Review: Telling Lies

Her Story was something of a genre-buster, a game that refused to sit neatly in any of gaming’s handy stylistic shorthands. It was a detective game where the detectoring took place off screen, in my case on several sheets of tatty printer paper. It was an interactive movie where the player’s interaction was typing keywords into a box. It was a linear narrative experience where every playthrough was unique. It took the idea of the FMV game and turned it on its head and in doing so created one of the most captivating mysteries gaming had seen in years.

Telling Lies is not a direct sequel to Her Story in narrative terms. Mechanically too it is arguably an expansion rather than a sequel, a Her Story with…more. More videos to explore, more characters to invest in, more search entries to try, more immersive elements to drag and keep you in the world it is evoking. For a game that arguably innovates so little it is surprising then that it is potentially one of the best games of the year.

Photo by Lianhao Qu on Unsplash

The goal, if the game even has such a thing, is to pour over hours of secretly recorded video calls and create some semblance of a story from these scraps of conversation. There is no real win state here, just an option to wrap up your investigation once the in-game clock reaches a certain time. The confusing nature of this end state (is it based on video length? Number of clips watched? Games of Solitaire completed?) is a confusing way to wrap the whole thing up but it stands alone as the game’s one material flaw.

You are given no information at the start, no direction at all save that the clips you are watching were obtained from a top-secret government surveillance protocol and that you probably shouldn’t be watching them. A slick FMV intro introduces us to the player character Karen but we are given no idea of who she is or why, with your assistance, she is looking through these particular clips. The game begins with her autonomously typing a single word into the text box, LOVE, and from there you’re on your own. It is a brazenly intimidating introduction and something of a departure from the overt tutorialisation of most modern titles. But it works.

What unfolds over the next 4 to 5 hours is a marvel of game design, hidden so well as to be invisible. Each clip is one side of a conversation and a huge part of the game is finding the partner to each. Subtle hints are laid through each character’s dialogue, repetition of questions, unique words, references to specific incidents, and these can be tracked and traced using the game’s search engine. Each video also bares a timestamp and finding a clip from the same date and time as one already watched becomes an immensely satisfying experience.

It could also easily have become a mess. It’s not hard to imagine a version of Telling Lies where the story is lost amongst needless obfuscation and conjecture leading to constant dead ends and restarts. But this is not that game. I won’t pretend to know exactly how director Sam Barlow has achieved it but there is never a feeling of aimlessness here, or of being overwhelmed. Yes piecing together the whole tale will require copious note taking (this time on the in-game notepad) and multiple playthroughs (the game has three endings depending on which character you spent most time with) but the modular construction of the story means each new video contains something to latch onto, or some clue to lead the player further down the rabbit hole. There even seems to be a level of prediction at play, prediction made by the developers of likely player behaviour; some seemingly random search words uncover videos that are otherwise extremely well hidden. The whole thing flows in a way that is hard to parse and magnificent to behold.

All of which would mean nothing if the story wasn’t worth telling. Thankfully, it is anything but. Without going into specifics the plot revolves around Logan Marshall-Green’s character, who shall remain unnamed here, and three women who enter his life in a variety of ways. To say any more would be to spoil the ensuing rollercoaster but needless to say lies and deceit play a huge role in the unwinding narrative. Catching a character in a fib is a real fist-pumping moment or, depending on the context, a shock that changes the very fabric of where you thought the story was going. By the end of even the most cursory playthrough these characters shine as deftly written personalities, each with their own agendas and very real motivations. The performances too are uniformly excellent, with special mention due to Angela Sarafyan and Alexandra Shipp for their portrayals of two complex, multilayered characters who engross and enthral.

This is a game that lingers in the mind long after the last ending has concluded and the credits rolled. It left me wanting more in that way all great artworks do; more stories, more characters, more little mysteries that are never quite solved. But there is no more. That there is still nothing else like it save its predecessor became a momentary absurdity as I sat for a day wanting nothing but a new set of videos to browse through and mysteries to uncover.

And this is perhaps the greatest compliment one can pay Telling Lies: that Sam Barlow has created not only a compelling new game but an entirely new way to tell stories.