Video games’ interactive nature can create experiences that other media can’t quite replicate, but one genre where they’ve typically come up short is detective work. The mind is a remarkably elastic and unpredictable thing, and an obvious leap of logic for one person is a game-halting conundrum for another, which makes it immensely difficult to craft an investigation game that’s satisfying and enjoyable for a wide swath of people. Her Story, from Silent Hill: Shattered Memories scribe Sam Barlow, is easily one of the best detective games in recent memory (perhaps ever) not only because it allows for a variety of different brains, but also because it assumes you have one.
That’s not to say that other games focused on investigation treat you like you’re dumb, they just treat you like you might be dumb. Or at least, not very good at following whatever particular line of logic that the game developers hope they’ve made obvious enough to lead you to the conclusion they want you to reach. The result is that you get hammered over the head with clues, hints, and inelegant shoves in the right direction, oftentimes allowed to exhaust all of your options without consequence to ensure that you stay on the right trail.
Batman is “the world’s greatest detective,” but the actual gumshoeing you get to do in his games basically comes down to finding the right objects and then letting Bats tell you what to do next. Solving mysteries in the Phoenix Wright games takes little more than a willingness to plough through all the dialog options until you stumble across the right one. One of the largest criticisms against police tale LA Noire was that you could get an interrogation wrong, thus permanently closing off avenues of investigation. While that’s realistic (and in my view, quite interesting), it’s not hard to see why many players found it frustrating, especially given the game’s fairly obtuse lie-detection system. “Detective work” in most games is mechanical, which is what makes Her Story’s reliance on intuition such a revelation for the genre.
Her Story takes a very simple approach to detective work, but in stripping away everything except the interrogation of a suspect, it allows you, the investigator, to really put your mind to work in whatever way makes the most sense for you. The point of the game is to review video clips from a series of 20-year-old police interrogations during a murder investigation, piecing together the truth from the jumble of information in the database. The clips are stored out of order, so you need to work your way through them by performing keyword searches. You’re given a suggestion of where to start - “murder” - but after that, it’s entirely up to you to decide which lines of inquiry to pursue. Most clips give you some amount of new information, be that names, events, or objects, but you have to use your intuition to latch onto the important things and ignore the rest. Sometimes your searches come up empty, sometimes they lead down blind alleys, and sometimes they unearth another breadcrumb that leads you a tiny bit closer to the truth - though it’ll probably take several days of deep pondering for you to decide what that truth really is.
Despite the fact that it’s told in pieces and in a completely unpredictable order, the plot of Her Story makes total sense, which is a narrative marvel all by itself. But what makes it such a wonderful detective experience is that it allows for such immense cognitive freedom. You’re not constrained by dialog options or inventory items; you’re not stuck revisiting locations to make sure you picked up whatever doodad you need in order to progress. The only thing standing between you and the evidence is your ability to think; and by “think,” I don’t mean “think the way the game designer wants you to think,” I just mean think.
Games have been asking you to solve puzzles for years, but Her Story’s conundrums aren’t about matchsticks or physics or codes - they’re about human behavior and communication. Your own cleverness is the main gameplay element, and having that rewarded with success, measured by unearthing new lines of investigation, is thrilling. Despite the fact that all you’re doing is watching a woman on a recreation of an ancient computer desktop, Her Story is an extremely exciting detective adventure, because it taps into your knowledge of actual people, as opposed to your reflexes or your ability to hunt for pixels. Human insight is the greatest tool a detective has, and Her Story is great at letting you use it.