Two Looks at Her Story and Pry
There’s a moment in Her Story where, depending on what hidden facet of Hannah’s history the player stumbles upon, the screen changes briefly. The “light” positioned behind the “player” flickers, and a face is reflected on the screen. The face looks like this:
And this is terrifying. It was for me, at least. It’s partially the mix of shock and fear on the face itself, somehow transmitting the face’s own shock to the player through empathy or osmosis. It’s also the fact that the screen change comes suddenly, and with no warning to the player. The scariest part, though, was the realization that came with this image – the walls of separation that had divided the game and myself were much, much thinner than I had imagined. In the span of seconds (a literal “blink and you’ll miss it” moment) I had become an involved participant in the story Her Story was trying to tell.
It’s an unsettling, and deeply fascinating game mechanic. It occurs whenever the player uncovers an important clue in one of the archive’s videos, and can also be entirely missed depending on whether or not the player decides to keep the artificial computer screen glare on. Tactics like this, where a piece of art makes an unexpected acknowledgment to the audience (without actually breaking the fourth wall), aren’t native to Her Story. These sudden call-outs can be intentional, like the scene in House of Leaves where Will Navidson passes the time in the maze of his house by reading his own copy of House of Leaves. They can also be accidental. The scene where Ash attacks Ripley in Alien is a great example of this – when the camera pans backwards while Ash looks over Ripley writhing on the floor, the person holding the camera stumbles slightly while walking backwards. At this moment, Ian Holms steals a glance at the camera (and by extension the audience) and frowns before returning to Ripley. You would think that a mistake in filming like this would hurt audience immersion in the film, but Ash’s acknowledgement of the audience, as well as the inclusion of House of Leaves within its own book, actually draws in the audience. These mechanics carve a space for the audience in the story, forcing them to experience it as something that exists with the audience, instead of passively playing outside of the audience. The point here is that the “reflection” mechanic in Her Story marks a twist in the game’s story where the player realizes that, without being directly told, they have become a character within the world of the game.
Where Her Story makes a sudden, direct acknowledgment of the player (while forcing them into the role of a character), Pry is much more direct in its expectation of the player as someone who directly connects with the game’s protagonist, James. Pry acts more as a “visual novel” than a genuine game – limiting player agency in how the story plays out but still requiring action from the player for the story to progress. As such, it falls into the camp of “ergodic literature”. Ergodic literature is marked by a need for “nontrivial effort” on the part of the reader, player, or audience for a story to play out. Traditional, non-ergodic texts are passive. Their stories play out without the involvement of an audience. A film, for example, can play with or without an audience to watch it. In ergodic literature, the audience has to personally interact with the text in some way to experience it. Stories in ergodic literature cannot exist outside of an audience’s participation.
With this in mind, Pry takes advantage of the idea of “nontrivial effort” as a means to immerse the reader in the story. For the reader to work through the story, they have to either “pinch”, putting two fingers on the screen and drawing them together, or “pry” – putting two fingers on the screen and drawing them apart. The reader experiences the story of Pry through the (mostly) first-person-perspective of James. There are three levels of James’ mind that the reader has to jump back and forth from to experience the story. “Prying” on the screen, for example, forces James to open his eyes and watch things play out in the world around him. Pinching on the screen descends the reader into James’ subconscious, where a series of words will play out or images will flash on the screen to give the reader an idea of how James feels in relation to what’s occurring in his thoughts or the outside world. James’ base level, which occurs when the reader chooses not to interact with the screen, shows his surface level thoughts and feelings. The base level usually provides James’ narration of the story, which means that to actually experience the narrative, the reader has to force James to open his eyes or enter his subconscious, with his reactions to either forming the core of the story. In pinching and prying, the reader is forced to become an extension of James himself. Once again, the boundary between art and audience has weakened.
Both Her Story and Pry have non-linear stories. The events of Pry jump between James and Luke in the present day, their time during the gulf war, James’ own childhood, and his time in training. Her Story follows a set of seven interviews with “Hannah” in a detective’s effort to solve the murder of a man named Simon, but the interviews are cut into segments that are roughly a minute long, and presented out of order. The chief contrast between Her Story and Pry, though, is how much agency the player/reader is given in exactly how the narrative is presented.
Her Story, at least on a first play through, makes it impossible to watch the interviews in chronological orders. The game limits how much of an interview the player can see at any one time, and doesn’t readily offer the clips. Instead, the player has to sift through an entire database of the interviews’ videos, drawing videos up based on keywords and search terms the player inputs into the database. With this in mind, Her Story becomes an example of ergodic literature because “how much” of the story the player experiences is based on how much effort they put in to solve the mystery – how they tag and save the videos, and what “keywords” they use to find them. There’s no guide to how the player can find these videos, or what order they are supposed to be in, so the player is forced to draw their own conclusions on the chronological order of the videos they find, and what they mean in relation to the whole story. The difference here is this: both Her Story and Pry are works of ergodic literature, but where Pry can only be experienced in the passing of the visual novel’s seven chapters (in that order), Her Story has no set way for the player to experience the game’s story. The player’s experience with Her Story – how the story presents itself to the player – is directly influenced by the player’s actions. In a way, the player creates the story here.
There’s an idea in the digital age – the rise of “new media” and its fusion with traditional art and rhetoric – where “the medium is the message”. How an idea presents itself, the actual materiality of an expression, is as important as the idea itself. Pry, for example, tells the story of a man’s lost love in the military and life afterwards, but through the mechanics of “pinching” and “prying” where the reader forces James to confront memories and experiences that are painful to him, the story becomes an exploration of the damaging effects of PTSD. Her Story has the surface narrative of an unsolved murder mystery, but the actual experience of the player solving the mystery carries an argument that our perceptions of “database” and “narrative” are not mutually exclusive. These mechanics, like the horrific “flash” of another person’s face, work to immerse the audience in these works, while also having meanings on their own that transcend the text.