Oh, Please, King Data, Tell Me A Fragmented 'Story'

Run, don’t walk to download and play/search/peruse/explore the new interactive narrative “Her Story” (PC and iOS) by games writer Sam Barlow. It will make you think harder about the nature of story, information gathering and creative possibilities than anything you may have seen at Cannes last week.

Part of the app’s deep power comes from its retrograde surface -- a PC interface pulled straight out of Windows 2.0. A frowsy database interface has been populated by several hundred clips of digitized videotaped interviews with a British woman. I can’t give too many details without spoiling some of the intrigue, but we quickly learn that the murder of man close to this woman is the center of the story. The real object of the app is to assemble the full narrative of what the crime was, who the victim was, and ultimately who this woman really is. The retro interface is always reminding you that the game is about information gathering in the digital era as much as it is about a murder mystery.

In an age of hi-res 3D photo-realistic game graphics and VR-like interfaces, “Her Story” is disarmingly, significantly, brilliantly barren of any bell or whistle. The entire experience is watching a woman in a police interview room answering questions, even occasionally singing. The only variations, all integral to your mission, are the time stamps on the clips, nuances in her appearance and tone of response. And it is as absorbing and haunting an app as I have launched in many months. The quest here is rudimentary to the human mind but also unmistakably modern -- finding coherence in a fragmented media age.  

The message of the experience is in the medium itself. Other interactive narratives and even TV shows and films have used the interface conventions of the Web for storytelling. The video blog has quickly become one of the tedious conventions in entertainment. In horror films and Webisodes, increasingly frantic (always Millennial)  narrator/characters talk into a Webcam to reveal another piece of some backstory designed to crank up the tension or terror. Her Story’s use of digital icons and interfaces is on a wholly different level. Your only tool is the search query box. You input keywords that you glean from the shards of interview. You will even need to keep a physical scratchpad nearby to track the possible keywords our protagonist drops in each video clip. All you get is your own search history in the app itself. This experience is underscoring the nature of information-gathering in an era where all information is data, where all that is significant to us is broken down into fragments that we assemble generally on the other end of a query box.    

In many ways, Her Story is itself a narrative about finding coherence in a digital age. It is that rare aesthetic experience that at some point makes the audience reflect on their own responses to it. How did this pull you in so effectively from such crude elements? Why does this woman’s mystery, both about herself and the real story, resonate so effectively?

Part of it, I think, is the intimacy of the basic structure. This narrative works especially well as an app. The combination of tapping play buttons and entering keyword text recreates the feel of personal information searching. The genius of the interface is that it uses the same tools we use to search the stuff that is important to us on a daily basis. It is the interface of our new digital lives. Ultimately, it feels as if you are messaging with the past, with her.  

To be sure, the mystery formula, going back to Edgar Allen Poe, has always been about making logical sense of fragments or “clues.” But it is also true that mysteries are about the culture in which they are written and the particular ways in which we come to make sense of the world at a given moment in time. If there is a larger meaning to Her Story it comes in that tension between the digital tools it reminds us are now basic to everyday life and our own quest to find coherence. The story here is about us trying to find the story here.

Playing this app underscores how much of a trope “storytelling” itself has become in recent years. Brands, ad agencies, and even politicians have appropriated this term to refer to what they do. PR people and newscasters alike now make offhanded references to “narratives.” We are all “storytellers” now. And the conceit is that we always were. Stories are fundamentally human, we tell ourselves. This activity of telling stories keeps us in touch with what is uniquely, perennially human. In eras of intense, disorienting change we always like alluding to some conception of our own primitive qualities. We are looking for even the vaguest of anchors in ever-changing seas. In the face of the “Machine Age” in the 1930s, for instance, popular culture was full of references to “human spirit” -- a kind of hazy, secular idea of humanity and resilience that set us apart from the rationalizations and mechanization of a science-driven ethos. “Storytelling” seems to have a similar function for us -- convincing ourselves of an ineffably human power that sets us apart from the machines to which we actually are quite devoted.

Her Story does what the best of art is supposed to do. It pokes a bit at our own simplistic conceits. It forces us to explore how strong the impulse for coherence and story may be to us. But it calls attention to just how fragmented and frustrating it is to build coherence (“story”) for ourselves with the supposedly sophisticated tools at hand. In the digital age, data dream of becoming stories, but the process is harder than it seems.  

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