Zephyo’s He Beat Her is a sobering reminder of how complex, tragic, and deeply disturbing domestic abuse is. In this game, you play as a lawyer during the last 5 minutes of a domestic abuse case–you use your last 5 minutes to try to do something to turn the case around using nothing but your wit and information you’ve gathered from other attempts at turning the case around.
The game itself is rather short–one “action” in the game usually takes no more than 5 minutes, and if you’re aiming to get all the endings, probably no more than 30-45 depending on whether or not you want to use the walkthrough that’s linked to in the game itself–but I’ll talk about that a bit later (suffice to say: Yes. You will need the walkthrough). The game begins with you saying that there’s 5 minutes left and that you need to turn the case around–you have time to do one more thing, what do you do? Then you type out what you want to do. Because you’re actually typing out what you want to do–rather than have a list of options–He Beat Her really pushes your creative thinking. From there, you try to gather information to piece together what, exactly, happened to your client and his ex and ultimately, get the verdict you want.
Probably the first thing you’ll notice about He Beat Her is the jaw dropping illustrations done by the game dev herself–Zephyo–who is astonishingly only 18 years old. The stylish graphics not only help set the tone for the game with their sunbeat faces, wispy hair, and dream-like backgrounds, but also help build up the mysterious aura this game exudes. Every single screen in this game feels like its own piece of art rather than simply a basic screen for a given point in a game made out of necessity. When it comes to knockout visuals, He Beat Her is exemplary.
But aside from being a beautiful game, He Beat Her is a tragic game full of mystery and intrigue. What, exactly, happened between your client and his ex? Did he really beat her? What were their motives? Was anyone in the right? Are you doing the right thing by defending your client in light of what happened? These are only some of the questions you’ll try to answer. Despite its particularly short length, He Beat Her manages to jam every second full of suspense–and generally does this quite well. I say generally because the story is perhaps He Beat Her’s greatest asset and weakness.
As I said before, the story of He Beat Her is one full of mystery or intrigue–or at least, what you can make of it is. There’s nothing wrong with leaving some aspects of a story up for interpretation, but He Beat Her does this just often enough to make it feel like the writing was simply incomplete rather than intentionally up for interpretation. There are just enough points in the story left unaddressed despite your efforts that you can’t be totally certain what, exactly, happened in some points of the story. For gamers with a high tolerance for fill-in-the-blank stories this won’t be an issue, but personally, I can only take so much and He Beat Her surpasses my threshold–and not just by a little. Even after playing through every ending of this game, I only think I know what happened–and even then, there’s still many aspects of the story that remain aloof.
Perhaps due to the heavy subject matter of He Beat Her, its vagueness makes this game itself feel morally ambiguous in many ways. This isn’t entirely a bad thing, of course–in fact, to a certain degree, I quite like that about this game. It makes you totally reconsider the case at hand and reminds the player that things aren’t always what they seem and there’s not always a black and white solution for who was right and who was wrong. Unfortunately, though, simply too many aspects of the story of what went down between your client and the plaintiff are left unexplained to give the player enough information to let you have a justified opinion on who was in the right and who was in the wrong–or even if either of them were, for that matter. By not giving the player enough information to form a solid opinion, it ruins what could have been an otherwise fascinating aspect of the story and how the player relates to it. The true story of what happened between the plaintiff and the client (and other side characters) is like a carrot being dangled in front of the player’s face–what tidbits you can get of it make you want the whole thing so badly and you know it’ll be fantastic, but ultimately, the game just won’t let you have it despite your efforts.
The true story of what happened between the plaintiff and the client is like a carrot being dangled in front of the player’s face–what tidbits you can get of it make you want the whole thing so badly and you know it’ll be fantastic, but ultimately, the game just won’t let you have it despite your efforts.
There are two specific, prominent examples of He Beat Her’s overwhelming vagueness that come to mind (skip this paragraph to avoid spoilers): Chrissa and Gianna’s relationship with the player. Chrissa, as you can piece together from the game, is the plaintiff’s dog who she’s sad about (I think because she died?). Not that I know for sure because I couldn’t find a single route–even with the walkthrough’s help–that ever mentioned Chrissa prior to your asking the plaintiff about her. Thus, you wouldn’t be prompted to mention Chrissa. Effectively, this means you have to check the walkthrough to progress in the game and no game should require you to check the walkthrough. Second, and perhaps more notable, is Gianna’s relationship to the player. You play as the lawyer of this case, meaning you shouldn’t be directly involved–yet you seem to sometimes remember what appears to be the repressed memory of the red headed Gianna. Gianna’s relationship to this case is that she was the plaintiff’s best friend–possibly lover (see what I mean? This game is just too vague)–and manipulated the plaintiff. So why do we seem to know her so well–to the point where you’re repressing your very memory of her and just thinking of red hair brings you to tears? Moreover, when you call her, she certainly doesn’t speak as though she’s speaking to the lawyer of her so-called-friend’s ex (who beat her, no less). There are abundant clues to indicate that you, the lawyer, have a more personal tie to Gianna, but what that is or even could be is simply never addressed. The phone call with her as a whole, in fact, felt very effortless in the way it was slapped in and just handed you exposition in a plain way (something that the game seems to make an effort in otherwise avoiding).
What concrete story you can unearth through all the vagueness is a great one, though. It’s a riveting tale that’ll keep you guessing until the very end (which is good, because you’ll have to guess quite a bit). It’s a story with many twists and turns that tells the player that there won’t always be a party that’s right and a party that’s wrong–sometimes it’s more complex than that. Despite the ambiguity, you can piece together what appears to be a bottom-line kind of story; and that story is a deeply disturbing (albeit vague) tale of manipulation and betrayal that stands with some of gaming’s other most twisted tales of domestic abuse (EX: Jacopo and the White Haired Girl in The House in Fata Morgana).
To make things perfectly clear, He Beat Her has an important message but it’s probably not the one you’re thinking of when you notice that it’s a game about domestic abuse. It’s not about why you should always go to the police (case in point: You’re in court. Someone’s already done that in this game), it’s not about why you shouldn’t abuse anyone physically or emotionally in the first place, it’s not about Stockholm syndrome. If you were looking for a game to let a victim of domestic abuse play to help inspire them to speak up and tell the authorities, then this isn’t what you were looking for. He Beat Her isn’t a story about why domestic abuse is wrong, it’s a story about what happens when you trust the wrong people that happens to involve domestic abuse.
He Beat Her isn’t a story about why domestic abuse is wrong, it’s a story about what happens when you trust the wrong people that happens to involve domestic abuse.
He Beat Her is a game about what happens when you put your trust in the wrong people and why you should always talk your problems out with anyone you may have them with before tensions run too high and explode–in the case of He Beat Her, they explode into a domestic abuse case in which it’s never quite clear who threw the first punch. It’s a game about why you should never be afraid to cut toxic people out of your life, regardless of how close you think you might be to them, and how there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s a game about why you should always hear all sides of a story before making a judgment despite any stereotypes or biases you may have (and how dangerous those stereotypes and biases may be). These are all very important messages in and of themselves that shouldn’t be ignored just because they’re wrapped in domestic abuse (which, just so we’re clear, the game absolutely makes it clear to the player how truly despicable domestic abuse is and in no way ignores the issue–it just uses it as a climax to a story rather than a theme or overlaying message in the game, which I’m sure many players, like myself, might have originally anticipated).
He Beat Her is a riveting, morally ambiguous narrative that’ll captivate you in its creative concept, clever execution, stellar art, and mysterious aura. It may not be ideal if you’re looking for a game that’ll inspire an abuse victim to seek help, but as far as being a narrative that involves domestic abuse and what can cause it, it certainly won’t disappoint. He Beat Her is a sobering narrative that’ll make tug at your heart strings and drive your moral compass in every direction from start to finish. If nothing else, in all its moral ambiguity it’s incredibly thought-provoking.
He Beat Her is a sobering narrative that’ll make tug at your heart strings and drive your moral compass in every direction from start to finish.
Considering how short He Beat Her is and that it’s completely free, it’s hard to pass it up. If you’re in the mood for a game with subject matter on the heavier side or a good mystery, there’s really no reason to not at least give He Beat Her a try. It may not be the most fleshed out game out there, but it’s certainly not worth being overlooked. If you have half an hour to kill, you may as well spend it in the curious tale of He Beat Her.