Getting out of bed this morning has not been easy and to be honest the day itself hasn’t been a cakewalk either, my eyes heavy and bed constantly calling out to me. That’s the price you pay though when you’ve been up the last few nights digging through the contents of a mysterious USB drive, watching its videos and trying to piece together what exactly it all means. While my life is rarely (if ever) this exciting, I am of course, in fact, talking about the game Telling Lies, the follow up to Sam Barlow’s well-received Her Story.
Telling Lies kicks off late at night with an unknown woman switching on her computer and plugging in a USB drive. She loads up a video database tool called Retina and types into its search bar the word ‘LOVE’. That’s pretty much all the setup you’re given before the reins are handed over to the player, this woman’s desktop free to explore and click away at. It’s a fantastically simple opening and one that already leaves you raising an eyebrow. Who was that woman? Why did she search the world ‘LOVE’ in this database? Who are the people in these videos?
It’s the first in an avalanche of questions you’ll have as you start to comb through this stack of full-motion videos and the four peoples’ lives they follow. These videos vary from less than a minute in length to as high as eight or nine in some cases be them a conversation over webcam, smartphone or simply a recording made from a camera hidden away by one of the characters. Unfortunately, rather than giving access to the entire library of videos, Retina relies on keyword searches to locate them within its system, only displaying the five earliest dated recordings that have the chosen word mentioned in it. You’re then free to rewind and fast forward through looking for key clues and hints for your next search and hopefully your next selection of videos.
This might sound like a very backward way of going about analysing such a large quantity of video footage, but it actually leads to one of the game’s greatest triumphs. You see while Telling Lies does have a hugely compelling story to tell, it’s up to the player to not only find all the pieces that create it but also figure out how they are pieced together. That might be through searching a name or place you heard in a previous video or even just finding the other half of a webcam discussion – conversations between two people are split into separate videos in Telling Lies – and revealing a little more information you couldn’t have gotten just from hearing the one side. With each new video you’ll find yourself picking up on new leads to follow sometimes taking you nowhere but oftentimes revealing more about a character, filling in the gaps of the overarching story or even throwing an unexpected twist your way. Emphasis on that last point too since as the game’s name might suggest, characters will not always be telling the truth, their lies slowly revealed the deeper you dive.
The fact the story isn’t just being told in a straightforward manner only serves to add to the mystery of it all, not to mention the satisfaction when you do manage to successfully figure out who a character was talking to or make a particularly big break for yourself. Best of all everyone’s journey will be different. While there may be some players who work their way through the events fairly close to the date order they play out in, there are others (myself included) who will find videos far apart in terms of when they happened leaving plenty between to figure out.
FMV more often than not can be a very tacky and shallow affair but with Telling Lies, the performances from the entire cast be it main or supporting excel massively. It’s little surprise given the talent on display here – Logan Marshall-Green of Upgrade and The Invitation in particular a real standout. No matter how important or not a conversation was, I found myself truly gripped by what each and every character had to say not to mention how their facial reactions might shift when they weren’t even talking. Put simply I grew more and more invested to these characters the more I learned about them that by the end of my four or so hour investigation I was emotionally and mentally exhausted – in a good way.
The game’s use of an actual desktop for its interface is a clever idea and one that makes the entire experience feel so natural whether it’s nosing through folders, running through your search history or even having a quick game of Solitaire when you need a break from the detective work. Better still is that this game includes a touchscreen option, something a lot of developers seem to ignore these days. I’ll be honest, seeing it here was a truly pleasant and unexpected surprise. The game every so often also shifts focus to the woman’s face in front of the screen, a small effect but one that again adds to the immersion.
Telling Lies is an amazing experience but it’s one that could also do with a few tweaks here and there, namely in terms of using Retina. For one, playing any video will start you from the moment the word you’ve searched is said meaning you’ll be doing plenty of rewinding. With no option to start from the beginning though and the rewind function feeling perhaps a little too slow even at max speed, it made jumping in and out of videos more of a nuisance than it probably needed to be. Similarly, while the game lets you select words in the subtitles mid-viewing to immediately search, returning back to that original video will put you back to the start again rather than where you left off. These are annoying, sure, and definitely not missed if changed, but never do they interfere with the flow nor enjoyment of the game.
Telling Lies delivers one of the strongest stories I’ve experienced on the Nintendo Switch in quite some time in one of the most original and compelling ways. Though the end credits have since rolled, I’m left still pondering on the game’s memorable cast of characters and the tangled web of secrets I managed to uncover through careful analysis and lots and lots of scribbled notes. I’ve never been one for FMV in video games but after sampling the efforts of Sam Barlow I might just have become a real believer in its use in the medium.
Version Tested: Nintendo Switch
Review copy provided by Annapurna Interactive