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Her Story: The unreliable narrator

Game design

The unreliable narrator: a vital and invaluable storytelling device for the fiction writer. It has been severely underused within the context of videogames. In a medium that places so much confidence in the player’s ability to make choices and to guide the character, it becomes difficult to play narrative tricks on someone who is guiding the experience.

Here is what makes Her Story a revelation in videogame storytelling. We’re dropped into a computer database and it is immediately uncertain whether we even possess any form of interaction. There are video rolls of a suspect in a murder investigation and we become voyeurs to the case. We’re given one unstable subject and through her words, piece together bits of evidence to decide, largely for ourselves, the truth of her story.

That the narrative is forged in ambiguity means that it takes some very careful writing to keep it compelling. And it is absolutely pinpoint precise writing, by necessity littered with keywords and terminologies that will spur our search through police records and lead us careening through the extending series of brief monologues.

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The alluring Viva Seifert is a compelling actor, proven out through her singular performance that carries the entire weight of Her Story. After we are introduced to Seifert’s Hannah, we’re given the threads that produce a sort of duality. There is the subject of Eve, maybe her sister, maybe a multiple personality, maybe a fragment of Hannah’s imagination, and I’m sure everyone will find that the entire breadth of video can support whatever claim they find.

That is the beauty of Her Story. It exists within some medium that is constantly trying to define the ‘player’s story’. While many titles find that this outcome is best reached through extending player choice, it speaks to the power of storytelling that Her Story handles the challenge through obfuscating our interaction.

Mentally we become incredibly connected to our subject. We begin to care about her upbringing, her friends, her husband, her psychology, everything that she is about, and there are not very many comparisons to strike within videogames, where we primarily connect only with an avatar.

What is most remarkable is that even given the choice to unwind the narrative as we desire, permitting that we find the entire story, we’ll all reach familiar conclusions as they were written. These all had to have been expertly weaved into the plot to the point where there could be no question about their connection to every other part. Consider writing an extensive series of monologues and allowing someone to pick them up as they choose and there is a great need for cohesion and pacing and more so than anything else, writing becomes the precedent of the work.

That we can count several viable outcomes for Her Story speaks to the range of what has been accomplished here. This is narrative distrust taken to the logical extreme. We’re never given any reason to trust Hannah, Eve, whoever, and so don’t, and beyond all this, we’re still able to attach to this potential murderer all these significant human-like qualities, and isn’t that something?

Her Story leads down a path where videogame storytelling can emerge not through mechanical evolution but through limiting player involvement and allowing creators to tell a story. It proves that to create the unreliable narrator, that prized literary concept, sometimes the best thing we can do is to take away control.

The author of this fine article

is an Associate Editor at Thunderbolt, having joined in July 2007. Get in touch on Twitter @Calvin_Kemph.

  1. Corry

    19th November 2015

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    This is a great point, and something I was thinking about recently when I started seeing posts about the 360 degree cameras that are coming out. Some people are speculating about amazing “sandbox movies” that can be viewed with VR devices like the Oculus Rift.

    Consider how unreliable our own perspectives can be when we get to decide where the camera points instead of being locked into a perspective by the game engine. Consider the amazing replay value of that kind of experience when integrated into a “player choices matter” game. It’s really exciting stuff.

    Anyway, thanks for a good read. :)

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