Sam Barlow on visionary indie game Her Story

Catching critics off guard with its quality and invention, this year The Skinny was blindsided by interactive detective drama Her Story. Developer Sam Barlow tells us about his fresh and intelligent take on videogame storytelling.

Feature by Jack Yarwood | 20 Aug 2015
  • Her Story

In the past Sam Barlow had made a name for himself working on titles in the Silent Hill series, including Silent Hill Origins and Silent Hill: Shattered Memories. The latter title was particularly influenced by psychology, with much of the game being set in a psychiatrist’s office. This focus on a formal setting combined with an intimate discussion of a person’s history was something that would be carried over into Barlow’s more recent work, the critically acclaimed Her Story.  

“Once I had decided that I wanted to go make an indie game, I was kind of trying to figure out what that game should be,” Barlow begins. “The easiest thing for me to go out and make would have been an exploratory, atmospheric horror game, with some clever narrative twist to it. There’s that whole kind of genre that, I think, has become quite prevalent amongst indies. Dropping a player into a dark atmospheric environment with a flashlight is quite easy to do, but that almost felt too easy.”

Inspired by Simogo games and their unwavering creative vision, Barlow set out to build a police procedural game, a concept he had previously struggled to get off the ground when working with publishers. This became Her Story, an interactive videogame, where players piece together the details of a single case using found archived interview footage on an ageing police computer. “I’d pitched publishers the idea of doing a detective game many times over the years,” says Barlow. “It just always seemed to me like an obvious thing. If you look at movies, TV, books, half of this stuff is police shows or murder mysteries or serial killer shows. It’s such a big thing, but games have kind of struggled with it. I wanted to make a police procedural and in my head I had kind of zoomed in on the idea of the interview route. It felt that that was the kind of thing to do, because I was reducing scope. If this is a game that’s taking place in the interview room then I don’t need car chases, lots of locations, and tons of characters, so that would be a sensible thing to do. 

“The interview route is the ultimate gladiatorial arena for the homicide detective" – Sam Barlow

He continues: “But at that point I didn’t really know what the game was. I was just thinking, ‘that’s an interesting scenario,’ and like when I did Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, a lot of that was concerned with a therapy session. Those sorts of formal interviews, they kind of interest me because there is this combination of formal rules in a formal setting with a more intimate discussion of people talking about their lives. It’s quite an interesting set up.”

Once he had settled on this idea, it was time for him to become invested in the genre. This was surprisingly easy for Barlow due to his earlier fascination with cop dramas as a teenager. In particular, he had been interested in the work of True Crime writer David Simon, and was an avid-fan of the show Homicide: Life on the Streets. Both of these would be influential on the finished game. “That was a show that certainly introduced this idea of the interview route as being the ultimate gladiatorial arena for the homicide detective,” says Barlow. “That would be where all the actors would do all their best acting, as they really tore apart the suspects and stuff. So I was a big fan of that show and coming into making the game that was probably a big influence.”

Another useful resource was the vast library of material published on YouTube by American police departments. This helped Barlow develop a level of empathy that was required to begin writing the script. It also gave him a reference point to draw some much needed authenticity from. “As I was watching all this footage, I started to feel bad because the kind of trick the detectives will play is to try and make the suspect feel as if they are friends,” reasons Barlow. “You’ll see with these suspects, they’ve done something awful, and the reason for that goes back into their lives. They’ve never had a chance to talk about this stuff, so the first time they get to do that is sat in this police room with the homicide detective, who is going out of their way to appear to be a shoulder to cry on, when he just wants to hear their side of the story. So there’s a kind of trick going on there, but at the same time it’s quite intimate and personal having these people sit and talk about their life story and these things that have happened to them that are genuinely quite tough things.”

Her Story manages to tackle several key themes within this framework. One such theme is the concept of familial history. During the interviews in the game, the main character is asked in great detail about her childhood and her family. This element of the game was inspired by the developer’s own interest in the previous generations of his family and the societal pressures that they faced prior to assuming their traditional roles. “I started pulling in things from my own family history,” Barlow reveals. “The ones that were most interesting were the women being accused of murder, partly because the number of women who commit murder is a huge minority. One in ten murders are committed by women, so they tend to be overanalysed or overdramatised by the media. A lot of the time when you see these people being interviewed, the reason they end up committing the murder is usually very intense pressure; political or societal pressures that have created these ticking time bomb situations. It’s all very emotive stuff. 

“Watching these women try to talk about aspects of their lives that they couldn’t ordinarily just made me think about generations of my family, the pressures on them, and how little I probably know of their lives and the stuff going on in their heads. Everyone plays a certain role. By the time I meet my grandmother, she has that very fixed role of being a grandmother, being married to my grandfather. There’s a very strict set of parameters there. All that stuff that happened in their life up to that point, you don’t really know about or is never really something that you could sit and discuss. But you would be able to if you were the detective interviewing them. That made me think about the stuff I don’t know about previous generations of my family. I pulled that in. That began to make it be a bit more personal and steer the direction of it.”

After development on the script was completed it was time to search for a lead actor to appear as the interviewee in the game. Barlow had just come off a three-year project, working on a cancelled title in the Legacy of Kain series, where he had got to work with several talented actors. One such performer was Viva Seifert. Having been impressed with her work on this project, Barlow approached Viva to read for the main role. “Viva’s session was quite memorable, because she walked in, read her line, and it was so good that me and the other people in the room just turned to each other and exchanged this look that was like, ‘Yep, perfect.’ We kind of turned around and sent her out so she wasn’t sure if she’d done something terribly wrong; if it was so bad we just booted her out without any type of discussion or anything.”

Obviously it wasn’t and Viva accepted the role. This meant that she had the challenge of delivering the entire story through her performance. Given the script, she was responsible for making sure the player stayed invested in both the story and her character as events unfold. She achieved this by her subtle use of body language and her ability to convey multiple meanings within her lines. The resulting performance has earned her acclaim from the likes of PC Gamer, The Guardian, and Game Informer, amongst many other notable gaming publications.

Viva’s acting was not the only step to attaining realism in the game. The designers also went to lengths to accomplish a level of period detail, as the video footage in Her Story was meant to look as if it had been originally filmed in 1994. Such details that were considered to improve the accuracy included the clothing worn in the interview, the outmoded look of the computer interface used to navigate the video library, and the video quality itself. “I really got into the aesthetic and trying to make that as authentic as possible,” explains Barlow. “In terms of how much effort went into that – probably a reasonable amount. With the video it was all shot on a modern video camera, but I then piped it through two old video players I got from a second hand shop around the corner. The desktop – I got quite into that and trying to recreate that. I think that was me trying to say to players that this appears to be a very simple thing, but it’s not a cheap thing. I’ve actually taken some care over it, so there’s a level of polish in how I’ve tried to get across that old school CRT thing with the reflective monitor.”

The result of all of the above is a groundbreaking indie title, which approaches storytelling in a way that allows players to finally feel as if they are cunning detectives. Not only is the gameplay simple and effective, the script and performances are compelling and full of talking points that can be discussed and debated for months without end. Her Story is responsible for bringing the underrepresented crime genre back into the limelight, and shows what developers can achieve with a lower budget and little interference from a big publisher.