Texts, Interfaces, and the Puzzle Element in Her Story

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Sam Barlow’s 2015 computer game Her Story is barely a game. The interface is an obsolete police database stocked with seven videotaped interviews of a woman accused of a crime, broken up into clips of between ten and ninety seconds. The game is played by typing in words to search through the clips, and the database returns only the first five videos, chronologically, that contain the query. The player pieces together the mystery at the heart of the game in whatever order they choose – the primary cue that the game provides is an initial search term, “MURDER,” – and the game is ‘over’ only when the player decides they have seen enough. As they play, the game’s interface design, along with its thematic focus on liminal and reflective surfaces, incorporates the player into a system of cognitive apparatuses. Critical responses to Sam Barlow’s 2015 video game Her Story were rapturous. The Washington Post called it “the best the medium has to offer;” Rock Paper Shotgun said it “might be the best FMV game ever made;” and in their article proclaiming it the best game of 2015, Polygon’s Colin Campbell wrote “I don't think you will 'read' a better mystery novel this year.” The comparison to a novel is particularly interesting, because the game is in large part shaped by an absent text: the “digitally stenographed” transcript through which the player searches is never directly accessible, and is instead explorable only through the manipulation of video clips whose quality has been artistically degraded through lossy VHS transcoding. The transcript’s absence is compensated for by another text: the “three A4 pages of notes” that Rock Paper Shotgun’s reviewer describes handwriting himself over the course of his playthrough – an experience I shared. This presentation will trace out these two peripheral texts in Her Story – the paper notepad and the inaccessible transcript through which the user searches – alongside an examination of the game’s interface design and thematic concern with mirrors, windows, and other real-life interfaces, to explore how the game imbricates the reader into what N. Katherine Hayles calls a “cognitive assemblage” with itself as database and as text. This experientially unusual mode of ‘reading’ will be compared with traditional works of paper detective fiction, with a focus on how Charles Rzepka’s notion of the “puzzle-element” of the genre constructs a reading subject that is similarly imbricated with their text. I will explore the modes of subjectivity that both digital and virtual styles of ‘reading’ engender, with a particular focus on how the peripheral texts and the interface of Her Story blur the division between the player and the character - pictured only as a ghostly silhouette in the virtually simulated glare of a CRT monitor - as whom they play. Rather than recapitulating the argument that IF provides deeper immersion than traditional fiction, however, this presentation will explore how both media immerse their readers into a system of cognitive technologies, and what kind of consciousness that system might have.

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Vian Rasheed