Can video games ever truly be art? That’s a loaded question—one that can lead to quite a lot of heated debate. Some say that treating a game as art means you end up without much of a game at all. If there’s no clear goals, no enemies to kill, what’s the point? If it’s a game, they say it can’t be art. And if it’s art, well, then it can’t be a game. Or can it?
If you use the glowing reviews of Her Story (an FMV murder mystery game by Sam Barlow) as a barometer, it appears the general gaming public’s attitude has shifted. Her Story features sparse gameplay—something games like Gone Home were derided for two years ago—with a focus on story, as its title suggests. The only trouble is Her Story isn’t a good game, much less a good story. Even if people were more willing to accept nontraditional game presentations, applauding whatever happens to be different doesn’t help. But all these reviews hailing Her Story as the best FMV game ever made me realize something: history is repeating.
Back when FMV games first hit the scene in the early ’90s, the reviews were also overwhelmingly positive. They featured real actors! It was like an interactive movie! People were so taken in by the novelty of it all, they overlooked any glaring issues with the game’s story or gameplay. One of my most vivid childhood gaming memories—I think it was 1995—was standing in a Babbage’s with my father. He was holding a copy of Phantasmagoria, which proudly proclaimed just how many discs it spanned right on the box.
“Seven CDs,” he said. “Must be something!”
Phantasmagoria was something, all right.
It’s absurd to assume that a game with enough Full Motion Video to fill seven CDs must be good, but that’s the assumption many people, my father included, made when it first came out. Today, Phantasmagoria is remembered more as a campy, unintentionally hilarious adventure game than the terrifying thriller it claimed to be. I didn’t find this out until years later, however, as my mother vetoed the purchase of a game that was not only marked as mature, but over $70.
Her Story is much more accessibly priced at around $5, but it still suffers from the exact same problems that plagued the FMV games of the ’90s—bad story, clunky gameplay, and the occasional bout of unintentional hilarity. In that sense, Sam Barlow has captured the spirit of the genre beautifully. There’s a reason FMV games died out in the first place, even putting aside other problems. Producing what was essentially a short film on top of a game was costly, after all. Her Story got around that by making gameplay revolve around raw video clips, but the story contained in them is still a mess.
This isn’t the first time Sam Barlow relied on a gimmick to carry a game, either. Silent Hill: Shattered Memories’ biggest selling point was that the game changed based on your actions. Interesting in theory, but in practice it meant looking at a used condom could alter monsters to have large breasts and high heels. I mention Shattered Memories because it and Her Story have something in common: the twists at the end are exactly the same. I won’t spoil the exact nature of the twist, but if you’ve played one game to the end, then you know the twist of the other.
In Shattered Memories, the twist attempts to explain away all the contradictions and plot holes you’ve encountered by retroactively painting them as the sole fault of an unreliable narrator. In Her Story, the twist smashes the teetering Jenga tower of a plot the player was piecing together, rendering the effort useless. By the time I finished Her Story, the question of “what really happened” is replaced by “what was the point,” and neither question has an answer. After uncovering so many video fragments, the game simply steps in to deliver its twist and asks if you understand.
Fans have formed many theories to try and neatly tie together everything you learn in Her Story, but I feel that it’s futile when the game never bothers to present any definitive answers. Those same theory crafting fans might assert that anyone who calls the story terrible simply doesn’t understand or appreciate art. Her Story might indeed be a kind of art, but that still doesn’t make it good.
The perfect scores the game received—some of which also declare it a work of art—worry me almost as much as they annoy me. I’m worried because it looks like we’ve already fallen into the same pit as AAA game reviews—awarding a game full marks for surface appeal without subtracting any points for the underlying flaws in gameplay or story. I’m annoyed because there’s very little real critique given across those same rave reviews. If you’re going to accept that video games can be art, you need to critique them like art. To do otherwise discredits both games as an art medium, and game creators as artists.
What are the problems I see with Her Story, then? Let’s start with the performance delivered by Viva Seifert, who tells the game’s titular story. Seifert’s acting is mediocre at best, but that’s not to say Seifert herself is necessarily a bad actor. Given poor direction and a bad script, even the best can give bad performances.
That brings me to the script. None of what is said on camera sounds natural, even in the context of an interrogation session, but that’s easy to overlook when you’re just listening for the next key word to search. It’s actually quite clever the way Her Story delivers everything in small, nonlinear chunks. That draws attention away from the fact that many of the clues in this mystery ultimately lead nowhere. At one point, your searching even leads to an impromptu acoustic performance, as requested by the police themselves.
Of all the questionable things in this game, the musical number makes the least amount of sense to me. The song lyrics underscore several topics covered in the interviews, but in such a ham-fisted manner that the refrain might as well be “oh-oh, do you get it yet” instead of “oh-oh, the wind and the rain.”
Once I started piecing together the story, I realized the game’s plot was about on par with a Lifetime Original Movie. Actually, no, that’s an insult to Lifetime movies, as I’m pretty sure they’re not as riddled with plot holes and outright contradictions as Her Story. One contradiction in particular stands out to me. I’m doing my best to dance around spoilers, even if I’m admittedly not that graceful, so bear with me here. What I will say is at one point a tapping code used by prisoners of war is mentioned, and then used in other clips. Intrigued, I looked up the key.
I don’t know what I expected with the codes, but it wasn’t an overt mistake. This was a secret code used to communicate for years, yet our mysterious storyteller screws up. You could say it’s just nerves, as opposed to no one bothering to do another take, but there’s a lot of discrepancies throughout Her Story with no real explanation. If I were to list them all, I’d be here all night.
Her Story’s plot revolves around a number of themes—for instance, mirror images—and it beats you over the head with them from one clip to the next, just like in the music number. That makes me suspect Barlow set out with the specific intent to create a work of art. That very rarely works, which might explain why Her Story falls flat in spite of an interesting premise.
That’s what gets me about Her Story. There are kernels of a good game and story scattered throughout all those video files, but it all falls apart. With some revisions and a slightly different approach, such as changing the whole reason behind going through these old interviews, it could have been a great, truly memorable game. Instead, we got yet another flash in the pan that’s already fading from memory.
You may have heard people express the desire to write the next great American novel, but if you look at contemporary reviews of great authors, most were bemused—or even annoyed—by the idea that they were aware of the deeper themes present at all times. All were more concerned about telling a good story. That, I think, is the biggest problem facing the whole notion of games as art. If developers set out to make something with a good story that’s enjoyable to play, the result can be art. If they set out to create ART—in capital letters with a flourish—the result will likely not work either as a game or art.
Regardless of the end product, you can’t try to defend a work by saying those criticizing it just don’t understand art. A person doesn’t need to study years of theory in any given subject to truly appreciate or enjoy it. By dismissing those without extensive training, we succeed only in shutting out a fresh perspective that could have deepened our own understanding of a piece.
So, can video games ever truly be art? I think so, but I also think we can do better.