I recently played a game with no real ending, closure, or sense of reward. It was infuriating.
I am not going to spoil the game, by the way. You’re good.
Here’s the basic premise: you need to find out who murdered Simon. Sitting at your 90s-era computer, complete with Windows 95-esque OS, you quietly click through endless video clips of a woman being interviewed by the police. Every clip has been transcribed into the database, so the player can type any word into the search bar, and if it’s mentioned in the clip, it’ll come up.
Most games have an endpoint. You finish the last level, beat the boss, maybe a cutscene plays. When everything fades to black, it’s over. Congratulations, player! You did it. Even if you end up playing again on a harder difficultly level or go searching for achievements, there’s a sense of finality. You don’t get that in Her Story, and I wish more games had the same courage.
Remember the cut scene after the credits in Final Fantasy VII? A huge reason that game stuck with me for so long was because there was no way to know what really happened.
And while I found Journey to be profoundly moving, it wasn’t because the lore came full circle.
Her Story trusts you’ll figure everything out on your own. In 2015, that’s a genuinely surprising design choice, as we’ve become accustomed to games being deeply afraid of players not being politely guided to the next objective.
There’s a point early on, after you’ve spent some time looking through clips, that can trigger the credits. There’s no warning. I was surprised, genuinely taken aback. “Wait, that’s it?” There was no last-minute revelation, no M. Night Shyamalan twist to send you reeling.
I mean, there are several of those moments while playing Her Story, but they are entirely earned by the player. Nothing is handed to you on a silver platter. Though it’s not exactly difficult to stumble across the major narrative turns in Her Story, you have to find them. You typed in the keyword. You decided it was worth investigating this line of evidence. You put two-and-two together, and realized everything you thought prior to this moment was wrong.
I can’t remember the last game that had me scrambling to load up message boards threads to have my theories validated—or crushed. (As it turns out, I had it mostly right...according to one theory, anyway. I’ll take it.) But what happened is left to interpretation, speculation, and assumption.
When Her Story launched, I saw a people tweeting (and mocking) someone asking questions about the game on the game’s Steam forum:
“How do I decide when I am satisfied?” is goofy phrasing deserving of some ribbing and mockery, but I know what he’s really asking here: hey, did I miss something? Can you really blame someone who plays games for asking that question?
Games have conditioned us to be completionists—heck, even Her Story couldn’t help itself from incorporating achievements to mark progress and encourage clever discoveries. Stories that start are supposed to end—at least, that’s how most stories work! Ambiguity makes us feel uncomfortable. It’s why people still argue about the endings to LOST and The Sopranos. But uncertainty can be wonderful, precisely because it’s contrarian. Our greatest desire—what happened?—goes unfulfilled. That frustration is simultaneously intoxicating and infuriating.
Instead of wrapping everything up with a pretty bow or rewarding you with “unlocked ending A,” Her Story simply...ends. What you take away from that ending is completely up to you.
You can reach the author of this post at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @patrickklepek.