A game like Telling Lies is hard to review.
Firstly, even using the word “game” to describe it feels wrong. Sure, there’s some gamification involved in Telling Lies, but more than a video game, it’s an interactive experience. It’s something that exceeds labels and boundaries.
Telling Lies is also hard to review because, by the very nature of it, everyone’s experience with it is likely to be different. Essentially a series of video clips that players can search through,chances are you’ll see things in a different order to me. You might also see completely different videos, leaving you with a completely different impression.
But that’s the beauty of Telling Lies. Just like creator Sam Barlow’s game that came before, Her Story, what you take out of the experience is entirely down to your own interpretation. There’s no clear-cut beginning, middle and end. Well, there is, but like a jigsaw it’s up to you to piece it together. What’s the beginning for you may well be the ending for someone else.
It’s impossible not to compare Telling Lies to Her Story. Their executions are almost identical: you’re placed in front of a computer screen, with little else to do but use a search box. Typing in a key word will bring up a series of videos where that word is spoken, but your results are always limited to a maximum of five. As such, you can’t type in a common word and expect to sift through everything at once; you’ll have to pick out new keywords, important details and relevant names in order to compile various searches and piece together a narrative.
Don’t expect to be given any helpful advice before you start, though. Sitting down to play Telling Lies, you don’t even know what you’re looking for, or why. The word “LOVE” is typed into the search box to start you off, and so you’ll begin your journey, watching the five videos it brings up. Paying close attention to those videos will help you draw out some more words to search for, and soon you’ll slip down a rabbit hole; searching keyword after keyword in the hopes of finding a breakthrough.
Telling Lies‘ story is captivating – or at least it is eventually; expect to spend about 30 minutes unsure of everything until key pieces of information start to come together. It’s helped massively by the fact that it has a stellar cast of actors, all putting on a fantastic display of talent. It’s led by Logan Marshall-Green, who I recognised from his leading role in the excellent Upgrade. Supported by the incredibly talented Alexandra Shipp (X-Men: Apocalypse), Kerry Bishé (Halt and Catch Fire) and Angela Sarafyan (Westworld), among others, it’s one of the most impressive casts to grace a video game yet.
Their acting talents are even more impressive when you consider that the vast majority of the footage included in Telling Lies is simply one side of a conversation. Bar a scattering of hidden camera recordings, most of what you’ll be watching in Telling Lies is one side of a webcam recording. Being able to act believably, with nobody to react to other than yourself is quite a feat, but the cast pulls it off perfectly; even the youngest member, the precocious six year-old Vivien Lyra Blair who you might recognise from Bird Box.
This video format, however, means that for a lot of Telling Lies, you’re simply watching a character stare blankly at a screen while they listen to someone else speak. You don’t get to see that side of the conversation unless you search separately for it (which, for the most part, you’ll want to do). It means that for a clip with a running time of eight minutes, there might only be three or four minutes of dialogue. You can scrub through clips, fast-forwarding through the silences, stopping when you see subtitles pop up. I did resort to doing this after a while, but it does get tiresome.
You don’t want to miss anything in Telling Lies, because that five seconds you fast-forwarded through may contain a key piece of information that’ll open up your next search. Equally frustrating is the fact that, when you search for a term, the video results won’t start from the beginning of the recording; they’ll start playing from the point that word appears. You can’t jump to the beginning of the clip, either; you’ll have to manually rewind, which is a slow and laborious process. Plus, a clip will show as being “watched”, even if you jumped in part-way through, so if you’ve forgotten to rewind any, it can be hard to find content you haven’t seen later on.
As valid as those complaints are though, they shouldn’t detract from what Telling Lies does well, and that’s weave an extremely complex and engaging narrative. To give almost anything away about the story will ruin the experience – as discovering a key plot point is all part of Telling Lies’ thrill – but needless to say, it’ll get its hooks into you. The main storyline is enrapturing, but the sub-plots that you’ll likely pick up on as you play – dealing with family, love, sex, loss and parenthood, amongst other things – are equally as fascinating. Every new bit of information you come across leaves you desperate for more, and not necessarily being able to instantly access it can be frustrating.
There are 170 videos altogether in Telling Lies, and I was prompted to “end” the game after finding and viewing only about 90. As such, it’s easy to miss vital information, and you don’t need to have viewed everything in order to have seen enough. My advice? Don’t follow the prompt until you’re happy with your own conclusion. There are different ending scenes available depending on what videos you did and didn’t watch, so it’s always worth jumping back in and digging a little deeper.
I’d love for Sam Barlow to add some kind of “movie” mode to Telling Lies, allowing us to see conversations happen in real time, with videos playing out in chronological order. It’s unlikely that’ll ever happen, though. As it is, Telling Lies’ compelling narrative and phenomenal acting will be enough to spur you on. Searching and scrubbing through videos can be a chore, but it’s worth it, if just for that one tiny piece of information you’ve been waiting to find.