Breaking Her Story by Sam Barlow

[..] the important thing is respect, honesty, appropriate listening, and the power and responsibility of negative and positive thinking
– Jeremy Douglass, talking about Aisle by Sam Barlow

Consider Her Story by Sam Barlow, a mostly non-problematic, ideological sandbox of (Mr. Barlow’s) ideas surrounding witness testimony in a modern, Gaming context. Portions of this level were remixed copy-pasta from Mr. Barlow’s site

Side note: two gracious pingbacks from Sam Barlow to Alien Fiction are currently missing. (Wonder if this involved strictly fiscal calculations not to ‘muddy the waters’ in players minds regarding Her Story’s simplicity and genius.) The first ping was a response to / about Her Story being remotely Ballardian – which it now turns out it isn’t

The second concerned games throwing out the Kitchen Sink too – that is, not appealing to false myths of ‘removing all excess (ideological) gaming baggage’ and therefore leaving some ‘pure’, mythic ‘essence of gaming'; splash it all over

Her-Story: video splash
Her-Story: VHS video splash

So what is it?

Nothing too threatening. Her Story is the hot new video game from Sam Barlow, ‘creator’ (writer and designer) of Silent Hill: Shattered Memories and Aisle, an ‘interactive fiction’. A crime game with ‘non-linear storytelling’, Her Story revolves. A police database full of live video footage. It stars Viva Seifert, potential actress and one half of the awkwardly talented band Joe Gideon and the Shark. It’s due to release early in 2015 on PC, Mac and iOS. The game is currently on Steam Greenlight but don’t let that put anyone off

Conceptually muffled testimony: Her Story

How does it Work?

Her Story ‘grants players access’ to a police database of crappy archived VHS video covering seven dull interviews from ’94. Some skinny ‘British’™ woman is interviewed by detectives about Trevor, her bland missing husband. Players take on the role of the poor temp sat before a computer terminal, their own computer roleplaying the part of fictional computer Geoff 0/1. They just type search queries and the database returns clips of the answers where the woman speaks those words. Sounds a bit wack

Sam Barlow, ‘creator’, basically says ‘if you can Google, you can play Her Story.’ The barely-mechanic of searching for clips in the database is so simple that anyone can Pick Up And Play. A mechanic that also reveals an ideology of alleged richness and complexity. At times it might well feel like you’re engaged in A Genuine Dialogue with this woman and Her Story

And yet – just like Google and the Youtube search results it spews forth mindlessly / automatically – it’s a non unique way to interact with a standard narrative, a slightly uninteresting way of viewing unstimulating, monotonous and tame narratives – yet something that can (apparently) only be done ‘Interactively

Referring to the use of live action video – an anomaly in modern games – Barlow says “The aesthetic is True Detective via Blair Witch.” (So overrated Amerikan nonsense meets low budget cheese fest.) Also, too much talk of Aesthetics® nowadays masquerades as conceptual depth of meaning; can’t be healthy

While Mr. Barlow is no doubt interested in showing that ‘accessible technologies such as video offer a powerful way for indie games to showcase a performance’, its doubtful whether players or developers would be able to see this without first having read his stated intentions, though what weasel (marketing) words such as ‘accessible’ and ‘powerful’ mean here are as yet unknown

As for ‘performance’ – perhaps what’s more truly being performed in/as Her Story are Sam Barlow’s ideas about what he considers /thinks it’s all about, or should be. That is, the meta-game about how players should regard this game seems as important

Test: give the game to a player ‘blind’ – without them reading (/into) any of the surrounding marketing blurb / conceptual hype – and see what they make of it. (In short, players should be wary of developer Texts about games, as they might make up the truer bulk of the game they think is being played)

Indeed, the following tweet by the developer can be read as suggesting that, whatever the press has to say about what they think about the game, holds more interest and meaning than the ideas of the developer themselves – a hardly confidence inspiring sentiment

Little conceptual confidence in Her Story
Little conceptual confidence in Her Story

Putting a game developer’s commercial spotlight on the vile modern phenomena of the Youtube Jury (in which police forces distribute the footage of intimate suspect interviews for armchair detectives to dissect) surrounding Jodi Arias and Amanda Knox – real life cases where the suspects’ stories get lost amongst the text of cliches and unexamined cultural prejudices that such videos violently elicit through their gaze – is acutely problematic

Perhaps one should carefully examine which particular sides of the sandbox of difficult issues entitled “Her Story” is game developer Barlow standing – how exactly Her Story is a ‘serious game’ directly tied to the criminally voyeuristic, public ocular flogging of women – andor is merely just another electronic triviality showcasing a privileged developer’s pinkywhite male cleverness; just how serious Sam Barlow is suggesting players take / read his game’s Seriousness

Her Story shares many touchstones with Barlow’s earlier games. Its (apparently) non-linear delivery is reminiscent of the fragmented narrative of his allegedly ‘cult’ text game Aisle, which also featured a simple “text” interface that led to apparently ‘hidden depths’

The VHS aesthetic® is familiar from the (award winning) Silent Hill: Shattered Memories – the use of the police interview setting in Her Story (barely) recalling the psychiatric interviews from that (by now long obsolete) game

Also note the game’s bizarrely headless female torso shot (with a hint of cleavage), used as the header image on Sam Barlow’s twitter account. A woman without a voice, reduced to an object. Yet Mr. Barlow states in the tweet below that his game’s main mechanic is ‘listening'; exactly what kind of ‘listening’ going on in Her Story is perhaps the real question players should ask

Headerless header narratives: Her Story
Headerless narratives: Her Story

On (/the idea of) Stories in/as Games

For Sam Barlow, stories in games are “commonly fragile” things. For Barlow, the more authored and scripted, the more systemic, the more easily they break. Whereas a movie or a book can be truly broken, simply by thinking about the hardware or its audience, games break – and are also entirely made – mostly just through being played

Firstly, consider breaking the way the game’s content is delivered to the player. Chafe against whatever broken narrative paths of time Her Story has been constructed with

Those moments where the player does something that wasn’t expected or carefully enough anticipated, the experience that the designer intended – the ‘nonlinear experience’ the player has been sold on – breaks back into strict linearity

A player deliberately runs what they hope is ‘the wrong way’ in a non-scripted sequence. Then again – and again. Hopefully someone’s having Fun. Now the book of your game suddenly has its pages stuck together (!) and suddenly the player no longer quite believes they are quite the slick matinee idol once thought they were

Instead, offer up better solutions to the false problems that the game or its simplistic interface has missed, and pretend and though the developer is just another bad actor in the crappy, un-rewound VHS movie of their own game, and has just fluffed his lines again

You may now more safely feel safe about knowing this character has indeed probably attended game development school, and passed with the highest marks in their class

Wandering across their digital wasteland (skipping the way-points on your quest-book) you accidentally wander into the game – still currently an empty set waiting for its characters to be teleported in when the story triggers say it’s time. Yet someone forgot to successfully green-screen the actors into the bootleg screener you’ve downloaded, and the edges of the cardboard background are showing

Trying to impose a controlled order of “nonlinearity” on a story whilst also letting a player loose is a constant struggle – sooner or later you must break the story, break the game, and especially break the idea of the ‘developer-as-author / rockstar auteur

Keep it vague, keep it safe

As much as any designer who wants to deliver An Authored Experience, such false problems are too often dealt with, or swept under the rug by keeping on’s game entirely too open to interpretation. (The idea however is to have an open mind, not one so open that one’s brains fall out)

Yet if players don’t do what we want them to do (whilst believing in the myth of Free Will) developers can paper over the cracks with invisible collusion, or make that screenshot brighter, or throw in some instructive dialogue about the game before its release that’s even more on the nose

But there’s always a tension here, because when it comes to “developing” these moments there’s always voice inside that nags: “Isn’t the player’s ability to Not Do Stuff a big part of modern postmodern interactivity?”

Even when the player’s actions aren’t detrimental, developers are too often guilty (often with encouragement from publishers) of trying to steer the player back on track to extreme openness and nonlinearity – they stuff ‘their’ games with handly helpers who tap players on the shoulder:

“Hey! Listen! Aren’t you also supposed to exploring elsewhere? This is an ideological sandbox after all, allegedly open to interpretation at any nonlinear nodal dislocation! That’s where we want you spent money; on the idea our game can say anything you want it to”

Even before release, such games have already become the Postmodern Cliff Notes versions of themselves

There are genres which ideological benefit from being clamped down and having their narrative heavily secured against player breakage. The puzzle game is one; here the point is to bang your head against the walls of the designer’s mind

However, any games that aren’t in the puzzle genre turn their stories into puzzles as they (apparently) open up all the hatches against naughty players. These are frequently narratives of war, where the causality is the ability to say anything direct and true about a story

Likewise, Her Story is all about making players feel it’s about ‘throwing out baggage and making something pure’. Beginning again, afresh,  on an off-world colony of apparently total(izing) nonlinearity and extreme ‘openness’. Such a misreading however is naïvely simple

Her Story appears to be trying for something that Sam Barlow has previously pushed against: a narrative game that wants to be broken, but which is still already broken in its dubious assumptions

If Her Story is an “antifragile narrative” (Naseem Nicholas Taleb), it’s game that works® (Capitalistically) by – that benefits from – actively avoiding the idea that players cannot break its (allegedly) nonlinear narratives since they’re somehow already open and broken

Despite Sam Barlows arguments to the contrary, Her Story still appears very much conditioned by how things are normally done. A game that could be constructed as a puzzle, that puzzle only reinforcing its alleged mystery

If only one could eliminate trivial frustrations, Barlow mis-reasons, then that which remains – the frustration of figuring out what the game’s actually about – would be worthwhile

But now as modern players evolve, they realized more and more that such strictly nonlinear ‘postmodern authorship’ isn’t necessary. Yes, there is still the task of figuring out What It All Means, but at least it doesn’t have to designed into just another strictly linear series of roadblocks and puzzles (eg. Her Story?) Yet this narrative is entirely part and parcel of The Game Of Her Story – in fact it exists entirely inside, as the game

This means that players can short circuit, interfere with and break the story Sam Barlow has so carefully designed as ‘open and nonlinear’. That they entirely free to reject the (strictly paid for) freedom he’s giving them – that actively encourages them to explore

As he develops Her Story, Barlow is indeed still very much crafting a linear narrative in terms of set-ups and pay-offs and pacing – but just dressed up as something three-dimensional where the inter-connectedness and spatial qualities of The Story matter most. Yet “The Story” is (also) the story of this alleged three-dimensionality

Alien Fiction doubts that this will create something of much genuine interest. It might also be something that as in strict ideological tune with the times as anything else: that is, by talking that thin, loose jive about ’embracing the chaos’, developers are still deliberately safeguarding and protecting the Authored linearity that is ‘under threat’ in/as this multi-screen, data-rich world (of desperate illusions)

It’s difficult to say, in the final as well as initial analysis, what Her Story is setting out to do. If the point was simply to experiment, as with the classical IF form, this was clearly a successful effort

But the introspective nature of the game leads one to believe that the point is to portray a character and paint her emotional portrait, and the effectiveness of that aim turns on the player’s reaction

For those who don’t care for the protagonist or for her behaviour, Her Story might get old fast, and there isn’t much flexibility for the player to try to send the player in different directions or otherwise change their ways

The lack of any sort of cathartic finale also means that the story always feels incomplete: the player is likely to try a series of options, eventually conclude there’s little more to see but more of the same and quit, with no particularly resonant ending – or beginning – to make the whole thing more emotionally satisfying. Perhaps that’s the point, though Her Story doesn’t actually seem deep enough on headed police notepaper to Warrant such a hypothesis

Her Story seems a partially interesting idea that has its moments, and it’s worth a look for anyone interested in the odd theories of so-called ‘interactive’ fiction. Its effectiveness depends on whether it makes a True Emotional Impact, however, and without one, it might be a dreary virtual experience at best

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Oldschool Left 4 Dead 2 mods: remembering Telius 7

There’s an oldschool Left 4 Dead 2 mod that reminds one of an imaginary location deep within player Robert What‘s version / perception of the/a Big Science polyverse

Telius 7 is a quiet planet with beautiful skies of purple tinged blue. There are mountain ranges with fantastical views, deserts of secrets and large, isolated lakes of crystal water. Nothing lives here, but neither does anything die. There’s no sun, simply a crescent moon that hangs alone in a silent sky of permanent dusk, high above the stark dead trees and odd, perfectly rectangular patches of bare ground that remind one of carparks. An evocative, contemplative non-place, perfect for travellers of deep virtual space who require somenowhere to electronically meditate on the artificial natures of the hypermodern unrealities of the video real. Zombies – often used to give the place a hint of existential spice and aesthetic contrast – are of course available upon request

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Alan Vega / Suicide – Ghost Rider

Right off the rusty nail-studded bat, a warning: a muddy pulse – heavy repetition. Martin Rev at the controls, dealing out the code. We awake to find ourselves like Kyle Reese (with the One Thirty Second under Perry, ’21 to ’27) running hard down some filthy dark alleyway of the near future dystopian megacity in the hard slap middle of The Nth Century Prime. No time. Out of luck, options or choices and thankfully love. Only cold digital steel and a steely-eyed sense of style. Alan Vega on stage, where he was born, challenging Elvis by way of Sal Paradise on cheap amp. Showing how it’s done. Flared Jerry-Lee collars. He twitches as though electrified by fate, moves with Kabuki-precise, driven purpose – smoking a cigarette  like reality itself just called Last Call at the bar and he was about to (once again) eject himself back out (ie. deeper into) hyper-digital antispace

Varying degrees of warp, detracking, magnetic damage, decolorization, smearing, paranoia, and other glitches assault the cheap tape from which this awesome concert was ripped. Dark rings of pain and acute artistic intent around his eyes, Alan rapid-scans the frozen darkness immediately beyond the flare of the surrounding sentinel studio lights which provide no heat. Flashing like Sarah Fawcett in Saturn 3 on Blue Dreamers. The way Alan tightly draws his elbows in, a musical Karateka, before delivering another devastating switchblade line like it was raw electronic judgement. The way he wraps his hand around the mike chord (a gesture later used to effect by researchers like Rollins)

A matter how you much you can take and how much you can feedback. Damaged stars in the universe – a sudden echoing cry sounds out into/as the night. Shake it out, deal with it. Deals long done before we arrived on the Scene with our flash bulbs, press kits and placeholder philosophy about What It All Means

Evoking The Video Real

The task is.. not so much to see what no one has yet seen; but to think what nobody has yet thought, about that which everybody sees
~ Erwin Schrödinger

Evoking The Video Real in Psychotronic Video Gaming

To Evoke The Video Real (eg. in Psychotronic Video Gaming):

To recall, arouse, conjure or awaken the particular (future nostalgic) ambiguous hyper-realities and imploding semiotic-aesthetic gestures, abstract representations and altered states of / suggested by (glitchy / janky VHS) Video – often with pelicans

Examples of electronic play experiences which ‘evoke the Video Real‘:

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