Before he made Her Story, Sam Barlow fed a real-life murder into his game engine.
What follows doesn’t spoil Her Story’s plot but if you’ve not played it I recommend reading my review-ish (and spoiler free) thoughts on the game first. If you like the sound of it, go buy it and play it before reading this.
“I've been wanting to do a police procedural crime game for ages,” Barlow told me over Skype. “I pitched various things to publishers over the years. In fact, Silent Hill: Shattered Memories was originally pitched to Konami as a game about being a detective, because we had a producer at Konami who was kind of a maverick. I knew from having been out for drinks with him that he had this particular idea in his heart that was called Brahms PD. He wanted to do a spin off from the Silent Hill series that would focus on the police force. And, because I'd always wanted to make a procedural game and had some cool ideas I thought I'd be clever and wrap it all up as this Brahms PD thing and he'd love it because it would be his idea."
Barlow pitched the producer a game about a Brahms PD detective investigating a murder which would be revealed to link back to a similar case years before. The whole thing was to be framed by a set of psychiatric interviews. The producer hated the idea, though. In his mind Brahms PD was to be a shooter.
The ideas stuck with Barlow and the team at Climax Studios and, in a later pitch, Konami agreed to their idea for Silent Hill: Shattered Memories. The game reused the idea of a psychiatric interview framing the main story.
"The idea of the interview has always fascinated me," Barlow explains. "I used to be a big fan of Homicide: Life on the Street [the precursor to The Wire]. That was a show where they really focused in on the detectives and the interview process and the tricks they play in interrogations. They had whole episodes that just took place in the interview room."
When Barlow became an independent developer he knew that police investigation and the interview room would be the focus of his next game. He just didn't know how.
One of the problems with interviews is they require conversation, something games still can't do well. Barlow reminded me of the Ultima games as an example. "You would meet a character and type 'job', 'name', and then there might be keywords that are important to the plot, like 'volcano' and that would be how the conversation worked but, obviously, it could be quite stilted because the actual structure of the conversation wasn't there."
It was a real problem because that style of system wouldn't draw players into the interview, like the scenes in Homicide did. Every time the game failed to recognise what you wanted to ask you'd lose your sense of immersion.
"My subconscious must have been fiddling around and working on these problems for a while because I woke up one day and it popped into my head, this combination of the interview room, the database, and the video," Barlow says.
"I had the image in my head of the montage sequence in a cop show where the detective is sat in his seat with his coffee and his cigarettes and he's there all night tapping through the database trying to find that one lead. Doing that really boring grunt police work. That's something I don't think I've seen in a game before. Games often show the car chase, the shooting, and the detective side of it is reduced to a very simple minigame.
"With the database format, all the things that are problematic about traditional FMV games, where the video's disjointed, where it's very hard to get a sense of being in a scenario with things reacting to you, all those problems become quite a strength. Players are going in there with the very understandable abstract conceit – that you are searching a database, this stuff happened ten years ago – all of the little crappy bits which break and take away from someone pretending this is a real-life video game conversation kind of get fixed. You have an experience that on an abstract level is much closer to an organic feel of a conversation or an investigation. Even the repetition associated with FMV games, that kind of works because that's police work."
Barlow immediately began researching police interview procedure, searching out training manuals on murder investigations, and, most importantly, finding real world interview transcripts.
At this point, Barlow pictured Her Story's structure as a hugely complex flowchart where players would unlock clips by discovering key words. It was going to take a lot quite mechanical writing to get a script that would enable players to investigate the murder.
That's when he found the transcript of Christopher Porco's police interrogations.
Image credit: Times Union.
In November 2004, 21-year-old Porco attacked his parents with a fire axe, killing his father and disfiguring his mother. "He did a very good job in this series of interviews where he spoke to the police–not really giving anything away, contradicting himself, or saying anything too stupid," Barlow says. Then Barlow fed the transcript into an early version of Her Story's database.
The engine carved up the transcript into each of Porco's separate answers. As Barlow entered keywords into his simple search engine, if it matched any of the words in one of Porco's responses then it would load that chunk to the screen.
"When I was 'playing' his transcript, very quickly I picked up that there were certain themes and words that would show up a lot," Barlow recalls. "Loads of words around money. When I'd search them I'd get this cross section through whatever he was talking about. The police got him to run off his mouth about what he'd do with his friends, 'What do you do to relax, mate?', 'Where do you go?', 'Where do you go to school?, 'What's your relationship like with your parents?'. Whatever they were asking him, everything came back to money. All his anecdotes started with "I had to get some money...", "I borrowed some money...", "We spent this much...". It was fascinating."
"This is the key to how detectives use these interviews," Barlow continued. "It's not about the surface of what they're saying, you listen to [the interviewee’s] choice of words, the subtext."
During the trial in 2005, it came out that Porco had forged his father's signature to take out a loan to pay for his university tuition. When his father found out, he asked his son to return home to talk about it.
Investigating Porco's case through his prototype engine, Barlow realised he had been approaching his Her Story script from the wrong angle. "Seeing that these natural conversations had this nice structure to them, that you could play them like I was imagining them to be played, that made me think I should be a bit more free," Barlow explained. "Playing those dummy versions with the real-life stuff also gave me confidence that it's just fun to search through these conversations. I knew that a lot of that fun came from how naturalistic it was. I wasn't just listening to people talk about secrets, some of it would be more casual chat, but it felt like I was both intruding or participating in the conversation."
Barlow set to work on making his own murder. He mapped out all the characters, their backstories, their different agendas, and all the events that would occur in the plot. He then worked out which dates each of his seven interviews would take place on, establishing what would have been discovered by the police, what the suspect, Hannah, would have been doing in the interim, and what the interrogators would refer back to from the previous interviews.
"I was very much trying to write in the moment and capture a more organic, natural conversation like the stuff I'd come across in my research," Barlow says. "Once I had that then it all got chucked into a giant spreadsheet that kept crashing my computer where I analysed every single word that was used in the dialogue. How often was it used? What was the spread? Were there clips that were really hard to find because of the language used? Were there leading words used too much prior to that clip in the chronology? That was all crunched for me by the computer. Then it was the process of pruning to find the areas that were problematic, tweak some of the words used, change a few things around.
"That was the process that got me to the finished version."
It was an intense process. Barlow held all the characters in his head and for a time when he sat down to work on the script they just poured out of him onto the page, almost writing themselves.
When Barlow had been 'playing' those true crime transcripts he'd found that he contextualised the suspects' responses in light of the other responses he'd already heard, even if they'd been chronologically out of order or on completely different subjects. Barlow layered Her Story's script with the same depth. Even a simple question like 'What would you like to drink?' has potentially deep implications in Her Story.
It wasn't over, though. The script was the structure of Her Story but he needed a performance that was similarly naturalistic to convey its many layers.
“We shot all the footage in a week and roughly in chronological order," Barlow remembered. "The interview days were shot in sequence, so each day was a continuous effort. At that point the script was locked, because it had been crunched by all the spreadsheets. We couldn't mess around and change things too much."
Similar to the writing, Viva Seifert, who plays the woman in Her Story, had to try and slip into a naturalistic style. "All the detectives lines were fully written so she was bouncing off the detective, answering the questions," Barlow said. "There was only me and Viva there, no huge crew, so at points it felt like we'd been sat in a police interrogation for a few days. It was super, super intense. I think, and this is where I steal from Hitchcock a bit: Hitchcock would deliberately upset his actors if he needed them to be upset on screen or deliberately give one of them a bigger trailer than the other so they would have animosity if they needed to be enemies. Some of the stress and difficulty of our filming was helpful to her performance."
And the result was phenomenal. From the bones of real cases, Barlow had created a murderer. When I played Her Story for the first time it took only a couple of minutes for me to be completely absorbed into the fiction of the game and I didn't emerge for hours.
Rather than leave this article on an entirely dark note. Here's one of my favourite bits from Her Story: