Id always been reluctant to go indie" - The story behind Her Story

SPOILER WARNING: Story details follow from here...

Big publishers and their aversion to risk makes for a solid, if familiar, backbone to a story, but it’s usually slaved to a simplistic narrative. As a topic, creative stagnation looms large over the videogame industry, spurring talk of an increasingly desolate landscape of numbered sequels and incremental feature bloat. Yet there is a bright side to an undeniable degree of calcification at one end of the market: the stifling conservatism of the disc-in-a-box machine creates a pressure-cooker environment that compresses a certain breed of creative soul until their shelved dreams erupt out into violently original indie games. Narrative high-water mark Her Story is one of them (you can even vote for it in this year's Golden Joystick Awards in eight different categories), and it would not exist as it does today were it not for entrenched publisher thinking.

Of course, that’s still a rough way to enter this world, and the catalyst for the creation of Her Story was no easier on then-Climax Studios game director Sam Barlow. In 2012, he had to watch as his singleplayer Legacy Of Kain revival (subtitled Dead Sun) was smothered in its crib over fears of its viability in a landscape reformed by PS4 and Xbox One. As Barlow puts it, “Part of the climate in which Dead Sun was cancelled was publishers not knowing what the market was going to be like… just trying to understand budgets and all these scary things. You’re seeing publishers shutting down left, right and centre. Things were very risk averse. They still are.”

Barlow had been following his own trajectory for a while, exploring unconventional narrative structures first in 1999 interactive fiction experiment Aisle and more recently in 2009’s Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, and had little intention of adjusting course to stick to safe bets. A year of pitching ideas that almost happened but never quite came to fruition followed, after which he considered a more radical change in approach still. “At that point, I was thinking, ‘What are my options to work on the kind of material I want to work on?’” he says. “I’d always kind of been reluctant to leave behind traditional development and go indie, just because it felt like I would be leaving behind too many things that were useful to me. But I was becoming aware of how jealous I was of games like Simogo make and the stuff Inkle do now. And as I became aware of that, I was like, well, clearly these guys are making things that are really interesting and personal. They’re executed to their fullest. You don’t look at those games and go, ‘If only they had another million dollars…’”

Now all Barlow needed was his idea. With the support of his wife and their savings, he could buy a year of development time. It had to be spent on something he loved, because it might be his last act of rebellion. So what better place to draw from than the publishers’ rejection pile? “I was kind of tinkering with ideas around police procedural crime fiction, because that’s something I’ve pitched lots of times in the past and it never really gets a lot of traction with publishers. In fact, Shattered Memories was originally pitched as a game about being a homicide detective. I guess I was thinking, ‘If I’m going to go independent, I should do the thing I’m not being allowed to do now.’”

Even then, there was a lot he remained undecided on. “I didn’t really know where I was going with it at that point,” Barlow admits. “I didn’t have video in my head. I wasn’t thinking about the database or anything like that. Then I think one day I just woke up, or I was having a walk or something, and the idea popped into my head, which was the combination of the database, it being real video, and this series of police interviews. Once those bits pinged into my head, I [could fathom] it: that approach has a unique aesthetic; the way the database would work would excuse or make a strength of a lot of the issues about using video in gameplay.”

He was also excited that the central search mechanic could be understood by anyone who could use Google. In his pursuit of a style of storytelling that mainstream game businesses found unacceptably niche, Barlow happened to conceive a style of game so accessible that anyone who has ever owned a smartphone or PC would intuitively know how to play it.

There was still a vestige of the traditional designer left in Barlow, though, and while the concept had become more fully formed, it had yet to prove to him that it could stand up without sops to common game design practice. At that point, the plan was to gate footage behind keywords, and turn a procedural drama into a procedure of figuring out set puzzles. That structure would reveal itself as unnecessary when, seeking a way to test his plan, Barlow fed the transcripts of real police interviews into the kind of database he had in mind. The results were electrifying, and one case was formative.

"The final step was taking that dialogue and plugging it into this horrific spreadsheet that kept crashing my laptop."

“A teenage boy had murdered his parents. He’d done it for the inheritance money,” Barlow explains. “I found the police were asking him all these open questions, just getting him to talk about anything, and he did a very good job of not really contradicting himself in a way that would link him to the crime. But everything he talked about – whether [he was asked] what are your favourite movies? What do you do on the weekend? What do you like to eat? How do you get on with your mum and your dad? – all these questions, all of it came back to money. And you would pick up on this, and you would search words and phrases to do with money… It was really interesting and cool that this stuff that hadn’t been at all scripted – just the way language works and the way people talk in these interviews – kind of revealed these themes. Playing that as a player felt slightly magical.”

He wanted his game to capture that feeling, even though it was far riskier to leave the player to see what they wanted, when they wanted. So puzzles were scrapped and Barlow threw himself into creating a storyline that would merge the authenticity of the police interview process with his dramatic tale. One crucial thing was that it had to be a fiction rich enough to sustain the scrutiny of being examined from every angle, which meant creating a web of documents detailing the life stories of every character.

“Once I’d done that, the process of writing the dialogue was fairly straightforward,” Barlow says with the blind modesty of a man consumed by his craft, “because these characters were desperate to have their chance to speak. So that was just me sitting down and letting the characters talk to each other through me. I had a rough map of, on each interview day, this is where the detectives’ heads are at, this is where the people being interviewed are, this is what the detectives have discovered or what they want to pick up on.

“Then the final step was taking that dialogue and plugging it into this horrific spreadsheet that kept crashing my laptop. That analysed every single word that was in the dialogue, checked how often it appeared, and sanity-checked it: are there answers that are given that would be really hard to find through searching? Are there words used way too much, so they essentially become useless? It was very easy for me then to go in and, based on the numbers that were being spat out, prune and sculpt so that I was never at any point scripting a specific path for players.”

Barlow may have shed a lot of what he’d picked up across a decade of mainstream game creation, but he took with him the contact details of an actor he’d worked with on Dead Sun, Viva Seifert. The pair had kept in touch, swapping details of the movies they’d seen with their kids and how often these had made them cry. (“He always cries more than me,” says Seifert. “He’s like, ‘I cried five times in Home.’ I’m like, ‘Wow. I only cried once.’”) With Barlow’s script ready, the talk turned from films to filming.

“He emailed me and he said, ‘I’m going it alone. I’m working on a new project, my own project, and I’ve written a script. At the centre of this script is a character I think you’d be perfect for. Would you be interested?’ And I said, ‘Yes, of course I’m interested. Tell me more.’ Because I’d worked with him before, I already knew I was in good hands, really... What I didn’t know until I got the script was that I was the only character. And that’s when it dawned on me, and that’s when the pressure hit. I realised, ‘Holy shit, I am the game’.”

The pressure on Seifert was immense, but ditto for the man behind the camera. After more than six months of preparation, the shoot had to be turned around in a week. Barlow sourced a few rooms in a council building in Truro, Cornwall, so his actor wouldn’t have to travel far from home. He would also be director, read the detectives’ lines and supply props. The latter proved their own source of pressure, not least because they were so limited. Take Eve’s temporary tattoo. “I think he only had one,” Seifert says. “So when he was putting it on my arm, he was shaking, because it was like, ‘This is it. The tattoo has to be in the right place. It can’t be slightly crooked. And when we peel it off, you can’t pull off bits of the tattoo and make it grubby and childlike.”

Hollywood it wasn’t. And as strange and uncomfortable as it was for the participants, it must have been odder still for the cubicle dwellers overhearing Seifert’s performance. “There were people passing outside and I’m singing with a guitar,” she laughs. “They were probably just thinking, ‘What the hell is going on in there? Filming? There’s only two of you and a camera. What can you possibly be filming?’”

With the film in the can, Barlow’s task became simpler, not least because support from the Indie Fund bought him more time to polish. He dug into fake computer interfaces and the bespoke programs used by police forces to create the LOGIC database. He set up a 3D scene with strip lights and onlooking viewer to provide the atmospheric reflections that appear onscreen during play. Then it was just a matter of pushing the game to Steam and Apple and hoping his massive gamble paid off. After all, who knows what appetite exists for something so unusual?

“I think the night we launched it was number two on Steam,” Barlow says, after admitting to having modest expectations for the game’s popularity. “The only thing that was selling more than it at that point was Counter-Strike, which I think just sells – if you get a Steam account, you have to play Counter-Strike. So, yeah, then it started trending on Twitter, then Apple picked it up and again I wasn’t... I was probably at one point more worried about whether Apple would allow it on the service, because you know there’s so much press these days about Apple not allowing you to explore certain themes in games.”

Of course, there’s more to the tale of Her Story than that. There’s a decade of stories of a brain being honed under the pressures of big-budget game production. But perhaps some things are best left untold. As Barlow says: “There’s the storytelling maxim that you should start your story at the most interesting point in someone’s life, tell that little bit and then get out. A lot of my favourite stories tell the story of the beginning of the most interesting part of people’s lives, and then leave you with questions that allow that character to go on living in your head.

“If you tell the entire story, it’s almost like having a pinned butterfly on the wall… But to give people that space, to let characters carry on and have you thinking that over in your head, is really awesome.”

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