Gone Home is an exploration game: arriving at an empty house you must walk around (in first-person perspective) and go through the house to find out what has happened, and explore the characters and events in the protagonist’s life. Her Story is a detective game: you have a searchable library of interview video clips with a murder suspect which you can view to try and piece together what happened in a man’s disappearance. I view them as fairly similar games: they are about you exploring a set of constructed clues to progressively piece together a story. But they have fairly different interfaces, which makes it an interesting comparison. No spoilers within.
Gone Home is a first-person perspective game. You walk around an empty house, and aim your view at drawers and cupboards to open them, then aim your view at notes or objects to pick them up and read them. Possible targets highlight when you mouse over them, and you fairly quickly learn the visual grammar for what is likely to be interactive and what isn’t: “Oooh, new chest of drawers!”
Her Story has one interface screen. A search field lets you enter search terms. Searching returns up to five video clips, which you can click to watch. That’s it. I worry that some will think it simplistic, but I think it’s excellently streamlined.
Her Story has an commendable immediacy and responsiveness. You type your search term into the search bar: “murder”. You get a set of clips. You watch them, make notes, and enter your next search term. The only pauses are where you choose to pause and think.
In Gone Home, you must walk around the house from place to place, looking and interacting. It’s slower, and especially later on when you can get a little stuck, retracing your steps is frustrating. There is something of a point to setting the game like this: it gives you a sense of place, and moving around you really inhabit the house and properly feel like you’re exploring, more so than in a game like Myst which has comparable mechanics but where your vantage point is fixed. But that advantage comes at a cost of ease of use. The first person perspective can be clumsy; looking for items in drawers is fiddly, as you aim carefully to select the right drawer, or scan your cursor around a drawer for interactive notes.
In Her Story, new video clips you’ve found are marked with a little icon. You instantly see if a new search has turned up new information. In contrast, Gone Home doesn’t give you an indication as to whether you’ve previously read a note or picked up an object before. In Her Story you can remain on a relentless quest for new information, although sometimes you might re-watch an old clip with a new perspective. In Gone Home, when you get stuck at points, you find yourself rifling through the same places again: did I search all of that chest of drawers? Did I miss something in that cupboard? Have I seen this note before? This may be a deliberate design decision in Gone Home, but Her Story was the less frustrating interface in searching for new material.
The Road Map
In both games, there is no clear end point available when you start. In both games, you are searching for an answer, but you don’t know exactly what it is, or even whether you’ll know when you’ve found it. Will your sister be waiting behind a door in Gone Home (dead or alive?)? Will you find that one telling confession clip in Her Story? Gone Home has the advantage that you get an idea of progression by the areas of the house that you are able to access. As you find clues or keys you are able to access more areas, which are then marked on your map of the house. It also means the game is a reasonably well-defined linear progression for all players. But in Her Story you are hopping around the clips in your own idiosyncratic order; will one lucky search get you to the answer faster than everyone else? Did you go off on a tangent? Were you fast or slow to piece together that one vital part of her story? (You know the one.) Her Story is the tougher design to balance, and it also relies on the player being hooked enough to drive themselves forward without knowing how near they are to the end. Her Story does actually have a display of how many clips you have viewed, but it’s so thematic that it’s pretty obscure in the interface, and not completely clear what it means:
What do I know?
Neither game provides you with a comprehensive road map of what you know so far; it must all remain in your head or your notes. In a way this makes a lot of sense: some clues only really make sense in relation to others, and sometimes information is given a totally different spin by later discoveries. But oddly, neither game gives you any space or mechanism to make notes. You can tag videos in Her Story, but I didn’t make use of that. I played in windowed mode and kept an open text file with notes: a queue of prospective future search terms (each video often spawns 2 or 3 ideas) and a list of pertinent details, recorded with the search term I used to get find that particular clip. I think it would probably have made sense for the game to provide a text area for making notes, especially one where you could insert a direct reference to a particular clip so you could easily re-watch later. Revisiting particular clips was fiddly in Her Story because they all looked pretty similar from their thumbnail. In contrast, Gone Home had the advantage of place: hey, that detail was mentioned in the note in the drawers in the bedroom.
I played each game in one sitting, which I suspect is the intention. I don’t know how well it would work if you had to break off in the middle (especially if you couldn’t return for a few days). With so much of the interpretation being subjective, there’s no opportunity for the games to provide a “This is what you know by now” recap. In this sense, it works well that both games are reasonably short and don’t drag on. (I also think it’s worth noting somewhere that Gone Home chose a fairly crazy price point, at 15 pounds for a game with 1-1.5 hour length. Her Story’s 5 pounds for a game over twice as long is very reasonable, especially in comparison.)
Living Inside the Metaphor
I was going to complain that Her Story lacked the feature to reset your progress, so that someone else can play it again at the same PC. But just as I was taking a final few screenshots, I spotted this option:
I think it resets your progress, but I’m not certain. For one, it’s not where I expected: I would have thought it would be on the initial main menu screen, like it is in Gone Home. Secondly, it’s referring to its terminal metaphor: is my session data the newness of all clips (total reset), or is it just the list of clips in my favourites bar (which the game calls “user session”). I don’t want to press it until I’m sure. (There’s no other way I’ve found to remove clips from the “Your session” favourites bar, which seems like more of a bug than an oversight; surely the “add to session” button should become “remove from session” once I’ve added them?) Update: Tom Francis confirms that the button does reset your progress (and sounds like he didn’t mean to:)
PSA: 'Delete user session data' in Her Story is not for clearing that 'user session' videos bit, it wipes everything and restarts the game.
— Tom Francis (@Pentadact) June 25, 2015
And As For The Games…
Gone Home took me 75 minutes but I enjoyed it more than I expected. It felt a little laboured when I was lacking for inspiration on how to progress, but I experienced a good story just by wandering around and reading and listening. Her Story took me about 150 minutes, but felt much faster. I was busy making notes and building up a list of prospective search terms. In Her Story in particular, I felt like I was trying to get into the head of my opponent: not the fictional murder suspect in the videos, but the writer/designer who’d set out the puzzle. My list consisted of both facts: places, people, objects, and thematic terms: metaphors or motifs that would lead me to other clips. A really fascinating experience to work your way through.
One of the marvels of both games is that different players can come away having gained or missed vital parts of the pictures. I only by chance spotted a note just before the end of Gone Home with the truth about the character’s parents’ weekend away. I have a good idea of the suspect’s life in Her Story, but what if I missed some vital detail that added a new spin? And to be honest, I’m still a little hazy on one or two details, even after finishing the game. Her Story is also very non-linear; it’s like the comic-pack Building Stories in that different people will have their own path through the pieces of story, and sometimes you can go back over an old piece with a different spin provided by another piece. It would be really interesting to see the order in which different players discovered different key clips.
Review note: I played Gone Home and Her Story on PC in late June 2015 (the release day version of Her Story).