Sam Barlow has never listened to the wildly popular podcast Serial, but he may be creating the closest thing to a video game version we currently have: Her Story, a tale rooted in crime and armchair sleuthing.
Her Story is a Mac and Windows PC title currently gathering votes on Steam Greenlight. Best known for creating games such as Silent Hill: Shattered Memories and Aisle, Barlow is building a new world in which players root through fabricated archival footage at a police station. Their searching will bring them closer to the truth of a woman brought in for questioning about the disappearance of her husband. But the case at hand isn't a new one; players are revisiting tapes from 1994 to draw their own conclusions from a modern standpoint.
These videos are cut into clips. By searching for keywords in the fictional computer database, players will pull back new videos and thus uncover her story.
It sounds a little confusing at first, but Barlow assured Polygon it's as simple as using Google. Players pick up clues and use that knowledge to bring back results. If you thought there was something important about the word apple, Barlow explained in one example, your results might return a conversation about the woman's computer, or perhaps a pie she was baking at the time. The trick is to think of it as a virtual conversation.
"It's a bit like the old Ultima games, where you type in keywords and that's how you had your interactions and conversations," Barlow said. "But it is abstracted because you're actually interacting through this database. It doesn't have the problems when you're trying to pretend this is an actual conversation."
The player's role will evolve as the game progresses — ostensibly the goal is to uncover the specifics of the crime — but Barlow is interested in exploring more than just that moment of action as well. A person's entire life is given over to the spotlight when they're brought in for charges.
"When you're talking about someone who's been potentially involved in a particularly dramatic crime," Barlow said, "you find that their whole life story proceeding that moment has kind of lead up to what happened."
It's not just a person's past that comes under scrutiny, but their every action afterwards, Barlow said. In creating Her Story, he became fascinated with the way the public eye hones in on suspected criminals. He references the cases of Jodi Arias and Amanda Knox, two women who grabbed the media spotlight for murder trials. In both cases, video interviews with these women are readily available on the Internet for public consumption; all you need to do is hop on YouTube.
"the way you're expected to act becomes very specific."
"Millions of commentators are judging how [a suspect] is talking, what she's saying," Barlow said. "[They think they have] some kind of wonderful insight into her entire life based on a bunch of YouTube videos."
Crime, whether it's truth, fiction or some muddled version in-between, is alluring to audiences. Look no further than your own TV for shows that focus on cops and criminals; even as an unusual form of media Serial spread like wildfire during its run, eventually surpassing five million downloads. When people tune in to crime stories, it's natural to get swept up in them for entertainment. This notion isn't lost on Barlow.
"It's very easy for people to instantly take those real-life stories and put them into the shape of archetypes and tropes that they're used to," Barlow said. "A lot of these cases — it seems to be in particular with women as well — the way you're expected to act becomes very specific. People will very quickly decide that someone like Jodi Arias is a femme fatale, and they'll pick up on slight changes in emotions. 'She doesn't seem to be being emotional enough, which she should be in this situation.'
"You have similar things with Amanda Knox. There were photos of her laughing or clips of her laughing, and people instantly said 'Well, that's not normal. She should be crying in a situation like that.'"
"we eat up so much of this kind of crime fiction, police procedural stuff."
Barlow calls these shared police interviews a sort of invasion of privacy — a betrayal. People brought in for questioning are expected to open up intimate details of their life to better explain what happened. When these details are then shared to the public, they often become fodder for entertainment.
"Serial is a great example," Barlow said. "Some of the people I've spoken to said that they almost felt slightly queasy or slightly guilty in the end. This ties into the same thing where we eat up so much of this kind of crime fiction, police procedural stuff. It's such a compelling story. We've kind of gotten to the point now where the line between the real stuff and the fictional stuff is really hard to draw."
With Her Story, Barlow hopes to give some agency back to the star of the game. The answers-only structure is designed in part to give this woman her voice back.
"You only ever hear the woman's testimony," Barlow said. "You only ever hear what she's saying."
Rather than just be a suspected criminal, the character gets a chance to talk through her own life. Barlow is simultaneously exploring what he calls a taboo about over-sharing our own experiences.
"There are whole swathes of life experience, different parts of your life, that it never becomes prudent to share," Barlow said. "There's almost a taboo to sharing some of this stuff ... You slowly rewrite your history and kind of remove some of those things from your life — tweak them or just kind of blur them to shift them into a peripheral view."
As for what players will uncover in Her Story, there is a big picture there. The specifics are a little more muddled. It's pretentious, Barlow jokes, but it's a bit like looking at a piece of art.
"It's more about the journey you take to get there," Barlow said. "Although you might end up assembling the same pieces in the end ... there's this more kind of exploratory way of being involved with what's going on."