“I think people are perverts. I’ve maintained that, that’s been-that’s the foundation of my career.”
It’s unsurprising that this is Fincher’s philosophy on human beings. His films are mostly crime-fiction thrillers that revolve around the depravity of people, whether murderers or Silicon Valley brats, filmed in sleek yet eerily sickening noire tones and shots. His craftsmanship as a director, as a weaver of visuals, has mostly shielded him from being criticized in terms of narrative, themes, and characters. And if we pulled that shield aside, what we’d find is empty voyeurism. Vapid, nihilistic perversion.
It’s hard not see hints of this philosophy in Sam Barlow’s Her Story, a full motion video (FMV) detective game. In the game, the player has to go through early 90s video footage of police interrogations of a woman named Hannah Smith, whose husband has been murdered. The entire concept is that you, nameless-until-the-ending character, are going through the footage on the police constabulary’s old computers. Because of an apparent “flooding” of the station’s archives, the footage has been cut into snippets and jumbled around. The only way to unravel more footage is to type words into the system’s search engine, which reveal specific clips that relate to whatever word you type in.
Here lies the game’s main interactive concept, one which I found impressive, yet sadly wasted. The game gives you a keyword at the start, “MURDER”, and from there, the game slowly unravels, not via the world and space provided by the game, but via your own head (and a notepad and pen you might have by your side). There’s a sense of tangibility because of this. Writing down whatever clue you may have encountered on a piece of paper or in a Word document is far more interesting than going through boring, predictable systems and interfaces, like in Team Bondi’s L.A. Noire, a game bogged down by vague, repetitive, and binary forms of detective work. Typing in new words, rewinding and saving clips instill feelings of groundedness. This illusion is helped by subtle visual and aural touches, from computer screen flare to cop car sirens lighting up the room and filling it with brief jolting noise.
Unfortunately, this sense of grounding can only be found aesthetically and interactively. Her Story’s, erm, story is pure airport novel pulp that desperately tries to present itself as an introspective and mundane human drama. This is very much a Sam Barlow joint, whose most well-known work, the overrated Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, reveled in similar pretentious pseudo-psychology, heavy-handed metaphors, and literary and pop culture references that seem to exist only to prove how much of a dilettante he is. Her Story mostly magnifies these traits in terms of their obnoxiousness, with flaccid attempts to make Hannah “human”. Oh, she spilled her coffee. Oh look, a conversation about her childhood. Oh look at her, playing a soft ballad that hilariously sums up the game’s themes. Isn’t she so charming? Isn’t she real?
No. Not even Viva Seifert, the actress who plays Hannah Smith, can save the game’s stilted writing. Her Story is about gawking at a distilled and overwrought cliché. As Jed Pressgrove points out in his review, it’s a “play off the overused ‘crazy bitch’ trope”. As much as the game tries to tell us that Hannah and her story is authentic, grounded, real…Hannah is not human. We are always pushed to perceive always her as otherly, as this “thing”. This thing that talks about family but only as something to create manipulative intrigue, not enlightenment, not humanity. This thing that talks about fairy tales and dollhouses, attics, reflections, mirrors. All of these things are nothing but lazy, empty metaphors and motifs to draw in the audience, typing away new terms and phrases that will lead to new clips with lazy, empty metaphors and motifs.
When you watch the clips from the final interview session, you’ll realize that the game leads to nothing but familiar and boring twists. A twist that anyone who’s read or watched any crime thriller from the past 50 years can recognize from the start. One that solidifies the fact that Hannah exists to cause discussion — not about her character but about theories worthy of multiple forum posts (which I presume already exist somewhere). Not to mention a tinier twist right at the “end” of the game that will make anyone who played and disliked Shattered Memories chuckle in disbelief.
For a game so desperate in presenting itself as an artifact of reality, so desperate to make itself feel like an experience that unravels in our reality, in our own minds… Her Story doesn’t show any of that in its main character. Instead, much like Fincher, it is merely interested in having the audience look at people as things, as distillations of people, subjects.
That Hannah is the only character in the game reinforces this intention. She is a subject. We are perverts. Witness it, aren’t you thrilled? But also, aren’t you moved? She sang a song there, did you like that? Oh, she’s sick. She’s talking about princesses, her childhood. She’s a person, SHE’S REAL. Can’t you see? She is flesh and bone. She is REAL! Now figure out how much of an “insane” woman she is. Because that’s all she is, and all that Barlow — and you – cares about.
At the very least, Fincher is honest in his disregard for people, for characters, for caring about things. Barlow is stuck in limbo with Her Story, between dramatic manipulation and eagerness to provide “truth”. Perhaps that will continue to be the foundation of his career.
Thanks to Omar Elaasar, Jed Pressgrove, and Shonté Daniels for edits, guidance, and advice.