Sam Barlow is really on a roll. Although his work on a few Silent Hill entries (Origins, Shattered Memories) put him on the map, it was 2015’s Her Story that made him a household name.
Barlow did a hell of a lot more than just “bring back” the full motion video (FMV) concept that dominated the ’90s, he elevated it in a way many creatives wish they could. Even if he did nothing for the rest of his career he’d be remembered, but Telling Lies manages to somehow continue to up the ante.
Telling Lies (iOS, PC [reviewed])
Developer: Sam Barlow, Furious Bee
Publisher: Annapurna Interactive
Released: August 23, 2019
Telling Lies is part game, part jumbled TV miniseries.
The gist is that you’re acting as an NSA-like agent, observing a small group of people (played by professional actors) by way of a gigantic database of surveillance video under the guise of a spy software called RETINA. To accomplish all this you’ll flip through a fake Windows-esque UI stocked with a faux Solitaire app, a notepad (which I used constantly) and a familiar way to move windows around at your leisure. There’s even files waiting for you in the trash can, which is a nice little touch.
Part of the charm of Telling Lies is that it actually doesn’t instruct you on anything upfront other than that there was an “incident.” The keyword “love” is pre-typed in on the NSA tool UI, which brings up a maximum of five clips, all with metadata dates (if you want more you have to be specific with your searches: this doubles as a way to prevent players from just searching for “the” and watching 100 videos and calling it a day).
The basic outline comes to light after flipping through these clips. There’s a man and a woman, and they have a child. At some point that man moves into an apartment and is in bed with another woman. Okay, I think I get it now. The first thing I did of my own volition was search for a morbid keyword, which brought up one clip. Next: a phrase for an incident. Both are extremely innocuous at first, dealing with two of the character’s attempts to expose “big money corporations” and oil pipelines, or mentioning “death” in the context of a fairy tale told to a child. Continuing on: okay so two of them are activists (or at least claim to be). I now have a framework of the narrative to work with.
From there I started randomly looking for other keywords; uncovering connections and sordid personal details pertaining to each individual when they were alone with their thoughts. 30 minutes in, it all clicked. “Names,” I thought, as I scribbled down what info I could recall on an in-game notepad document. Not just names I knew, mind, but random names, which came up with hits! Now it was all starting to come together. Names, then dates: I had a storyboard and a timeline.
The key is that RETINA forces you to use exact wording (an example it uses is “plane tickets” will find relevant searches, but “don’t forget your plane tickets” might come up with nothing). As previously mentioned, it also limit your results if you just search for something basic and it won’t always show you the entire clip. It’s a giant puzzle anchored by strong performances. You choose how you proceed, you read the characters the way you want, and try to draw your conclusions from there.
It’s an utter thrill to find a key clip and then have it end right as they’re about to give you a huge bit of information. Or when you quickly spot a diploma in the background and jot down another name. Given that most of the conversations feature one character talking to another on a screen of some sort (many feature multiple actors), it’s also interesting to eventually search for, and locate, the other side of that chat based on divining keywords that you’d imagine they’d say, based on the one character’s reaction.
The cast sells it. Logan Marshall-Green (who I will always remember as Ryan’s brother from The O.C.) has been doing some decent work recently, most notably the indie thriller hit Upgrade, and helps keep it all together as the facilitator of the drama. Alexandra Shipp is probably best known as Storm in the newer Fox X-Men universe (and is now on my radar as those films really didn’t give her much to do), Angela Sarafyan was fantastic in her turn as Clementine in Westworld, and Kerry Bishé starred in one of the greatest TV shows of all time: Halt and Catch Fire, among other prestigious and interesting roles.
It’s a tight motley crew and I love that Sam Barlow keeps things intimate here without relying on a bloated cast: Logan Marshall-Green in particular is perfect at drawing you in as a demagogue archetype, walking a tightrope of hatred. Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation is said to be a prime inspiration and it shows, but I also see shades of 2018’s Searching in there given the heavy screen focus.
One of my only hangups is that there is a law enforcement angle that makes it easy to open narrative doors, partially so everything is more palatable for the audience. It never really encroaches “camp” territory per se, but it does allow for some fairly tenuous connections between story threads. In case you’re wondering, there is a way to “beat it” after a few hours, and it does have an ending. I finished it in one sitting and eagerly went back for another run to fill in the gaps.
I can’t stress enough how much Telling Lies might not be for you. Most of it is literally spent watching people talk to a screen, to the point where the puzzle angle, no matter how impressive it might be, might wear down its welcome in minutes. For everyone else, especially avid followers of character-driven art forms, these are performances you can really sink your teeth into while you try to make sense of it all.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]