‘The book read from beginning to end like a good child. You’ve probably noticed already that he gets less and less worried about joining the parts together, that business of one’s words leading to another’
Hopscotch, Julio Cortázar
‘Murder’ is waiting as you begin Sam Barlow’s Her Story. It has already been typed into the search box; it is the beginning but it does not have to be. ‘Murder’ can be deleted, replaced. Any word can be the start. After the first search term the wonderfully acted videos lead to another word, any word: ‘Simon’, ‘the rock’, ‘sister’, ‘guitar’ and so on and so on. Seemingly important details are extracted from each video to lead towards a new video. Progress is shown by this constant unveiling of new videos and new details. It is a progress towards a set, determined end. When you choose to see this ending, however, is up to the player’s choice. You do not have to have uncovered all the videos to decide that you are finished and this decision has no importance within the game itself, it is simply when you are satisfied with what you have seen, with the story you have put together, with the ‘truth’ that you have discovered. This ordering by discovery allows the 200-odd videos to be found in a number different ways therefore influencing the meaning and importance that each video has. The eureka moment for each player will then be inspired by different videos at different stages.
These findings do not fit easily into any order other than the order of their discovery. There is most likely a typical order followed (‘murder’ to ‘Simon’ etc), but is possible to totally subvert any sense of order by searching any words one wishes: ‘coffee’ to ‘banana’ to ‘and’ etc. Of course, there exists a chronological order of these videos but even after completion they are not accessible in such an order. This may be seen as an oversight on Barlow’s behalf, but rather it emphasises a priority of experience in the moment. To allow an accessible chronological account would be to allow the strictures of organisation and rationality to overcome the structures of feeling the game so successfully develops. It would be a pointless feature that would only allow people to overcome anxieties of uncertainty rather than embracing them.
At frequent intervals a reflection of the character or avatar will be seen on the screen. Before the concluding reveal – that the character, the reflection, is Sarah the daughter of Hannah/Eve – I felt a sense of comradery with this reflection, this fellow voyeur. They were my reflection. They – the quality of the reflection is that of an Oblivion character so I could not tell the gender – seemed to be just like me, the player; getting perverse pleasure from unravelling an old, presumably already solved, murder. The revelation recast this unity. My detached theories on the events would not be shared by Sarah. We would not have reacted to the various videos in the same manner. We were not the same. My reflection was not mine. Don’t take it personally, babe, it just ain’t your story.
As Barlow states in his interview with Austin Walker, ‘the player is not the character’. The conclusion serves as a therapeutic shock in which the player’s voyeurism and detachment (essentially, our status as player) is made unavoidable, something like a self-reflexive statement on the fictionality of fiction. This may all seem like obvious banalities but with the approaching preponderance of VR the gap that fiction creates is trying to be shortened with the increased focus on ‘immersion’. There is danger in this confusion of reality and fiction: as Paul de Man writes ‘what we call ideology is precisely the confusion of linguistic with natural reality, of reference with phenomenalism’. In allowing fiction to be seen as reality, reality itself can become altered to fit the schemas of fictions, of ideologies. By consciously referring to the gap between fiction and reality Her Story tends to it, does not ignore it and so is not ideology but art. Her Story, which has been subjected to the tedious ‘is it a game’ discussion, provides a conscious reminder that video games must remember that they are just that; games.