It’s the peak of July. I’m pale. And late, even when I rush. Scarf around my neck, with a raincoat, sweater, shirt and t-shirt. The pavement’s uneven, and clouds gather in the sky. It’s been like that since June. No sun. Not even raindrops. Just a relentless spray, like a cloud of wet mosquitoes following your steps, surrounding your breath, weakening your vision. I’m speeding past cars and dashing down sidewalks. I’ve just quit my job. I knew I would. I was a tipsy waiter. My girlfriend is away. She went home for a month. She goes there every July and I keep promising that I’ll make it the following year. But every time she goes I lose my job.
She messaged me on WhatsApp just before I jumped on the bike. “Did you find one?” she asks. “Yes! Got a commission to review a videogame!” Exclamation marks and WhatsApps are a disheartening combination. “But you’ve never played a fucking videogame!” she answers. She’s right. “Don’t worry, I’ll hire your husband to help me out,” I respond. My girlfriend is married to someone else. His name is Duck and he is one of my two friends in this frozen exile. I quite love him. I must. I think of him while I cycle wildly and I smile. He’s a video game master. It’s the peak of July and the weather makes cycling a clumsy affair. I pull my brakes… but I have none. Wheels slide dramatically on the endless wetness and I just close my eyes and keep smiling.
I’ve mostly played Her Story from my hospital bed, with a bandage around my head, my left leg hanging in space and my vision quite blurred. I used to think that all videogames were about blowing off the heads of heavily tattooed soldiers and racking up high scores. But life is one massive preconception, and Her Story is a different affair, one you must tackle with a notepad and a clinical eye. The set-up is simple, Spartan. Her Story is an interactive game based around interviews stored on the desktop of a police station computer from the ‘90s. That’s how the game starts and ends: inside an old desktop, under the same old sick flickering, staring at hundreds of clips. They all belong to a police investigation regarding a murder. The clips are ordered chronologically, following the titular Her’s decision to go to the police and report the disappearance of her husband. But even though there is a chronological order, your findings are structured by your searches. Every word you type can bring up videos from any of the 7 days of interviews that were held over a period of 2 weeks. And she is in all of them.
I’m 40 years old and I’d never played a video game before and I used to cycle everywhere, like most virgins of my age. Somebody said once that freedom is about finding yourself doing the things you never thought you’d do. And that is exactly what I’ve been doing: playing a video game from a hospital bed. The truth is that I’ve been heavily medicated, and I can barely remember anything. But I’m a wise man. And I’ve kept the memories I knew I would forget in a notepad. The only problem is that my voice has been slurring and my hands have been trembling, so I can barely manage to comprehend what I’ve written. Thank God I was wise enough to hire Duck. I collect the broken pieces of my voice and I ring him.
“Have you finished Her Story yet?” I immediately ask.
“Are you really in the hospital?” he replies. “What happened to you?”
“Doesn’t matter. Will you come here? I have to deliver the article tomorrow.” (I lie).
“Have you played the game yet?”
“Well. I’ve taken about as many notes as painkillers. I don’t quite understand them. Want me to read them for you?”
Fuck. This is painfool. Fool. Really fucking painful. Shoulder kind of crumbling. God. Stop. Need to switch off the lights & turn the game on. I proceed. Its 9 p.m. and she is on the screen. Her name is Hannah. White. Late 20s. Pretty. Londoner. Fuck that. Mainstream & predictable? I hate this. No I don’t. I would if I was a black academic. I wish I was black. I’ve wished it every day since I was a kid. White people are soft and pretentious. I don’t trust them. Hannah looks like a Burberry model who’s had Republican sex with a gay rugby captain. She’s boringly straight and exaggerated and false. There’s no ambiguity. She’s lying all the way. She says she was married to this guy, Simon. And that she got pregnant from him. Poor thing. Does morphine makes you emotional? I could be either fucking Columbo or just a sad wanker. I decide to become the latter. But my left hand is covered in a massive bandage. So I type the word ‘sex’. There’s a clip of a hotter Hannah. She’s equally fake. She has a tattoo! I type the word ‘police’ into the browser. Boom! There’s no Hannah anymore. Now she’s called Eve and talks a lot about Hannah. Bingo. They’re twins. Her name is Eve now. I’m fucking Columbo! No I’m not. I’m an idiot. But I’m smart enough to realize that if after 20 minutes I’ve figured out this is a Twin Story, then it must not be. Shoulder increasingly painful, dodgy smell in the air and lack of sun, lack of windows, lack of company, lack of love. I switch off the lights.
“What do you know?”
“I know that they’re not twins and that this is some sexist, boring, hot girl bullshit fairy tale that went wrong.”
“You don’t have a fucking clue what you’re talking about. This is as good as Sam Barlow can get. And he can get a lot better than the rest,” Duck says.
I fucking hate him when he’s so patronizing. But that’s exactly why I’ve hired him. To be patronized and reassured. Somehow … that might be something quite similar to what my girlfriend found in him when she married him. Jesus. Duck is like a black Picasso with a master plan. I could be falling, as I always do.
“OK, OK. Who the fuck is Sam Barlow?” I ask.
“He’s the creator of the game. You should know that if you’re supposed to deliver tomorrow. Are you a journalist or what?”
“I’m in hospital, for Christ’s sake.”
“OK. But man, you’re lucky. Being blessed with Her Story while you’re in hospital… that’s better than morphine.”
“You know it’s not. But if you come here I can get you some. Plus your fees.”
Before I can type my response, there’s a knock at my door. Duck is right there. Wet, panting & wild. He sits by my bed and tells me everything. He’s as excited as I’ve ever seen anyone. He says that Her Story is the height of interactivity. That it has challenged all the known rules of video game narration. He says that Hannah and Eve aren’t twins, not even sisters, that Cain and Abel were the same guy. He says that there is no end, nor a fucking solution. No graphics or fancy visual effects. You build up a relationship of trust, mistrust and sadness with her. Then a disturbing awareness of yourself. He says that you become both cop and lover. A hypnotic follower & sublime dancer of misled choreographies. The game questions the limits of storytelling and drives you through a breathtaking adventure where mirrors are dust and dust is Orson Welles.
I wish I was a white guy that didn’t want to be black. And I kind of wish I didn’t find pleasure in the warmth and comfort of my girlfriend’s previous husbands. The thing about Her Story is that it’s an endless mirror, and you’re always on the other side. In a hospital bed or in an empty room. With a fake boyfriend or an imaginary friend. After all… your evolution in the game depends on who you are in life. Whether you’re curious, eager, black, white, tall, short, ugly, beautiful or anything else… you’re going to be trapped, and you won’t ever want to look back after you finish.