David Seelow, PhD
Herstory (Sam Barlow, 2015)
Probably the two greatest stories in the history of world literature are murder mysteries. Oedipus, searches for the murder that brings a plague and finds himself at the crossroads of destiny. Hamlet meets a ghost on an ominous night compelling him to revenge a murder whose perpetrator is not certain, but whose disclosure in the mousetrap play brings multiple deaths. Humans seems to love murder mysteries. They make both the high art and the most compelling pop fiction a la Agatha Christie and others. Sam Barlow’s short game Herstory (2015), takes up this ancient, ever popular and compelling form to tell a murder mystery in a new narrative form.
Is Herstory really a game? Is Interactive fiction- a game, or game-like or just a new form of storytelling, i.e. narrative? Both. Like narrative, games reach into ancient history, and what both have in common, at their best, is the power to tell a story. The Epic of Gilgamesh, thousands of years old, started as oral narrative- was then transcribed on clay tablets and onward to the printing press and then the web and now a dynamic web, i.e. an interactive one. For me, Barlow is simply playing with narrative as technology allows; just as Laurence Stern did with Tristram Shandy in the 18th century (Circa 1759) and all great print based writers did as well. The great critic Hugh Kenner beautifully described how novelists explored the “book as book”. Flaubert, Joyce and Beckett each in heir own way pushed the print medium brought about by the Gutenberg Revolution to the limit. In that sense the novel is a kind of game that uses, subverts and extends the rules of the medium. Barlow’s ‘game’ does the same, only now, fiction has been extended by the digital revolution allowing for a new kind of interactivity between reader and story.
Fiction has always had an implied reader and therefore has an inherent interactivity though not the kind of dynamic, reciprocal interaction we think of with video games or interactive fiction per se. Interestingly, Barlow uses the affordances of film as medium for his story. Herstory, also classified as a Full Motion Video (FMV)game, consists of 271 very short video clips that are scrambled like dispersed pieces of a large puzzle. The game’s only character is the suspected killer Hannah Smith played with exquisite nuance by actress Viva Siefert. Although the entire game can play in the time it takes to watch a feature film, I think of the story is much more television than cinema based in the genre of a police procedural. Take an episode from one of Dick Wolf’s Law and Order series and zero in exclusively on the interrogation scene and you have Herstory. However, in the game the two detectives are absent. We see and hear only Hannah Smith and her account of events regarding her missing husband. Space is totally circumscribed like a Beckett play. The player’s action is to search, save and weave together the 271 clips to make sense of the story. In this fashion, the player is very much like the reader of detective stories trying to follow clues and discover the true perpetrator for the crime. What gives the game/interactive fiction its twist is the game mechanic. Players search for video clips stored in a database appropriately called L.O.G.I.C. In other words, Barlow uses the affordance of the Internet to propel the action and drive the player/game interaction. The Internet search becomes the detective’s new tool. Just as great novelists used footnotes to exploit print, Barlow uses the search engine to exploit the digital platform.
Ultimately, the story’s power and innovation come from, to my, mind, whether the mystery can be solved. Edgar Allen Poe invented the detective genre with his macabre and brilliant “The Murders on Rue Morgue,” (1841). In the story, the ‘detective’ C. August Dupin uses his powers or ratiocination- reasoned thought; a combination of deductive and inductive reasoning to solve the mystery. An interesting aspect of the story is Dupin takes up this mystery for his amusement not his profession. He simply likes solving mysteries. It is a game- and a fun one at that. In Herstory, the player is, like Dupin, an amateur detective piecing together video clips into cohesive story using the search engine of digital technology and the aptly named database, but can science really solve the mystery? Can Google really deliver us up to the information we need to solve our various quests? Is Google the road to the truth? Well, flatly no, but that’s me speaking, not Sam Barlow. The answer is for you the reader and prospective player to find out, and the effort is worth the small fee for this game.
Let me end with another definition busting comment. Is Herstory game or literature or both or between the two? Is Herstory modern or postmodern? If modern, you will solve the mystery, if postmodern you will not. In postmodernism or deconstruction, you put together the puzzle and story with one hand, but the other hand simultaneously scatters the pieces, and fragments the story. Dupin, amateur detective, plays for fun, but he loves the truth, and thus plays to win. What about you?
Hugh Kenner, Flaubert, Joyce, and Beckett: The Stoic Comedians. Dalkey Key Press Edition, 2005.