Telling Lies Review: A Masterpiece of Video Game Storytelling

Telling Lies is an intriguing video game narrative experiment from start to finish. Our review of Sam Barlow's new game...

Release Date: August 23, 2019Platform: PC, iOSDeveloper: Sam Barlow & Furious BeePublisher: Annapurna InteractiveGenre: Full motion video

With Telling Lies, video game auteur Sam Barlow expands on the concept of his first independent foray, Her Story. Players unravel an intricately woven story of betrayal, sex, obsession, espionage, and murder (and any other neo-noir motif you can think of) by perusing hours of live-action footage revolving around a handful of people whose lives are entangled in strange and shocking ways.

The tricky thing about this review is that the entire game is focused solely on the narrative, and depending on your approach, it’s possible to uncover some of the game’s biggest secrets within minutes of touching your keyboard. Barlow has been exceedingly tight-lipped about the game’s plot leading up to its release, and with good reason — learning even the tiniest bit of information about the characters and story could change your gameplay experience drastically.

So it’s with caution that I outline the plot: You play as a woman who’s procured a hard drive containing confidential government videos (predominantly Skype and Facetime conversations between the involved parties), which you take back to your New York apartment and search through over the course of one long night. Using a media player equipped with a scrub tool and a search bar that you can use to search for any word uttered in any piece of footage, you piece together clues that eventually lead you to the truth behind the lies and conspiracies, provided you can get the job done before the sun comes up.

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In the first piece of footage I watched, I heard the name of a company that sounded important, so I typed it into the search bar, which brought up every video (search results are limited to five) in which someone mentioned the company’s name, with playback on each clip starting from the timestamp where the keyword is spoken. This led me down a rabbit hole, meticulously compiling a list of words I thought might lead me to the truth and scrubbing through the videos from front to back (some clips are over ten minutes long, so this took a while).

This strategy certainly led me to some revealing pieces of footage, but the copious note-taking became a bit tedious, and watching each clip in its entirety was eating into my limited playtime (remember, you’ve only got one night to conduct your investigation). So I adopted a looser approach, clicking on words in the subtitles I found intriguing (which automatically searches for them, an incredibly useful shortcut), which made the investigation flow a lot more smoothly. I wasn’t watching full clips and taking notes anymore, but rather following my logic and intuition, which was a more entertaining and organic way to play.

After I played like this for a while, I thought, what the hell — let’s just search “motherfucker” and see what happens. To my surprise, this led me to one of the most crucial clips I’d seen yet. Then, I’d try other words and phrases like “goodnight” or “love you” if I wanted to delve into a particular intimate relationship, or “murder” and “body” if I suspected one of the characters was covering up something sinister.

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I can’t stress enough how utterly mesmerized with the game I was at this point. Every moment was gripping even though all I was doing was the same thing I do on google every day — using a search bar to dig up dirt on people that fascinate me (no judging, please).

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Playing the game’s main characters are Alexandra Shipp (X-Men: Apocalypse), Logan Marshall-Green (Prometheus), Angela Sarafyan (Westworld), and Kerry Bishé (The Romanoffs), and thankfully, they do a phenomenal job across the board. I say thankfully because the entire game hinges on their performances. Their characters feel like real people, and if they didn’t, the game would be completely broken because you’re constantly reading their emotions and behaviors to dig down to the bedrock of truth.

Shipp is irresistibly charismatic, Marshall-Green’s character arc is completely believable, Sarafyan brings an air of mystery and danger to the story, and Bishé lays claim to the most heart-wrenching, show-stopping clip of all. There are well-acted side characters, too, with one played by a pretty well-known actor that wasn’t advertised in the trailers. Again, apologies for not going into more detail about their characters. But after diving into the game with almost zero knowledge of the story, I can say confidently that I’m very glad I did so.

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One of the most intriguing aspects of the game is that it’s essentially played in first-person –you can see your character’s smoky reflection in the computer monitor, and you’re enveloped by the ambient sounds of her apartment and the New York City streets outside. The atmospheric sound design is done incredibly well, and while the entirety of the game is played on a virtual computer screen, the sensory experience is actually deeply transportive and immersive.

The game’s voyeuristic quality is intoxicating as well. It feels really uncomfortable at times watching some of the clips, particularly the ones that see the characters suffering in their most vulnerable and damaged states. The scrub tool, while practical and familiar, adds to that feeling of unease as well, as you fast forward and rewind through the characters’ private lives, dissecting their psyches frame by frame.

Telling Lies is another groundbreaking project artfully written and directed by Barlow. The story is truly inspired and embraces its genre trappings while always staying grounded in raw human emotion, and the experience as a whole is one-of-a-kind. It’s a thrill when I get to play titles that challenge and expand the idea of what video games can be, and this is one of those special instances. The game can be completed in just a few hours, but you’ll need to play through multiple times to uncover all of the secrets buried within.

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Bernard Boo is a freelance contributor. Read more of his work here.


5 out of 5