Barlow’s (Her) Story: Interactivity, Immersion, and Authorship

Her Story (2015) is an interactive full-motion video (FMV) game created by independent game designer Sam Barlow. The game consists of a database of video tape excerpts of police interviews accessed through a simulated late-90s desktop computer interface. The viewser types key words to procure excerpts from the database in an inevitably non-chronological order. No premise of the suspected crime is provided. All the clips appear to feature the same woman talking on different days (as indicated by her change of clothes) about her missing boyfriend. The viewser’s gaming experience, therefore, comprises of listening to video clips with no prior context, searching for more using recurring key words, and ultimately trying to tease out a narrative from the scrambled database. The only instructions provided are on how to operate the diegetic “computer program,” which are also embedded into the diegesis as a ReadMe file on the simulated desktop.

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This use of a ReadMe file is exemplary of Barlow’s overall attempts at literally suturing the viewser’s actions into the fabric of the diegesis. Taking this By constructing the screen space as a desktop screen, Barlow also potentially co-opts the spatial arrangement between viewer and device into the diegesis itself.  As a result, unlike a console-based RPG, or a voting-based IC like Kinoautomat (Radúz Činčera, 1967), Her Story frames the viewser’s navigation of the database as a diegetic act itself, with minimal transcoding. This effect is, of course, most pronounced when the game is played on a desktop as well, and far less so on a smartphone screen. Nevertheless, even on a smartphone, the enfolding of the screen-spectator relation into the diegesis has an uncanny effect.

Barlow goes further, simulating the glare of fluorescent lights onto the computer screen, and even writing the ReadMe file from the point of view of a character who has provided the viewser’s diegetic persona with access to the database. As the viewser moves closer to solving the mystery, the lights flicker, revealing fleeting reflections of persona’s face on the computer screen. This is the kind of immersion that Jenna Ng, citing Laurie N. Taylor in her essay “Fingers, Futures, Fates”, would describe as both diegetic and “situational” (3). That is to say, the viewser is not only immersed into the diegesis of a police procedural as in a non-interactive film, but furthermore, they are also immersed in the (intra-diegetic) actions they under take to propagate the work. In effect, Barlow sutures not only the viewer’s gaze but also their actions and, to a variable yet significant extent, their physical relationship to the screen.

In her work, Ng also explores the temporalities of non-interactive and interactive works, and contrasts the past-ness of conventional narrative cinema with the emphasis on the present that characterizes interactivity (3). With its minimalist interface that explicitly and diegetically codes the database as pre-recorded, Her Story inadvertently serves as an apt illustration of Ng’s schema. The game’s (non-interactive) video clips are diegetically significant only as indexes of the past. Note that these are indexes to the second degree, as the interviewee(s) recount events that would have taken place even earlier (diegetically speaking). By the same token then, the act of navigating this “database of the past” firmly grounds the (diegetically transcoded) actions of the viewer in the realm of the present. Thus, even this tripartite temporality experienced by the viewser is inextricably enmeshed into the work’s situationally and diegetically immersive impulses.

It is important to note however, that for all its situational immersion, Her Story features only one discoverable ending. What varies, then, is the procedure of navigation and permutation of database elements required to arrive at the end. With that in mind, to what extent can we consider Her Story as a work of shared authorship between designer and viewser? Can we really consider it as what Söke Dinkla in “The Art of Narrative” calls a “floating work of art”? Is the author dead here in the Barthesian sense?

That hardly seems the case when Barlow’s intricate calibration of design, choice, and chance (See Marsha Kinder, “Designing a Database Cinema”) purposefully delimits the game’s interactivity to such a severe extent. Another single-ending interactive work, Kinoautomat, reveals the end of the story at the outset, thereby privileging the interactive experience as the carrier of sub-textual meaning. On the other hand, a multi-end game like the Cold War thriller Papers Please (Lucas Pope, 2013) privileges interactivity by letting the user pick political allegiances which steer the story in manifold ways.  Her Story, instead, privileges narrative closure, with the interactivity serving primarily as a suturing element.

Exploring the game’s database after the mystery is solved may add depth to our understanding of the characters, but in no way does the viewser’s actions shape the text as in Papers Please, and neither does it carry allegorical significance in the vein of Kinoautomat. While Barlow does explore radical points of contact between interactive form and immersive phenomenology, the lack of multiple endings seems at conflict with the conspicuous use of the interviewee-as-unreliable-narrator. As a game that initially points towards an epistemological true crime IC in the vein of Errol Morris or Rashomon (Kurosawa, 1950), Her Story gradually eschews aesthetic-ideological unity as it circumscribes the text to its paradoxically definitive “ambiguous” denouement.

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