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GDC 2016: How player imagination was used to tell Her Story

In his GDC talk, independent developer Sam Barlow revealed the processes he used to create an engaging narrative in Her Story.

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Her Story

In his GDC talk, independent developer Sam Barlow revealed the processes he used to create an engaging narrative in Her Story.

One of the most distinguishing features of Her Story was not its use of FMV, but its ability tell an authored story that also felt like a collaboration with the game’s player.

Barlow spoke about why it’s important to engage a player’s imagination when telling an interactive story.

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Her Story was for me, in many ways, quite an experimental game,” Barlow said. “It was an attempt by me to push something in a very extreme direction and to prove a point to myself, or to disprove it, if it didn’t work.”

With a history of working on larger titles Barlow realised that creating big budget games for large publishers was going to become harder as time went on. When one game he was working on was cancelled, Barlow decided to go independent.

“That was the point where I took a step back and forced myself to think, what is it about interactive storytelling that actually excites me? Why am I doing this?” he said.

Barlow looked at the baggage he had accumulated in terms of game design and tried to throw away as much as possible, whilst retaining the elements that mattered most in terms of storytelling.

To demonstrate this thorough process Barlow showed pages from a notebook where he outlined his initial objectives for the game that became Her Story. The brief was to go deep on story with authentic characters. He also wanted to create a game with no meaningful state change, and also create a game with subtext.

“There is a lot of stuff that we include in video games that is awesome and unique to the medium, and because it’s unique to games it feels like it’s the most important thing. The thing we should be focusing on. But I had this suspicion that maybe sometimes we lean on that stuff as a prop.”

Subtext was the key component of achieving Barlow’s aim.

“It’s the heart of storytelling but something we really struggle with in video games,” he said. “I wanted to make a point that we could have something that not only involved subtext, but revolved around subtext.”

Her Story

Barlow moved on to discuss what he calls the ‘reality factor’: the way in which stories are judged by how real they feel and by the extent we believe in them.

“Are we genuinely worried about the fate of the characters? Do we genuinely react emotionally when something bad happens to those characters? To what extent does our mind engage with the ongoing story?”

Barlow tried to ignore that belief that interactivity is considered something only games can do. He cited Hemingway’s iceberg principle, where entire events and backstories are known to the writer but not committed to the page. The reader then does the heavy lifting to uncover the hidden part of the story with their own imagination.

“This creates a much more powerful story,” says Barlow. “A story that feels real because they have summoned it up, their imagination is working to make that feel real to them.”

Another example can be found in cinematic storytelling. Film making is the action of creating a visual record of an event, however visual storytelling is as much about what you don’t show as what you do.

“If you look at the tools of modern cinema and things like the cut; the magic that occurs when you jump from one image to another. It’s all about leveraging the imagination by not showing things.”

Barlow referred to  30 Flights of Loving as a rare example of video game that exemplifies this approach.

“This is a game that does use 3D space but it also does some really great things by omitting dialogue, having a stylised look, and by cutting time and space. It does a really great job of giving you an interactive 3D experience that is still leveraging and engaging the imagination.”

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Her Story

By working within an established genre, Barlow knew the that players would intuitively know the underlying rules of a story based on a police interrogation.

“It’s probably true to say that the audience today is the most story-literate audience that’s ever existed in the history of humanity,” said Barlow. “By the time you reach adulthood you have seen so many stories on TV, in adverts, in books, comics and games. You have seen every possible combination of plot and character.”

Her Story’s  jigsaw-like approach to gameplay – combined with its precise use of genre – led to a sense of immersion, but Barlow was keen to push back against that to ensure the player’s imagination was kept engaged.

“It’s very important for me that when creating a story, you don’t think of absolute immersion,” he explains.

One method Barlow used to achieve this was the narrative twist.

“Traditionally, if a video game has a single good twist that’s a really cool thing. But, ideally, you can have lots and lots of twists and layer them up,” said Barlow.

Twists work because they effectively reboot the story. The reader or player has to reorder everything they have learned, which adds to the level of engagement.

Another device Barlow used was graphical. A subtle reflection applied to the in-game screen the player interacts with. It was a discrete but surprisingly effective way to add a sense of distance and to push back against the immersion, making the player’s mind work to flesh out the experience.

Barlow concluded with his thoughts on the game’s success in meeting its objective.

“When I started out on Her Story it was about proving that the more we engage with a player’s imagination the more personally involved they’re going to be, and the more engaged they’re going to be with the story. And I think that kind of proved itself, but it also revealed to me that it was as much about empowering my imagination as a game designer or writer.”


Her Story is available now on iOS, Mac and PC.

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Thumbsticks editor, and connoisseur of Belgian buns. Currently playing: Ape Out, Skyrim (again), and Yoshi's Crafted World.