Storytelling is stored deep in our DNA; the late much-lamented Terry Pratchett posited the theory that the world runs on narrativium, which is as essential to life as water and nourishment. (OK, it was a fictional character who did the positing, but don’t try to kid me Sir Terry didn’t believe it, like so many of the thought-provoking ideas lurking under the great yarns he spun.) And as technology advances, it offers new options, new and innovative ways to maintain well-worn traditions – always has, right back to the time when people sent messages to their deities by scratching images with a sharpened stone on a cave or cliff wall.
Technology as it is today never ceases to amaze me. Sometimes in a baffling way, often in a frustrating one, but amaze me it does nonetheless. Last week it grabbed my attention yet again, and introduced me to yet another new and innovative place on the narrative continuum: part video game, part murder mystery, all good fun and a great way to gather a family or a group of friends round a table to pool their mental resources.
It’s called Her Story, and it would have been unthinkable twenty years ago, simply because it makes use of a whole bunch of technological devices which either didn’t exist at all or were in their infancy. It’s based on video clips in a searchable database (hey, would you listen at me, using the jargon!), and relies on the players’ perception and imagination to tease the story out.
Now for the difficult part: explaining how it works and why it’s fun to play without giving too much away. Here goes. The game consists of over 270 video clips, some a couple of minutes long, others just a few seconds. Each clip is part of a police interview; you hear the answers, but not the questions, which in one sequence at least is a little unhelpful to put it mildly.
Players access the clips by searching for words used by the interviewee – but the catch is that no matter how many clips the search word is used in, you only get to see five. And it’s no use searching for the same word again: you’ll just get the same five clips. Lateral thinking is a useful skill here, and possibly a computer skill or three which people under forty are more likely to possess than we golden girls and boys, though we managed fine without.
Choose your search words with care and imagination, and slowly and painstakingly the story will take shape, and build up into something as complex as, say, a Val McDermid novel. For readers of crime fiction for who the chief joy is piecing together the clues and arriving at the right conclusion before the sleuth gets there, it’s potentially a joy – except there’s no sleuth to beat to the punch, of course. For people like me, who prefer to let the good guys on the page get on with solving the crime while we enjoy getting to know the characters and soaking up the ambience, there’s still plenty to like; the sole character is pretty complex, and she paints rich word-pictures of both people and places.
I’m guessing that in some cases here I’m preaching to the choir; it’s hard to believe that in a community of crime fiction lovers (that’s what Dead Guys is, isn’t it?), I’m the only person who has discovered it. I didn’t pluck it from the air, or happen upon it by accident; I was told about it, and word gets around. I learned of the existence of Her Story from my daughter, who is arguably an even more avid reader of crime fiction than I am, and loves playing these kinds of games as well.
But if you didn’t know about it, and you’re interested, here’s a warning: I’m not going to give away spoilers, but Wikipedia does and I expect other sites do too, so if I whet your appetite to the extent that you go in search of the game and are willing to part with real money to play it (nothing good comes free, after all, but it costs less than a paperback book), better take care where you look it up online. It was created – I hesitate to say written, since there’s so much more to it than words – by a guy called Sam Barlow; search for his name plus the name of the game and you’ll find it without any unwanted revelations.
I make no secret of the fact that in general, technology and I do not get along. But last week we found... let’s call it a way of communicating. I don’t promise we’ll be best friends in future, but maybe if there’s someone there to press the right buttons, we may find ourselves chatting in the kitchen at the same party now and again.