“Men save their lies for the people who matter…” This line, from one of the first video clips you’re encouraged to watch in Telling Lies, sums up a large chunk of this interactive mystery. Full-motion video combined with convincing performances convey a sombre, but involving tale of deceit, self-delusion and protective good intentions gone awry.
If Telling Lies reminds you of Her Story, the interactive movie game that claimed many 2015 Game of the Year awards, there’s an excellent reason for that. Both games come from British game designer Sam Barlow, with Telling Lies accurately described as a spiritual successor of Her Story. Because while there are many similarities between the two titles, from the virtual desktop gameplay to a hefty dose of fairy tale references in the script, Telling Lies is the more sophisticated, technically-slick game. Then again, it has been four years since Her Story released, and even indie games are expected to have stepped up in that period.
Press play for plot
It’s nearly impossible to talk about the plot of Telling Lies because even the most basic character revelation is a spoiler. You start the game completely in the dark, plot and objective-wise. However, the opening scene shows a woman – the player’s character – rush into an apartment in the middle of the night, open her laptop and access a portable hard drive full of covertly recorded video footage.
This footage – sourced from spy, phone and web cameras – primarily centres on the interactions between one man (Logan Marshall-Green) and three women (Alexandra Shipp, Kerry Bishe and Angela Sarafyan) over a two-year period. For the most part, each clip is only one half of a conversation, so it’s up to the player to find the matching clip, piece together the bigger picture and answer the question “Why were these people under electronic surveillance in the first place?” That, it turns out, has to do with some highly topical socio-political issues, although you may be more interested in the complexities of the characters’ personal lives than the grand overarching narrative.
Telling Lies can probably be best classified as a “downtime” game. It’s low effort, with gameplay demands limited to typing keywords, fast-forwarding and rewinding through date-marked video footage, bookmarking apparently important moments and making onscreen notes as you go. That’s it. Telling Lies is ideal as a mobile game (currently only for Apple devices) and as interactive home viewing, on your desktop, in the Bandersnatch vein after a long day. You don’t want to go long periods between play sessions though, as you risk losing your grip on the multiple dangling plot threads.
For FMV or heavily motion-captured games to work, they require convincing acting to engage the player. As with any other performance-centred entertainment medium, amateur hour tugs you out of the story and destroys the experience. In the case of Telling Lies, fortunately, the acting is one of the game’s greatest strengths.
The main cast of moderately familiar faces – yes, that’s the X-Men’s younger Storm and Westworld’s Clementine – does excellent work with the naturalistic dialogue from Barlow and co-writer Amelia Gray. Even as you explore the narrative in a non-linear manner, you develop a sense of the characters’ changing moods and growing frustrations. Marshall-Green (also a producer on the game) and Bishe do a lot of the heaviest emotional lifting, while Sarafyan’s cam girl is an intriguing enigma, bouncing between on-screen personae and apparently candid behind-the-feed revelations.
“Truth” with a time limit
The only real downside of Telling Lies is its lack of clarity on certain gameplay aspects. In Her Story, the player could scavenge through police interview footage at leisure, with in-game email accompanying lightbulb moments. Telling Lies, by contrast, has a time limit. Without being told this, you have five in-game hours, from midnight to 5am, to make sense of what’s going on. At dawn, your character has to destroy the footage and hotfoot it out of their apartment. At this point, a final report is generated based on the characters and story arcs you’ve put the most time into. This will also determine the epilogue scene that’s played. After this point, you’re encouraged to play the game again from scratch, following an unexplored keyword trail to produce a different end result.
To be fair, one full session should expose you to around half the in-game footage. And, after the 5am mark, you can still watch clips and generate updated reports. It’s just frustrating to have an ending sprung on you. Also, although the player is directed to certain key files early on, fundamental information is not easily available. For example, while the player can guess why their character, continually reflected in the virtual desktop, does what she does, it’s never explicitly stated. Having watched essentially a hundred clips, I still don’t understand her motivations or obsession with the truth.
Telling Lies draws you in with its potent combination of performances and narrative cleverly broken up into puzzle pieces. However, the satisfaction is tempered in the end by essentially having the laptop slammed on you while you’re in the middle of a deep dive into this world of meaty secrets and lies.
Telling Lies is out now for PC, Mac and iOS devices.
Last Updated: September 9, 2019