Her Story, as told by Sam Barlow

The Shattered Memories writer on female leads, non-linearity and reclaiming the FMV game

“It's a tricksy one,” says Sam Barlow. The writer and lead designer of the critically praised Silent Hill: Shattered Memories has bold ambitions for Her Story, a non-linear narrative-led game that he plans to release next year. Yet right now, he has nothing to show. “Normally you've got your cool gameplay mechanics, and you show your prototypes and your different art style experimentations, and you get everyone on board and all that indie development 101, but this game is quite different.”

It’s certainly rare for a designer to cite games like Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney and the notorious Sega Mega-CD title Night Trap (“as bad as it was, I have fond memories of the idea of it”) as influences. Indeed, Barlow speaks of a lifelong love of the Ace Attorney games, particularly its courtroom sequences. “They found a really neat way to have the witness testimony and split that into chunks of text and let you analyse them,” he explains, “which allowed them to have this cool thing where it felt like you were actually thinking about what people were saying, but at the same time it was limited enough that they were still running the show.”

Another epiphany came during Barlow’s last project, an ambitious big-budget action adventure. After motion capture sessions for the game, Barlow was struck by the time, money and manpower expended on the process. “You're back in a studio and reviewing the footage from the shoot to pick which scenes and performances you like, and you compare that to what's coming out in the game engine,” he recalls. “You might have this awesome scene where [the lead actress] gave a brilliant performance, and yet when you see it in the game engine it's not quite there, and the animators have to tweak stuff.

“You can make a really cheap indie movie. You get some good actors together and a good script and just shoot it. In games that's a lot harder.”

“You’ve got cheap video cameras capturing the performance of the real human being, and you can see it [working] and it doesn't cost a huge amount of money, but to get that into a 3D video game at the other end, there’s this whole weight of expenditure. You know it's for all the right reasons, but at the same time you're thinking it’s really weird that we have to put so much effort in.” At this year’s Glasgow Film Festival, Barlow was involved in a session discussing storytelling in games alongside fellow writers Rhianna Pratchett, Ragnar Tørnquist and Robert Florence, where the same subject reared its head. “We were discussing how in films you can make a really cheap indie movie,” he says. “You get some good actors together and a good script and just shoot it. In games that's a lot harder.”

Barlow decide the only answer was to make a game that would use video for its core content. “But not in the Myst or 7th Guest sense where you have a core game there and you get video rewards,” he clarifies. Instead, it will, like the Ace Attorney games, have a grounding in crime fiction, and involve the player interrogating and investigating. The major point of differentiation, beyond the obvious disparity in their presentational style, is that it will be completely non-linear.

“When you’re making games and you're playing around with the various tools, there’s this awkward point where you’re having more fun playing as a developer than you would actually have in the game,” he explains. “As I was trying to assemble the game and to create an interesting experience, more and more it felt like the freedom I had [as a writer] to jump around and see the story from all different angles would be fun and interesting for the player to have [at] that same level.”

Sam Barlow is probably best known as the writer and lead designer of Silent Hill: Shattered Memories and Silent Hill: Origins.

There is, Barlow accepts, a certain risk involved in giving the player completely free rein, and coming from a more traditionally structured story like Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, it was also something of a culture shock. “I almost had to jump off a cliff,” he admits. “Players, given the freedom I'm going to give them, will be able to go straight from A to Z - bang! And then where does that leave the story? Because they've essentially burst the balloon.”

Barlow believes that even if players are able to shortcut some of Her Story’s narrative reveals, that the characters and their relationships will come to the fore. “In theory, people who are engaging with it -- even if they get the beginning and the end of the story - they're going to want to see what the middle was. They're going to want to see that there’s more to what's going on, they’ll want to explore the characters and spend time listening to them. And when that started coming together that's when it felt like ‘hey, this is something interesting and different’.”

It is, Barlow says, partly a reaction to past frustrations as a designer and writer. When pitching a fairly everyday story, he says, executives would say it was “too kitchen sink”, that his ideas might work as a film or a TV show but not as a game. This stems, Barlow says, from a prevalent industry belief that games need to be aspirational and fantastical to sell enough copies to turn a profit. “I think there's also a belief that games don't do that sort of stuff well,” he adds. “So real heavy-hitter, big-production-value games like The Last of Us and Bioshock [Infinite] will still have that certain amount of content that is running around shooting stuff just to back things up. There is this [false] notion that that level of everyday human drama isn't subject matter that games are ready to tackle yet.”

Having locked down casting for Her Story, Barlow will be shooting all the footage later this year, and will be able to reveal it next year – though the nature of the game means he can’t really show it until it’s almost finished. He is, however, fully prepared to discuss its thematic ideas. “When I was looking into the subject matter I was interested in and the idea of video footage, I [became] fascinated in the way the media treats female criminals especially,” he explains. “Like the Amanda Knox trials, for example, or the Jodi Arias trial. The amount of scrutiny that was put on them as women was very different to how people would have reacted if they were male murderers.”

Her Story isn’t Barlow’s first experiment with interactive fiction. His 1999 self-published text adventure Aisle allows you to control just one short moment in the life of a man, with multiple endings available.

Her Story will also explore the phenomenon of leaked footage in the YouTube era. “The entire police interrogation of Jodi Arias is online on YouTube and you can sit and watch it all,” he says. “Obviously YouTube comments are a horrible place to get opinions, but it's such a weird thing. It's easy to project an Orwellian [future] where people are up- or down-voting people on YouTube and that determines whether they're innocent or guilty. I was very much interested in this concept and this idea of people judging people, but I was also interested in the confessional nature of police interviews and police interrogations where a lot of the psychology for a detective involves asking people very open questions and getting them to talk all about themselves.”

With a female lead in Her Story, and a majority female cast in Shattered Memories, Barlow is surprised that the industry seems to have such a problem with playable women. It’s an issue, he says, that could easily have been solved a long time ago. “I remember playing an old text adventure called Silicon Dreams, where you played as a non-sexualised female astronaut,” he says. I was probably pre-adolescent at the time and it didn’t make me freak out or anything. In fact, I remember thinking that there was something more interesting and grown-up about this game because it wasn't something that represented this crazy power fantasy.”

“If you're in a position to promote greater diversity in game stories, then it just makes sense to do it.”

“If you look back to where the industry's been, we've done some of this stuff already,” he continues. “We've had female characters, and people talk about Tomb Raider as if it's the only example! It hasn't been a bad example, in some cases, but it really [shouldn’t be] an issue. It’s inarguable that there should be a representative selection of characters and roles and scenarios. If you're in a position to promote greater diversity in game stories, then it just makes sense to do it.”

Part of what makes Her Story such an intriguing prospect is that it represents such a departure from game design convention. “It feels like I always end up referencing the Dogme 95 [filmmaking movement],” Barlow laughs. “Those guys came up with a harsh set of restrictions, not necessarily because they believed that was the only way to guarantee that the film would be good, but so they could step away from all the stuff they'd got used to. Or like Hitchcock - he had a deep understanding of how cinema worked, and with something like Rope he threw all that out and made a film in essentially a single cut. People looked back and said it was a silly thing to do but as an exercise and a way of testing some of those assumptions we have, it was a really useful experiment.”

“Put it this way,” he adds. “I'm more excited as someone playing this then I'm scared as someone writing it. I might just be giving myself enough rope to hang myself with, but it'll certainly be interesting.”