you when you’ve reached a conclusion.

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About Tom

Tom is a freelance culture writer. His work has appeared on Comic Book Resources, About.com and WhatCulture.

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