Back in 2015, Sam Barlow’s Her Story broke new ground with its investigative gameplay, which tasked the player with watching interrogation videos of a woman suspected of murder, digging up the truth of the alleged crime by using reason, deduction, and keen behavioral observation. The game won several awards for its innovative concept and engrossing narrative, and fans have been eagerly anticipating Barlow’s next project.
Releasing later this year, Telling Lies expands on Her Story’s formula in both scale and complexity, though the similarities are strictly conceptual — a sequel this is not. You play as a woman who has come upon a confidential NSA database containing surveillance videos that follow four people whose lives are intertwined in ways that are up to you to uncover. The search bar mechanic from Her Story returns, with which you can use keywords as clues to find videos relevant to your line of investigation. But this time, the videos generally follow two people chatting on Skype or FaceTime, which allows Barlow to hide clues in the background that can only be spotted with a keen eye and extensive use of the game’s scrub mechanic, which allows you to analyze every moment at your pace, forward and backward.
“What you can do is, at any point you can scrub, just like having an old etching machine…which feels really nice,” Barlow says during our chat at E3 2019. “So you can rewind and see what the hell was happening to lead up to this moment, or you can skip to the end. Some of these clips are very long, some of them will start places and end in very different places. So there’s this idea of…exploring the video. Not to get too pretentious, but the core concept of this really is like all the exploratory stuff you do in a video game. Normally in a 3D world, that exploration, we’re applying directly to the story.”
“It’s a little bit like a kind of Metroid game,” Barlow continues. “As you discover things traversed, watch and rewatch clips, you become familiar with them, picking up names, events, people, places, clues. Someone might say, ‘Fuck you, I hate basketball!’ [in a clip], and you might search for ‘basketball.’ And you find the other side of the call where someone’s saying, ‘Hey, let’s go watch basketball.’ So you’re kind of listening for clues that are going to give you the other side of the call.”
Telling Lies looks to be an even deeper investigative rabbit hole than Her Story, with the game’s trailer touting “96 small lies…and one big lie” to unravel. Each piece of footage is designed to be examined meticulously, both visually and audibly. One of the most fascinating aspects of the gameplay and narrative is that the player doesn’t see many of the key moments in the larger mystery story. “We’re only ever going to see what’s happening in their lives when they’re chatting online,” Barlow explains. “So if the characters are in the same room, it wouldn’t make sense for them to have a camera. We’re never going to see that. So actually, a lot of the bigger plot events occur off-camera.”
“The conceit of this is that at any given time you only see one side of the conversation,” Barlow continues. “You have all the different pieces. So when you’re watching a scene, you’re dropped in three minutes in. So [you say], ‘What the fuck is happening? Where am I?’ And at the same time, [sometimes] you don’t know who’s on the other end of the call. You’re jumping between all these different characters, and you’re listening for rhetorical devices. You’re slowly building up this picture.”
Breathing life into the story are the game’s four stars, Alexandra Shipp (X-Men: Apocalypse), Angela Sarafyan (Westworld), Kerry Bishé (The Romanoffs), and Logan Marshall-Green (Prometheus). A project like Telling Lies isn’t a typical acting gig, to say the least, with each actor fulfilling not just their character role, but the role of cameraperson as well.
“They can take the cameras with them,” Barlow says. “And that becomes part of the storytelling. We are telling the story through the locations, through the mise-en-scène…[so] the actors are free. We wanted to set up how we shot this so that they have very small mobile rigs. We shot on location, and all the locations are fully dressed in 360 degrees. So they can move things around.”
The inspiration for the video chat format for the in-game clips came when Barlow was touring to promote Her Story a few years ago, FaceTiming his family in hotel rooms. “[I was inspired by] the body language of that,” Barlow recalls. “It’s interesting, right? Before I Skype my wife, I might make sure of my positioning to the light, and I want the hotel room to look cool. And then we start talking and then she says, ‘I’ve got something bad to tell you about the kids.’ So then I sit down and the body language is completely different.”
Barlow is breaking ground with Telling Lies in several ways, and it can be argued that he’s created a new way to tell and experience stories. The project’s uniqueness is built into the way players interact with the content, which is different from how we typically do with, say, conventional video games and movies.
“So if I’m playing a first-person shooter,” Barlow explains, “I’ve got two sticks, a whole bunch of buttons and I’m trying to shoot the head of a monster over here. I’m also thinking about where am I headed in this map? What’s my objective? All this stuff is going on. Which is why that first-person shooter is incredibly involving because it’s actively engaging my brain. But if you’re going to try to tell a story in that shooter, you’re probably waiting until the end of the battle and then doing a cutscene. So you’re struggling to find the mental energy for people to invest in the story. Whereas if I go and watch a movie, all of my mental energy is looking at the screen. I’m thinking what’s going to happen next in the story? I’m reading the subtext in characters’ performance. I’m using a lot of my brain, my imagination to bring this story to life.”
“The beautiful thing [with Telling Lies],” Barlow continues, “is that the gameplay and the story are kind of married, and actually the more I concentrate, the more I scrutinize what’s happening in these clips, what they’re saying, what their face is saying, noticing details in the background…that becomes essentially the gameplay. It’s a very immersive experience.”
Helping build the immersion is the game’s interface, which is technically a first-person perspective of the unnamed woman as she works from her home computer. You can see a vague reflection of her face in the computer screen, and there are also layers of audio that create the illusion that you’re in her head, literally and figuratively.
“You’re hearing the apartment that she’s in, you can hear the sounds all around you as you play the game. You’re hearing the sounds of New York shifting as the time changes. But every now and then the music will come in and it will kind of adapt and reflect how you can explore in the story. It’s very much this extra layer that is digging into the general exploration you’re doing.”
Judging from the brief glimpse Barlow gave us of the game (he didn’t want to show too much for fear of spoilers, understandably), the atmosphere and tone feel dark, evocative, dangerous, with a sort of neo-noir overall aesthetic. When asked if he used films as points of inspiration, Barlow cited a handful of cinema classics, with one shot in a Nicholas Roeg masterpiece directly inspiring the game’s scrub mechanic.
“I initially pitched [Telling Lies] to Annapurna as it’s like Sex, Lies, and Videotape meets The Conversation,” Barlow says. “Two people I was obsessed with while I was making this one was Adrian Lyne, especially Fatal Attraction. But then also the filmmaker I was obsessed with was Nicolas Roeg. There’s a shot he did in his film Walkabout where the young Australian boy sees a buffalo or bison and some hunters kill it…then it cuts to the footage playing in reverse of this buffalo coming back to life. He wanted to create that subjectivity to play with time…reversing the footage to give you this more interesting subjective experience.”
“Sometimes you watch scenes backwards,” Barlow says of the Walkabout-inspired scrub mechanic in Telling Lies. “It’s kind of a way of navigating the scenes. So you can watch a scene backwards. So it might be a scene that starts with everything being nice and happy and end in a screaming argument. You’re like, ‘Whoa, why is this character so upset?’ And then you go backwards and see [why]. And then you’ll jump to another clip. You’re constantly creating this three-dimensional picture of the story with all these different textures, different time frames. And so for me that was…like a way of capturing some of what Roeg [was doing].
Though Her Story was Barlow’s first indie venture, he’s an over 10-year veteran of the industry, having most notably worked on the Silent Hill series at Climax Studios as lead game designer. When he struck out on his own in 2014 to make Her Story, he saw untapped potential in the games market for a story-based experience in the murder mystery genre.
“I’d wanted it to make a detective story, a murder mystery, something in the police procedural space,” Barlow recalls. “Publishers would never let me. They would always tell me, ‘It doesn’t work in video games.’ And I’d be like, ‘But people love this shit.’ So when went indie I was like, ‘Right. I might only get one shot at this so I’m going to do all the things I wanted to do.’”
Her Story, of course, did incredibly well, which afforded Barlow a bigger budget to meet his creative ambition with Telling Lies. “With this one, I wanted to go even further,” Barlow says of Telling Lies’ conceptualization. “It gives [players] a more nuanced perspective on the different characters and they get to spend more time with the characters to be more obsessive about them. I would say it’s very much a novelistic feeling way of doing a story that is a video performance.”
According to Barlow, Telling Lies will be much larger in scale compared to its predecessor. “There’s like four or five times more stuff in [Telling Lies], which kind of almost exponentially scales. It’s definitely like you can lose yourself down rabbit holes for hours, just following threads in the story, seeing what’s going on.” And the game isn’t simply longer than Her Story — the larger scale comes by way of the game’s branching paths and character threads, with each piece of video being integral to the plot in some way.
“Every scene should start somewhere and go somewhere else,” Barlow says of directing the video performances. “Every scene should be referencing these interconnected stories in a way that makes it interesting to watch and re-watch. It makes it interesting when you’ve now seen different things, the light is being shown on [something] in a different way. Like each scene has to have interesting ways that the [characters interact] with each other so that it becomes fun to pick apart both sides.”
More than ever before, today’s media climate has seen an explosive growth in online discussion revolving around popular (and even not-so-popular) TV shows, games, and movies. Reddit and Twitter are arguably the liveliest, emotionally charged places on the internet (for better or worse), and Barlow saw an opportunity to turn the way fans dissect and comb over their favorite shows and movies into a pillar of gameplay.
“Telling Lies is trying to just basically take that [fan obsessiveness] and make it the literal mechanic in the game. I mean in the way people watch TV shows now with recaps and Reddit threads…like, people do this anyway with whatever TV show they’re watching. The natural desire now to not just watch a TV show, but to consume it, to re-watch it, to blog it, to recap it, to live tweet it, to go to TVtropes.com and break the whole thing down… I think more and more we are used to consuming things like that. So this really is like, ‘Cool. We created the experience that knows you’re doing that and embraces that that’s part of it.’”
You’ll be able to experience the tangled mystery that is Telling Lies when it drops later this year. But in the meantime, we asked Barlow if he has plans to expand on this new narrative subgenre of gaming he’s birthed into existence in the future. While he seemed uninterested in going the sequel route, he subtly expressed that he’s got new ideas up his sleeve. “I have an idea,” he says, coyly. “We’ll see if [Telling Lies] is successful and if I’ll [then] be allowed [to make it].”
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Bernard Boo is a freelance contributor. Read more of his work here.