Her Story, the Involuntary Performative, and You

Author: Sara Raffel

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Her Story is an undeniably unique narrative—that’s why it’s won so many awards since its release in June 2015—but what gives it its immersive draw? Short answer: it successfully uses the involuntary performative to position the player as interior to the narrative and discourse of the game. In this post, I’m going to first define the involuntary performative in terms of narratology, and secondly unravel some of the ways Her Story uses it.

I was first introduced to the idea of the involuntary performative by media scholar Jill Walker’s dissertation. [Note: She now publishes as Jill Walker Rettberg.] Whenever a narrative uses the second person, “you,” to address the reader, it’s employing the involuntary performative. The reader is implicated in the story by the act of reading the words—an act they can’t undo. In traditional, linear literature, Walker argues, the phenomenon is rare, with reflexive statements about the reading itself being the most common (93). For example, if I was to use the involuntary performative as part of this post, I might say something like, “Are you still reading? Great.” You must still be reading to read the question, so you can only answer in the affirmative. Narrative scholar Irene Kacandes confirms, “one can’t help doing what one is told, as long as one keeps reading . . . [A]ffirmative ‘answers’ are generated . . . as soon as the questions are read by someone–by anyone” (142)!

Interactive literature—or games—complicate how authors can use the involuntary performative. Not only can they draw the reader or player into the narrative, they can create a complicated relationship between the player and the narrative, in which the player might make decisions that impact other aspects of the story. In this situation, the player becomes internal to the story, but may not feel immersed if the “you” addressed by the narrative doesn’t align with their self-perception. Though I’ve addressed you, gentle reader, in this post, you’re external to this text. Despite being a digital piece, this post is linear and static, not terribly different in form and function from a printed page. However, in my act of writing and your act of reading on the internet, we are both internal to the larger discourse of this network. Cue Inception music.

To summarize up to this point: use of “you” to address the reader/player invokes the involuntary performative, but for the reader/player to become internal to the discourse, they need to have meaningful interaction with the story.

Warning: This discussion contains spoilers from here on out. Do not read further if you want to experience the narrative spontaneously.

How does Her Story use the involuntary performative to bring the player into the discourse? In case you haven’t read about or played the game, here’s a synopsis:

The player is doing research on a murder that occurred in 1994. To conduct this research, they have access to an old database of video interviews. The desktop looks like it’s from the 90s, with clunky icons and a lurid teal background. When the player first enters the game, they see a database window with “MURDER” typed in the search bar and a row of video thumbnails displayed. Via a “README” file on the desktop, the player learns they can use the search bar to find words in the video transcripts. The game is played simply by searching for terms that uncover new videos and advance the murder mystery. Each video is shot from the point of view of the interviewer, and they range from only a few seconds to a few minutes in length. The interviewee, a woman played by actress Viva Seifert, sits across the table and answers questions unheard by the camera, so hers is the only voice in the game. In the story, her name is Hannah, and she’s the victim’s wife, and is also a prime suspect in his murder.

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Seifert plays the suspect with intrigue and emotional complexity; as a player there were moments when I felt intrusive searching for terms like “sex” and “argument.” And then, when I’d run into a dead end, my search yielding no new video clips, I felt guilty testing search terms, clinically typing in slight variations on verb tenses, as if I was being flippant or hadn’t listened well enough to the subject’s story. However, during this portion of the game, the “character” I was playing was still myself. Though I was interior to the narrative, having been granted access to this database in a fictional world as “AUTH_GUEST,” I was searching without any perceived relationship to the characters in the murder mystery.

Once the player views a certain percentage of the database, a new icon pops up on the desktop, a chat window. Clicking on it brings up an instant message. The player must tell the person on the other end of the chat whether they’re finished viewing. I opened it a few times, unsure if I had really seen all I needed to see and fairly certain typing “yes” into the chat window would finish the narrative; you can only type “yes” or “no,” and “no” takes you back to the search window. Finally, having viewed most of the videos and with a good idea in mind as to what I thought happened, I elected to end the game.

“Do you understand why your mother did what she did?” the chat window inquired.

Suddenly, I was implicated in the story. I thought I understood the plot, or I wouldn’t have gotten that far, but I made that choice before I was internal to the story’s discourse. This interview subject, once an unrelated fascination, was my mother who killed my father. Her Story’s interactivity, the use of search terms to uncover snippets about the subject’s life, her habits, and her personality, is a meaningful interaction even if the player never decides to end the game. It brings up myriad questions about identity, including: what can we learn about someone by Googling them? Is this collection of search results truly, as the title claims, her story? It can’t be, because there are questions I still have about Hannah, and there are conflicting fan theories as to the “real” story.

With the words “you” and “your,” I became part of the narrative. I was a daughter looking for any means by which to understand my mother. Having gotten to the “end” of the story, every action I had already taken became more meaningful, because the user of the involuntary performative ensured I had a relationship to the other characters. I typed “yes” into the chat window—yes, I understood why my mother did what she did, but I more importantly understood why I would care about decades-old interrogation footage. I realized the “her” referred to in the title of Her Story might not be Hannah at all. Rather, she is “you,” Hannah’s daughter.

Image credit: All images are taken from the Her Story official website, http://www.herstorygame.com/.