I’d like to take this opportunity to apologize to Sam Barlow.
I mean, we’ve never met. If we ever did, we’d probably get on well and have a lot of things to talk about. From what I gather, he’s a fan of David Lynch and Luis Buñuel, like me, and seems to have the same reverence for Hitchcock and his storytelling techniques. He doesn’t even know who I am or that I exist, but he seems like a nice enough guy.
And I’ve spent the better part of the last eight years hating him.
Something you’re going to learn about me in exhaustive detail at some point this year, I’m a huge fan of Silent Hill. Well, I’m a huge fan of the first four games. Once the series left the hands of the Japanese team that had created it, sequels were commissioned from developers that seemed to have no idea what they were creating, nor any desire to respect the themes established from those original games. It all started with Silent Hill: Origins, which was seemingly dragged out of development hell kicking and screaming, only to go on to be considered the worst game in the series, to this day.
The lead designer and writer of Origins? A guy by the name of Sam Barlow.
Knowing the background behind what a mess that game was, it’s really hard to fully blame him, but as with most things on the internet, my rage needed an easy target, and to be fair to him, he then went on to work on Silent Hill: Shattered Memories (which was much better received), but even then, it’s difficult to call Shattered Memories a Silent Hill game. Playing it, you can’t help but feel like it’s work thrown at someone that wanted to tell a different story, like a director accepting a popcorn flick to fund his passion projects later.
Her Story is clearly one of those projects.
It’s not perfect by any means. The concept of a police force, even in 1994, having such an ineffectual way of viewing and archiving their videos is a stretch, and the ending reveal will lead most to utter a very simple “why didn’t they just…?” which causes a lot of it to fall apart, but during the short time it took me to finish the game, I didn’t really care. The story demanded my attention the entire way through, rewarding me for the little things I picked up on. It appealed to my basest instincts as a “gamer”; the need to discover and the need to collect everything. Even long after I’d solved the case, I wanted to make sure I’d seen every video, and when I hit a wall, I found a way to cheat. No, I didn’t look up a FAQ or seek any outside help. I cheated in a way that the game clearly put in front of me since the beginning, and made me feel clever for figuring out.
It was very much a case of enjoying the journey instead of the destination, which is typical in most genres due to video games having a history of dumb endings, but to see it in a game of this type, in an interactive movie that has very little actual “gameplay” to speak of, is rare. Ironically, the game is revered less for the story it’s telling than in how it’s being told to you, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Stories in video games are often mocked for being under-cooked or not to the level of other mediums, but the tools with which to tell those stories are still being defined. We’re still growing, and when creators, like, for example, Sam Barlow, aren’t put in boxes and can not only tell the stories that they want, but how they want, we need to be there to reward them, so it keeps happening, so it can get better.
Her Story isn’t the best game I’ve played in years, but I doesn’t need to be. I think we, as critics, tend to want to give participation medals to anyone that even attempts to be different, but I also don’t think that should invalidate what it’s doing. The questions that we need to ask are “Did I find this engaging?” and “Did I see it through till the end?”. In both cases, it was an emphatic yes, which are perhaps the only questions that we should be asking, regardless of genre or even medium. As someone that aims to make his own passion projects one day in a similar vein, it gives me hope.
Which I guess is something I need to thank Sam Barlow for. That’s going to be an awkward conversation.