August 27, 2019

Review: Telling Lies

Back in the summer of 2015, a relatively unknown indie developer named Sam Barlow released a game called Her Story, which was unlike quite anything else around at the time. A narrative adventure game set in a police interrogation footage desktop database, the game allowed players to explore a non linear narrative regarding a woman accused of a fairly serious crime by searching keywords and watching clips. The whole core of the game was picking out important keywords in spoken dialogue, picking threads to unravel, and trying to piece together the order of events, and the answer of what really happened.

Her Story’s non linear narrative structure worked really well for a mystery narrative, with the answer never hidden from the player unfairly, and simply requiring the right thoughts about how to unmuddle it. The game was also pretty brave, in that it allowed players to finish the game at pretty much any time they felt they knew what the solution was, and did not give a definitive right or wrong interpretation of its events. There was enough solid evidence provided that players didn’t feel left in the dark about the true course of events, with enough room for interpretation that there was a lot of room for debate and disagreement over the specifics. It made for great post game discussions, even if the mystery nature of the game was hard to recommend properly without creating spoilers. When the whole point of the game is to know the right words to get to an answer, being told a character name, or a location, or even the nature of the crime at play can give early hints that impact the flow of self discovery.

As a big proponent of Her Story when it released, giving it the highest possible score and an editor’s recommendation at the site I wrote for at the time, I was incredibly excited to check out Barlow’s follow up, Telling Lies, as soon as it released. The sequel follows much of the same basic formula, but ramps up the complexity of its plot, and asks more of its player’s detective skills.

Telling Lies focuses on the stories of four characters, rather than the single character in Her Story. Players are still searching for video clips of conversations, but rather than monologues told to a police officer they are halves of online video calls. The fact that these video clips only capture one participant in a video call is a really interesting choice, as it means a lot of the footage you’ll watch will be told through facial expressions, non verbal cues, and reactions. A lot of the time you have to piece together context from how a person reacts when not speaking. Are they being shouted at for doing something wrong? Are they concerned but being reassured? The pictures you paint of the silent half of a conversation not only inform the way you imagine the person being spoken with, but can also offer hints as to what words might help you find the other side of the discussion. Sometimes I was more fixated on finding the other half of a discussion rather than the next big plot point, just because I was invested in getting the full context for a discussion before moving on from it.

The acting on show in Telling Lies is of a really superb quality, which is vital, as the non verbal aspects of the narrative would not have worked without actors able to play emotions honestly and visibly. The character’s individual plot threads make satisfying narrative sense, and the feeling of victory as you progress into the narrative through a smart word search is still as strong as with Barlow’s original.

One thing that’s important to note about Telling Lies, and it’s going to be a turn off for certain types of players, is the level of intimacy / privacy invasion necessitated by the core conceit of the game. Most of the game’s discussions are very personal moments, like long distance family bedtime calls, and while that really helped me to get more invested in these characters as fleshed out people with lives outside of the core plot, it did at times feel uncomfortably like I was digging into things not meant for me. Where Her Story focused on police interrogation videos, clips knowingly recorded and meant to be watched back by people, these moments all feel like they’re things you were never meant to see. It reminded me of the discomfort I at times felt playing A Normal Lost Phone and it’s sequel. You’re digging through deeply personal information, and without a clear indication of your role in the story at the start, it’s sometimes tough to not feel like you should just walk away and stop picking through these moments.

It’s not going to be a deal breaker for everyone, but it certainly caused me a few moments of uncomfortable tension I didn’t experience in the same way with Her Story.

In terms of the moment to moment Gameplay in Telling Lies, because of its wider character and plot scope, I found myself a lot more reliant on a physical notebook to help keep plots, characters, and key words from being forgotten. I had pages going for specific characters, plot threads that I didn’t want to break up my flow to pull at, random keywords to search, and I was constantly trying to note down what word brought me to what piece of information in case it needed revisiting. It’s such a big narrative that it’s really easy to tell yourself you’ll remember to come back to something, and miss it entirely because there’s always so many other things worth heading for. In many ways it reminded me more of something like Return of the Obra Dinn than the original Her Story in terms of the amount of information I needed to keep track of and reference.

My first playthrough of Telling Lies took around seven hours to feel like I had seen enough to not only know the major plot beats, but also have seen enough of the specifics to feel like I wasn’t leaving things I was curious about needlessly unexplored. I probably couple have ended my first playthrough a couple of hours before that, but I was invested enough in the characters to persevere. I got maybe 75% of the in game clips in that time, and may try to get the rest of them at a later date.

While Telling Lies requires more note taking, keeping more plots square at once, and a greater degree of comfort with invasions of privacy, the end result is a game that recaptures much of what made Her Story so interesting, without feeling like it is simply retreading old ground. It’s a fascinating, well acted, intimate story I am incredibly glad I made the time to play. This is Sam Barlow back at his best, and once again a masterpiece that requires minimal gaming literacy to enjoy. I already have some non gamer family members I am considering setting the game up for soon.