Telling Lies is Sam Barlow’s follow up to the critically acclaimed Her Story. It takes the FMV format that proved to be such a success with the previous game and makes everything bigger and more complex. There’s a larger cast, more video, and a deeper mystery that has a lot more dots for you to connect. Even though the gameplay is similar to Her Story, Telling Lies manages to spin the mechanics in a way that requires a different approach.
Telling Lies Review | No papa.
I’m not going to spoil any of the story of Telling Lies. Unlike most games, the story isn’t just the meat of the game; it’s the whole meal. The premise is that you’re a woman who has come into possession of a portion of an NSA database called RETINA. RETINA records webcam footage from all over the United States and stores it for later access, and you have to use this footage to solve a mystery.
The mystery of Telling Lies involves a man, his family, and his work. The objective is to discern the sequence of the events presented in the database, the actors involved, and determine what happened. This might seem simple, but you have to do this all based on webcam conversations and cellphone video.
Telling Lies Review | Time skip.
Because the NSA in Telling Lies is ostensibly concerned with privacy, videos in the RETINA database can’t be searched in a typical sequence. Instead, under normal circumstances, an NSA operative would request to search the database using a particular piece of metadata, like a quote or keyword said in a video. This supposedly would lower the risk of viewing impertinent data and preserve privacy for civilians not involved in whatever the NSA is searching for.
Since you have “acquired” the database, you’re not beholden to get permission to search for just one phrase. However, you are still forced to abide by the rules of RETINA’s search. You can’t look for videos by date, name, or anything like that. Instead, you need to search for keywords and phrases that will get you the video you’re looking for. The game kind of helps you out by giving you the first keyword, “love.” From there you have to figure it out yourself.
Things are made more difficult by the fact that RETINA will only allow you to access a video from the point the keyword was said forward. So, if your search turns up a five-minute video and the keyword or phrase you searched for was said four minutes and thirty seconds in, then you only get to watch the last thirty seconds. This means you might bounce to one video and only get to see half of it, then have to hop to another time period based on a clue you get there.
When playing Telling Lies, you might see a minute of a conversation and not get to see the rest of it for five hours of gameplay. It’s fascinating when you’re playing for a while and run across part of a conversation you’ve already heard and the minute or so you missed the first time contains an epiphany that changes the whole outlook of the story.
The acting ties everything together, and while it’s not Oscar-winning, it’s very good, especially by FMV game standards. Unlike Her Story, which had 1 speaking role, Telling Lies has over 30 and features names like Logan Marshall-Green, Kerry Bishe, Angela Sarafyan, and Alexandra Shipp. The professional acting helps a game like this a lot, and the performances have enough nuance to help you figure out details that would otherwise slip by.
Telling Lies Review | Seeing every side of the story.
The big hook of Telling Lies is that you only see one part of a conversation for each video. When RETINA records a webcam, it doesn’t pick up both ends, so each search result has a companion you have to find to get the entire context of what’s being discussed. This adds a lot of complexity to the mystery as you have to make some logical leaps to fill in the pieces.
As the game goes on, you start to get to know the characters, and as such, you can pick out who may be on the other end of the line during a conversation. A character might be sweet to one person and sarcastic with another, and this, along with the information contained in a video, can help you to narrow down what your next search term should be.
This mechanic also adds to the feeling of epiphany I discussed above. Seeing one half of a conversation can be incredibly confusing, especially as the game obviously makes some discussions opaque. Once you finally find the other half, it’s like a lightbulb going on as you hear the missing details that fill in all the questions the first half of a convo left you with.
Telling Lies Review | Unavoidable difficulty.
Telling Lies most significant fault lies in its greatest strengths. It can be needlessly difficult to narrow down the next piece of the puzzle. The search window will only show the first five results in chronological order for a query. I personally tried to piece things out in chronological order, which may not be optimal, but let me note information effectively.
Trying to get results to appear when you want them to can be incredibly frustrating because the RETINA search is so exact. So, when I was trying to get the opposite end of a conversation, I had to guess an exact keyword. This isn’t too bad when the game begins, but as you watch more videos (and there are a ton of them), you have to get more and more specific with your searches, or you’ll start to see repeat videos pop up. If the search returns more than five results, and the one you’re looking for is past those, then you’re out of luck until you can figure out the specific query needed to get to the one you need.
For a good chunk of the game you can get by with just use singular words and proper nouns, but towards the end, I was really scratching my head on how to proceed. This is a game you want to keep meticulous notes on, as the interface itself isn’t too helpful aside for a simple notepad app and the ability to bookmark videos. If I hadn’t kept a profile on each character, their timeline, and what their names and relationships were, then I don’t think I’d have been able to complete it.
Telling Lies Review | FMV matured.
FMV games used to be a bit of a meme. They saw the height of their popularity when CD technology debuted on consoles for the first time, aside from a few outliers, FMV games were widely panned. In fact, the genre bombed so hard that it largely disappeared for more than a decade. Her Story, and now Telling Lies, shows what FMV can provide now that tech and game design has caught up with the ambition of developers.
Telling Lies is like the best parts of an adventure game, a mystery novel, and an art nouveau movie all rolled up into one. It tells an exciting story uniquely and shows that Sam Barlow’s success with Her Story wasn’t just a fluke. Besides a few frustrating moments, Telling Lies was one of the most compelling gaming experience I’ve had yet in 2019.