Telling Lies Review
Telling Lies is the follow-up to Sam Barlow’s breakout hit, Her Story, an interactive movie where you assumed the role of an initially unidentified avatar and trawled through footage of multiple ‘90s interviews between the police and one woman, gradually piecing together the parts of her story to understand what happened and why. Its brilliance was that you only had the ability to search for keywords spoken in a video, meaning you would find and watch clips, gathering information differently to anyone else and enabling your story when learning about her story. Telling Lies pulls the same trick in a bigger and different way, and nearly delivers the same level of brilliance. Nearly, but not quite.
In Telling Lies everything appears bigger and better. There is a cast of characters, it is set between 2017 and 2018 (so video clips are modern-day quality) and you’re not hearing somebody recount what happened from their perspective — you’re actually seeing events unfold as they happen. You once again play the role of an initially unidentified woman who has gained access to an external hard drive with various video recordings from all manner of sources — TVs, computers, phones and more. Search is your tool again and any hits are limited to five, which is frustrating if you want to see the later videos containing that term, but that’s the game forcing you to find other keywords and phrases to look for to help tell the narrative.
Any video clip you see begins at the point where the search term is spoken. This means you might jump in at the beginning, middle or end of a scene, and you can play it forwards or backwards by dragging on the screen, or clicking and sliding your mouse, to see the rest of that particular section. You quickly learn that watching any movie gives you just one side of the conversation. Simultaneously brilliant and frustrating, it leads to a lot of dead time watching for facial tics, body movements and visual cues, or skipping time to get to the next words. If you are watching closely though, you can work out perhaps who is on the other end and how to find that side of the chat.
In the game your character has sat down at midnight to start watching these films and every hour you’re brought back into that world by something happening in the apartment. It’s not important what happens, merely that the next time check has happened; by 5 AM the game will be done and you’ll have found key trigger videos which tell the spine of the story. It’s around that spine where much of the flavour rests. As you move through the videos and learn more about the protagonist and the three other main characters, as well as the myriad of supporting players, you’ll find yourself compelled to keep going. My first playthrough was in two sittings with the time spent in-between merely a chance for me to wrestle with what I had seen so far. I then had to put it all together in my head to work out the next essential search terms and beyond. I played through a second time from scratch straight after, using what I’d learnt to both get to the end more quickly and find some of the hundred-plus clips I’d missed in my first run. There are well over two hundred films in total, each lasting up to seven minutes. There’s a lot of story, a lot of video and a lot of levels to what’s happening.
Telling Lies feels like a big budget version of Her Story. This is no more evident than in the quality and size of cast and film. Logan Marshall-Green, alumnus of Prometheus and Spider-Man: Homecoming plays David, the protagonist; Alexandra Shipp, Storm in X-Men: Apocalypse, Kerry Bishé from Scrubs and Narcos as well as Angela Sarafyan from Westworld complete the main cast. It’s impressive for a game, perhaps helped by the fact Annapurna Interactive — the game’s publisher — is a subsidiary of Annapurna Pictures, and the quality of acting shines through. As you piece together parts of each person’s life and the overall story from start to finish, it’s easy to see how these actors bought into what Sam Barlow was doing from his and Amelia Gray’s (writer of some Mr. Robot episodes) script, and played their parts to ensure Telling Lies hits the levels it needed to.
That is, levels of narrative excellence. Telling Lies is an interactive movie. Its game mechanics are the next version of what we’ve seen before, with some added challenges like the dead time in films, but what allows the game to succeed is the story it’s telling first and foremost, and how it is told second. That story is rich in detail and strand, with the player empowered to watch as much or as little of it as they find, or choose to watch once found. It’s presented uniquely and acted superbly. As you peel back each layer and piece together the random strands spread over time, you’ll form a picture of what happened and you’ll appreciate this whichever route you took to get there. You’re unlikely to be wowed quite like you may have been with Her Story. There’s no big twist or sizable tangent unless you get to one of the latter videos very early on, skipping a lot of the detail between start and finish.
With Telling Lies, Sam Barlow has followed up the surprise indie hit of 2015 with an intelligent and superbly crafted drama where everything is bigger and better in setup, and in practice is really rather good. It doesn’t quite hit you like Her Story did as it’s doing the same thing in a different way, and without the same narrative tricks. That isn’t a bad thing though, as it means you’re left with a brilliantly realised drama that’s well acted and feels like a step-up in production. The best thing about Telling Lies perhaps is that it’s likely to linger in your memory, long after you’ve finished playing.
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