Developer: Downing a Mermaid Productions & Furious Bee Ltd.
Platform: Windows, PS4, Switch, Xbox One, Mac, iPad, iPhone
Has it really been almost five years since I reviewed Her Story? Sheesh, I’m getting old. Back then I said I was looking forward to Sam Barlow’s next project. I think I forgot about that as I didn’t discover Telling Lies until about 18 months after its release. Still, it was very much worth the wait.
Mild spoilers under the break. You might enjoy the game more knowing nothing about it.
Telling Lies builds upon the basis structure of Her Story, wherein you are pouring through a database of video clips where you can only access them via guessing keywords the people in the videos say. However, instead of trying to solve a very old murder, you play an FBI agent trying to learn more about your coworker’s handling of a mutual case by watching everything pulled from his laptop. The raison d’etre for why you have to guess the keywords here is a bit suspect, but any excuse is fine given how much fun I had poking and prodding.
Your coworker’s name is David, and since it’s his computer you’ve accessed, nearly every video is one where he’s either talking or someone on the other end is talking to him. This creates an awkward situation where you can only hear one side of the conversation at a time and once you find the partnering video, have to rework the whole conversation in your brain. This was mostly fun for me, but your mileage may vary. What is really annoying, though, is that this modern FBI technology has no way to skip to beginning or end. So sometimes you find a 7-minute clip at minute 6 and it takes like forty hours (slight exaggeration) to rewind to the beginning. I’ve read that many players just looked around for keywords, played parts of video clips, and rushed to the ending. That seems bizarre to me, as what I enjoyed most about Telling Lies was uncovering the story and watching the messy lives of everyone involved unfold. I even would intentionally avoid videos far in the future so I could try to watch the clips as chronologically as I could, building up suspense for myself.
David is on a mission to infiltrate a group of activists who the FBI believe are using terrorist tactics to impede the building of a pipeline that goes through Native land. As a matter of course, he has to lie to everyone he meets, and to no surprise, winds up lying to everyone else as well, including his wife and his boss. To be fair, it’s not just David who lies. The cool thing about playing the voyeur here is you get to see everyone lying to some degree and how they live their lives that are built upon those lies. Along the way and over 170 video clips (none more than 9 minutes long), you get to know David (Logan Marshall-Green), his wife (Kerry Bishé), his toddler (Vivien Lyra Blair), his girlfriend (Alexandra Shipp), some random cam girl (Angela Sarafyan) he likes just talking to for some reason, his boss (Reed Diamond), and a handful of other minor characters, mostly people David is meeting as part of his work.
The acting is not just good for an FMV game; it’s just really good all around. The only actor I had seen before was Bishé when she played the narrator on the final season of Scrubs. I really didn’t like her there, though to be fair she didn’t have much to work with. I didn’t even recognize her here until I read the credits and was impressed by the performance Barlow got out of her. But she doesn’t hold a candle to Shipp, who was absolutely fucking incredible in every single clip she’s in. I really started to care for her character and scoured for her scenes. While some players bemoaned the amount of dead time in clips where characters are just listening or doing random mundane things people do when they’re on camera, I enjoyed the down time almost as much as the dialogue. Barlow directs all of these guys extremely well, and there’s a lot to learn about the characters when they’re not talking (including looking in the background). And holy hell is Blair’s performance believable. It looks like she was five to six years old when this was being filmed, and I would have put money that she was acting with her real parents; that’s how natural she is in every scene. She’s not precocious in any way. She’s just an adorable girl who wants stories read to her and speaks her mind and picks her nose.
Marshall-Green has to carry the game because as mentioned he’s in about half of the clips. While his performance is good, I unfortunately couldn’t relate to him. I think the intention was to see his character slowly deteriorate as he lies and his paper moon of a life starts to crumble , but I hated his smug face from the game’s very first clip and I was never rooting for him. Similarly, the presence of the camgirl also did nothing for me. She’s not relevant to the main plot in any way and she’s not terribly interesting either.
Some players didn’t like that there’s no mystery to solve, and I can see that. But there’s still a lot of deduction to be done. The game allows you to tag videos and take notes in the game, but I pulled up a spreadsheet on my second monitor and made copious notes. This made me feel more like a detective and it definitely helped me dive deeper into the story while also finding more video clips. Your enjoyment of the game will correlate to your enjoyment of the story. I enjoyed the story quite a bit, even if the ending was telegraphed a bit too much.
It’s important to note that there are a handful of different epilogues based on how you played the game. Though none of them are particularly enlightening so pursuing one ending (and then looking up the rest on YouTube) is sufficient.
Barlow is currently working on another game, currently titled Project Ambrosio, and I swear this time I’m going to not wait two years to play it. I’m used to wishlisting games on Steam and waiting for a sale to pick them up, but I’ll be buying this one (and playing it!) as soon as it comes out.