Following the runaway success of his first indie release Her Story, Sam Barlow discusses why he left triple-A to develop on his unique vision for the game
Narrative-driven game Her Story is the latest indie sensation to hit PC and mobile. The title tells the tale of a murder through a series of short clips from an interview with the prime suspect in the case.
By punching in a series of keywords into the police database, players slowly uncover a layered story where the plot is not as simple as it may seem. It’s an idea that has caught the imagination of thousands of consumers since its release just over a month ago.
The game was created by Sam Barlow, who previously worked on games such as Silent Hill: Shattered Dimensions at Climax Studios. He left the triple-A space over a year ago after deciding to test his skills in the indie arena. He gave himself a year to develop his first game. This didn’t mean he was going to rush into any old game, however.
“I didn’t want to get started on it until I had an idea that felt like I was going to be able to execute on it,” says Barlow. “I could probably quite easily have gone and made an exploration horror game in Unity and gone ‘hey, people who liked my Silent Hill games, get this’. But I kind of knew that there would be big compromises there because of budget.
“So I didn’t really want to make a game that would feel like, if Sam had had another few million, this would be a better game. I really like studios like Simogo. You play their games and you can’t really imagine a better version. It doesn’t feel like they’ve aimed to make something cheap, it’s like that’s just an idea that works and on that scale.”
Barlow says he had already come up with the idea of a police procedural game before leaving triple-A. Despite its popularity in TV and fiction, it’s something rarely seen in games – bar rare examples such as L.A. Noire and the Phoenix Wright Ace Attorney series. And it’s something publishers aren’t interested in.
“I think there’s probably a kind of acknowledgement that this genre derives so much from character interactions, from people’s psychology in these everyday settings, and that stuff we kind of know is harder to do in games,” he says. “So there’s always been that reluctance.
“I felt like if I’m doing this indie thing, I should be doing something that I couldn’t do with publishers paying for it, and I always wanted to do something in the crime fiction space.”
Cracking the case
The idea for Her Story was inspired by ‘90s cop show Homicide: Life on the Street, which Barlow says embellished on the idea of the interview with the prime suspect being a gladiatorial arena for detectives.
Barlow says that by focusing on this idea, he felt like he was being a “clever indie” – excluding all the fat and narrowing the game’s scope to something manageable.
“But at the same time I’m focusing on this intimate setting, dialogue and character interaction stuff,” he explains.
“And that’s the stuff that normally gets skipped by the bigger budget games. So I thought, this is something that I can actually have an interesting take on, I can have something people haven’t seen before.
“But at that point I didn’t necessarily know what the game was.”
I didn’t really want to make a game that would feel like, if Sam had had another few million, this would be a better game.
Sam Barlow, Her Story
Barlow was keen to make a procedural cop game with a focus on the interviews. He also wanted to work with an actor, having enjoyed this process during his time at Climax – but needed to find a way to do it with a fraction of the budget. He then settled on writing a series of video interviews in chronological order, which would then be broken up into small clips, searchable by keywords.
“I thought cool, my brain is excited by this,” he says. “I like the structure, it feels interesting and at the same time it has an angle where despite it being quite an experimental storytelling thing, it also has an angle where it’s quite understandable.”
To make this possible, Barlow put the entire script into a flow chart. The idea was that certain words would unlock new videos, slowly allowing the player to uncover the true events of what happened in Her Story.
The idea was tested on pre-existing, real-life interview transcripts between detectives and their suspects. Here he cut the text into small chunks and then searched for key terms to consume the story out of order.
“Despite the fact this hadn’t been scripted at all, it was just real stuff, it was actually really enjoyable to do that,” he says. “I found there were themes coming to the surface. In one case in particular was this teenager who murdered his parents in America. And he was this kind of brilliant sociopath. He didn’t really give anything away, he was pretty cool and collected. He didn’t trip up over his alibis.
“But playing it with this database you found quickly that words like money and cash kept cropping up.”
He adds: “It kind of felt exciting, it felt slightly magical to me. This is a feeling I haven’t had before in a game. I feel like, despite the fact this is this static transcript I’m working from, it did feel a little bit like I was investigating and picking up threads. And this sensation of being able to pull out packaged up clips that were united by themes or ideas, but weren’t in any way intended to sit together, just felt really fresh and interesting.”
Now the concept was proven, at least to Barlow, he made sure his script contained sufficient layers of intrigue to keep players searching to discover the full story. This included biographies, how each event unfolded and the agenda of both the main character, played by actress Viva Seifert, and the detectives investigating the murder.
Once that script was written, Barlow says it was actually easy to put the game together.
“For me it was quite an easy process because the computer is just there telling me this clip doesn’t really work because it’s using this word that’s used a lot,” he explains. “So I’d go in and give it a different word that meant the same thing.”
Following successful testing of the game, Barlow eventually released Her Story in June to huge success. Though describing the game as an experiment – one that he’s proven can work – he isn’t sure if he’ll return to a similar type of game in future.
“I need to get excited by having an idea that feels quite different or something that requires me to figure out how to make it work,” he says. “So I think it would probably be the wrong thing to do that.”