I had the benefit of going into Telling Lies almost completely blind. I’d never played Sam Barlow’s previous game, Her Story, and missed Telling Lies when it was released on PC and iOS last year. All I knew is that Telling Lies was an FMV game featuring real videos of live actors, but different from the typical “choose your own adventure” style choice-based affairs like Late Shift or The Complex. Let me say now that if you’re curious about the game, dive into it unknown. Telling Lies is a journey of investigation and discovery, and not having much of an initial foundation to know what you are looking for helps elevate each moment you connect the dots. This review does include some very mild foundational spoilers to touch on themes, but these were still elements I was happy to put together myself rather than know ahead of time.
The game opens with a woman getting home and sitting down at a computer. The image then becomes her screen, with her reflection faintly superimposed over the desktop. She enters one search term to get you started: “LOVE.” At this point, control of the cursor was handed over to me with absolutely no context or instruction, so I clicked on one of the videos. Actor Logan Marshall-Green’s David was talking to the camera, clearly one side of a conversation, but I was missing the context. I clicked on the next video, and the next, still slightly confused about what my goal was.
I rooted around the desktop for a bit, checked out what was in the trash, and wasted more time than I want to admit playing a frustratingly rigged game of solitaire. Okay, back to the videos. Using the analog stick, I was able to scrub back and forth through the videos, but what was it I was looking for? Pausing during dialog let me select words to search, which brought up a new set of videos. I think I’m onto something. These seemingly disparate videos must have a connection of some sort, right? So I began really listening to each individual side of the conversations, trying to uncover the context and find the other side of the screen. Dots began to connect. A picture began to form. Still, so many missing pieces. One video can take on a whole different meaning once your perspective gets shifted with a different context.
Telling Lies Review – Gamified Voyeurism
There’s a decidedly voyeuristic theme as you get a window into these individuals’ personal lives entirely out of context. The whole idea of Telling Lies is to paint the full picture, piece together the puzzle, but you don’t even know what the pieces look like, let alone how they fit together. There’s a tapestry of a story at play here, and the player gets to choose which threads to tug at. The journey of discovery begins with whatever catches your attention. Who is Alba? Who’s on the other end of the cam girl’s conversations? Why is David away from his wife? Why are these particular small windows important?
And so you dig, deeper and deeper, getting to peer into these people’s lives and private conversations. Unsurprisingly, one of the major themes is a web of lies, and continuing to tug at those threads can recontextualize everything. For every player, diving down the rabbit hole is going to be slightly different. People will see videos out of order and with or without context from other pieces of the puzzle. People will uncover different mysteries, depending on what they perceive to be the “main” plot and which characters’ stories intrigue them the most. And by the end, it’s unlikely that you will have fully uncovered everything. You’ll have a better idea of what the picture looks like, sure, but there will still be plenty of blank spots. It’s possible you may not even learn what the ultimate “conclusion” to the story is if your particular journey doesn’t lead you there.
If you’re watching a film and you’ve figured out a connecting theme, you have to wait for the movie to get there to validate your theories. If there’s a particular story thread you are interested in exploring, you’re at the whims of the movie’s linear nature on whether or not it explores that aspect of the narrative. Telling Lies puts you in control. You can pull at any threads you want. You can create your own “aha!” moments. It’s less about the story itself and more about how the player chooses to unravel the story, creating a decidedly different and rather personal experience for everyone. Which lies do you want to untangle? What connections do you want to probe? You’re not just a passive observer, you’re an active voyeur. But the mystery remains, who, then, are “you?”
Using film footage of actual actors allows players to connect with Telling Lies in a way that a CG experience simply could not. There’s a nuance to each character’s emotion, small ticks and tells, little pieces that help you better explore things while viewing only one side of a conversation at a time. Each of the actors is fantastic, with a natural acting talent that never feels overly forced and cinematic, but doesn’t descend into campy or cheesy either. Simply put, the portrayal of each character feels real, which heightens the level of immersion and feeling like you are truly sifting through private videos and conversations.
Telling Lies Review – Lying on Consoles
While designed for an almost meta-level of immersion on a computer screen (playing a game that takes place almost entirely on a screen itself), it translates exceptionally well to the console. Navigation of the desktop is done using the analog stick as the mouse cursor, and typing an entry into the search field brings up the PlayStation 4’s own text entry box instead of something in-game (which is a bit jarring as it pauses the game’s ambient sound effects, music, etc. when using the PS4 UI). The feature allowing you to scrub through the videos is painfully slow, which gets especially exasperating on longer video clips. You can bookmark specific spots in videos and add tags to those bookmarks in order to better filter and organize everything. I’d imagine this is a much smoother experience on PC, but it’s by no means terrible on console. And it’s necessary to get back to where you were when you find multiple threads you want to pull at.
Telling Lies is a fantastic experience hinged on the themes of context and perspective, with a ton of additional themes layered underneath that wider arc. “There are two sides to every story, and then there’s the truth.” The mystery lies in the human experience, differing motivations, and how conversations change contextually. It’s the same story, but every player will experience it differently based on what themes draw their attention and how they connect the dots. Perspective and context. Sam Barlow is pioneering new ways to bring interactivity to FMV media, blending film, games, and the human experience in ways that shouldn’t be missed.
Telling Lies review code provided by publisher. Reviewed on a launch PS4. For more information, please read our Review Policy.