Her Story: Splintered Selves and Shattered Narratives

Stories about doubles and dopplegängers abound. My first encounter with them was probably Stephen King’s The Dark Half, which follows in a long line of stories about cisgender men struggling against their own divided psyche. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde set the mold for Anglophone literature that focused on the supposed duality of man, featuring protagonists struggling to overcome his darker natures. Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Wizard of Earthsea takes a slightly more Jungian approach, with a man who unites facets of his splintered self.

Originating in the German Schauerroman and the British Gothic novel, the doppelgänger, like the vampire, was a product of early nineteenth-century fascination with folklore; derived from the superstitious belief that seeing one’s double is an omen of death, the doppelgänger motif fuses supernatural horror with a philosophical enquiry concerning personal identity and a psychological investigation into the hidden depths of the human psyche. (Gry Faurholt)

The majority of dopplegänger stories had male protagonists. When focused on women, they’ve generally leaned into the split between patriarchal conceptions of femininity: virgin/whore, good girl/femme fatale. Simone Beauvoir, in The Second Sex, wrote, “There is no figurative image of woman which does not call up at once its opposite: she is Life and Death, Nature and Artifice, Daylight and Night. Under whatever aspect we consider her, we always find the same shifting back and forth.”

In Her Story, a 2015 game developed by Sam Barlow and performed by Viva Seifert, the tropes of duality are imploded. Moreover, the narrative itself is shattered, and players are responsible for piecing it imperfectly back together. It’s an intricate story that makes full use of its non-linear structure.

In Her Story, you, the player, are given access to an old (think Windows 95) database of video clips. All of the clips feature a woman being interviewed at a police station about the disappearance of her husband. Her name is Hannah, she says. “It’s a palindrome. It reads the same backwards as forwards? It doesn’t work if you mirror it, though. It’s not quite symmetrical.”

There are five interviews that have been chopped up into hundreds of clips, some a few seconds long, others a couple minutes. You search by inputting keywords or phrases, but can only watch the first five clips the search turns up.

The story that is revealed is strange: Hannah’s hidden twin sister, Eve, was separated from her at birth by their mother’s midwife. Eve grew up watching her from across the street, eventually moving into Hannah’s attic when the midwife died. The two girls then shared a life with nobody the wiser: shared parents (before they died under mysterious circumstances), adventures, and lovers. Until, that is, Hannah got married.

Ambiguity, omission, and elision are narrative forces in Her Story. “It’s hard to know if this is all true,” Eve, or maybe Hannah, says at one point. Barlow’s story sets this ambiguity against repetition, context, and the small physical clues offered by Seiffert’s performance. It creates a uniquely dynamic story, one that revels in disorder.

In an article for PC Gamer, writer Tim Clark explained:

“Information in Her Story… has a cascading effect. A word in one clip will lead to another, which will prompt another line of inquiry, and so on… The most important words act as gates, preventing players from finding critical clips too early in the investigation (unless they get very lucky), which means no two people experience Her Story in quite the same way. But there isn’t a single ‘silver bullet’ clip which nails the whole mystery. Some are more important than others, clearly, but there’s no equivalent of a Poirot-style drawing room scene.

The most popular mainstream games, as a very broad trend, have focused on immersive stories: building massive worlds that players can get lost in. Sam Barlow took the opposite approach with Her Story, and gives players only a single mechanic that returns a limited view of the story the woman is trying to tell. This is intentional on Barlow’s part, who criticized contemporary games as being “so in love with contiguous, continuous time and space” that they eliminated the imaginative powers of storytelling, and the collaboration between a storyteller and a listener. Open worlds, Barlow seems to argue, are illusory. Restraint opens up so many more possibilities than they shut down.

“All art requires the combination of intense emotional involvement, empathy, and a level of remove that allows you to process the ideas and themes as things happen. The holodeck doesn’t make sense to me as a storytelling idea because it removes the frame, it stops being a story and becomes a theme park.”

While Barlow cites police procedurals and murder mysteries as his main influences, Her Story differs from both in that there’s no clear narrative as to what happened. Those genres rely on the basic premise that a rational, unified truth can be uncovered, if one is clever enough. I find Her Story’s labyrinthine narrative to be much closer to a Gothic romance.

The Gothic refers to a period of Anglophone literature and arts, popular in the 18th and 19th centuries. Some scholars consider the Gothic as a sort of common generic ancestor, a link between horror, mysteries and crime fiction, science fiction, historical fiction, and realism. It’s characterized by a haunting historicity, often exemplified by crumbling old architecture, burdensome secrets, and pasts that refuse to stay buried. Earlier Gothic detective stories, unlike later stories, often examine the limits of modern rationality when it buts up against the ancient, strange, and unknowable.

Her Story contains a lot of Gothic motifs: secrets, girls locked up in attics, bodies in cellars, miscarriages and surprise pregnancies. Besides the dopplegängers, there are recurring mentions of fairy tales and folklore: Eve talks about being locked up by her adopted mother as similar to Rapunzel’s imprisonment by a witch. At one point, one of them sings part of an old murder ballad called “The Dreadful Wind and Rain,” in which one sister drowns the other in a fit of jealousy.

The dualistic split between the sisters—another mainstay of Gothic literature—is present in Her Story, though complicated. Hannah is shown, at least at first, to be the good girl, shy with boys, more than a little prudish. She relies on Eve to flirt and seduce the boys they date. But Hannah is violent, and confesses that she nearly drowned Eve on a beach when they were in their teens. There’s also lingering questions about how the girls’ parents died, from ingesting poisonous mushrooms.

Instead of a bifurcated view of femininity, Barlow presents the two women (if there are two women) as shattered mirrors of each other. This idea is itself reflected by the game’s structure, which offers a tangle of images and impressions that muddy not just the truth, but the very nature of Truth; the idea that there’s a single, objective narrative, untainted by ambiguity.

Sam Barlow’s followup project, Telling Lies, has been billed as Her Story’s spiritual successor. It was released in August, and I’ve played about half of it.

My opinion: it’s not as good. Barlow’s a genius when it comes to pairing mechanics with narrative, but Telling Lies’ ambitions—to make a meaningful commentary about privacy, double consciousness, and the environment—are mismatched with its own cleverness. (And some really frustrating user design as well.) Overall, it feels more journalistic, less intimate, and loses that Gothic tone in favor of a procedural. Instead of an invitation to get lost in a maze, the game feels like a task to gather evidence. Interesting for sure (and cheap as hell, if you get it on mobile) but not nearly as compelling.

One final note: In researching for this, I found a lot of articles on the gendered nature of dopplegänger stories. Which made me wonder: where the eff are the dopplegänger stories by and about transgender people? Like, you wanna talk bifurcated selves? Try trotting through the patriarchal wastelands with dysphoria dragging you down and everyone calling you by the wrong name.

I got a few answers, and will probably send out a little bonus newsletter with links and a reading list. If you know of any stories that fit, please send them my way!

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