This interview is part of our Road to the IGF series. You can find the rest by clicking here.
Her Story is a game about trust.
Players have to figure out how and when to trust the central character (ably played by musician, gymnast and now FMV game actor Viva Seifert) in Sam Barlow's 2015 crime fiction game; Barlow himself had to trust that most players would make their way through the game's protean structure in a satisfying fashion.
That trust seems to have paid off, as Her Story was warmly received by critics and won a bunch of awards last year,
Now the game is nominated to win a few more honors at this year's Independent Games Festival, including the prestigious Seamus McNally Grand Prize.
Here, Barlow opens up a bit more to Gamasutra about why the game was made, how he came to be a game developer in the first place and how he wound up using two dusty old VHS players to create one of the most feted indie games of 2015.
Let's start with the easy stuff: What's your background in making games?
So I used to noodle around with game making as a youngster back on my Amstrad CPC -- BASIC, Graphic Adventure Creator, then assembly in the Maxam compiler. I made Laser Squad clones, Harvey Headbanger clones and lewd text adventures for my friends.
That sounds like it could have potentially been very awkward!
When I say lewd, the lewdness was directed at the friends -- so commonly you'd play the part of one of my friends in a quest to procure romantic affection. The puzzles would usually force them to put themselves through more and more humiliating ordeals. We were watching stuff like Rik Mayall's Bottom at the time, so if you extrapolate that kind of humour and situation, you can probably imagine the kinds of things. That said, I think it gave me a taste for a somewhat adversarial relationship with the the player, designing things to make them complicity in sequences that weren't necessarily 'fun.'
At university I discovered the second coming of the interactive fiction scene, centered around Inform and TADS and stuck my toe in there, putting out a game called Aisle which was my first decent, publically distributed thing. A nonlinear story telling game set in the real world -- take note!
But I never really thought about this as a career. A few years later I was looking for a job after an aborted attempt to join the dot com boom in America. A friend suggested I try out as an artist for games and I applied to every company in the UK. Two of them responded and I ended up at Climax working on Serious Sam.
Fast forward a few years and I'm writing for the Silent Hill series and creating the gun-less narrative game of my dreams. In 2014 I decided to go independent because I wanted the rush of making that kind of game again, and it didn't seem like conventional publishers were going to enable that. That led to Her Story.
What development tools did you use to build Her Story?
Unity, Final Cut Pro, Fade In, Google Docs and two dusty old VHS players.
Yeah, let's talk about that. How did you use VHS players in your development process? Why not just use a digital filter?
I looked at using filters, etc. but it didn't quite look right -- and it was tempting to over-do the effect to make it work. So I went with the simpler, 'brute force' approach of piping the footage out of my Mac and onto real VHS tapes, which I could re-record a few times, and then back into the computer.
It did give development a slight unpredictability, like water colour painting. You couldn't get the glitches or pops to happen when you wanted, you just had to cross your fingers and embrace whatever came out the other end after a few hours of taping.
I remember reading the the Alien Isolation team came to a similar conclusion and used real VHS players to achieve the effect in their game. Great minds, etc.
How much time have you spent working on the game?
It was about 14 months from firing the firing pistol to clicking the launch button on Steam and iTunes.
How did you come up with the concept?
I kept thinking until I had an idea that was good enough to justify the risk. I kept having to fight the urge to make an indie Silent Hill: Shattered Memories - that felt like a compromise.
I started to focus on the idea of a police procedural and then the idea of making a game about police interviews. I did a ton of research -- reading, watching, more reading. And at some point my subconscious popped out the idea: video footage + database searches. It developed from there.
How did you balance the database search, as a game mechanic? I imagine it must have been tricky to design it so that most players would experience a satisfying path through the clips.
Well, I went into it knowing that I would have to ensure a certain amount of layering in the story, a number of different contexts and perspectives... that way, whatever the order you discover the pieces in, there's always a bunch of different ways to view them, so it will be satisfying.
I also did number crunching to ensure that -- on a simple level -- the script was 'well balanced'. I had the computer calculate how well connected clips were, looking at how often words were used and which clips were 'easiest' to discover, etc.
I fiddled with the script, using this as a guide, until it seemed about as interconnected and well-balanced as it could be and then I had people come in and test it... and it seemed to work!
Why go with FMV?
I'd watched a lot of video footage of police interviews and it just lodged in my head. Video is such a big deal now -- Netflix, Youtube, Vine, etc. Even the ten o' clock news will lead with cell phone footage of events rather than send a film crew. So I was reacting to that, reacting to the way that the video footage allows audiences of millions to vicariously take a seat in the intimate, invasive interviews that these suspects are subjected to.
Once I had that inspiration it made so much sense -- I loved working with performers on my AAA games, that seemed like such a key part of storytelling to me. And I was reluctant to leave that behind, yet I didn't have a million dollar mocap budget. And here was an idea that meant I could not only include performance, but build an experience around it!
Have you played any of the other IGF finalists? Any games you've particularly enjoyed?
I was about to say "yes, loads!" but then realized that actually most of them are on my huge 'must play soon!' pile. The downside of being a busy indie dev! I *did* play the honorable mentions Cibele (video footage and intimate stories!) and Duskers (CRT effect and text input, but also aliens!)
Both of them are excellent games doing interesting things with great execution. If you add them together you might end up with something a bit like Her Story, so I guess there's probably a reason I got around to playing those in particular.
Don't forget check out the rest of our Road to the IGF series right here.