Review: Telling Lies

Year after year, we see multitudes of games with similar mechanics and plot lines. It’s exciting when video game developers try something different. 2015’s Her Story shocked players with a simple, but ingenious method of storytelling. It did not present a linear tale told between gameplay segments, instead focusing on uncovering the story through disjointed video clips. Although Sam Barlow had been designing and writing games years before that, it’s thanks to Her Story that his name became more widely recognized. Four years later we’re seeing the next evolution with Telling Lies.

This is another experience based around searching for and watching video clips, but with its own distinguishing characteristics. The basic premise is that you have illegally gained access to a trove of NSA footage captured from webcams. The scope is highly specific, however, focusing mainly around one man named David and his video calls to people. At the start, the game fills the word “love” into the search box to get you started. Typing any word or phrase into the search box returns results if the video clip includes an instance of someone saying that word. These first few videos are dull and also make one wonder why David is worth focusing on at all. Sure, he’s got a cute scruffy beard, but otherwise he seems utterly droll.

It doesn’t take long to uncover far more interesting videos. As long as you’re paying attention while a clip plays, it quickly becomes second nature to figure out what words spoken might make excellent search terms. For example, if a person’s name is mentioned, try searching for it to see who they are or what they have to do with everything. Even blindly searching for common words may turn up something juicy. After just a few videos, you’ll likely be overwhelmed with the amount of terms that sound like good search queries. Telling Lies offers a built in notepad to write down thoughts or jot down key words. The only problem is that this notepad is only available on the digital desktop, which is inaccessible during video playback. It honestly makes more sense to write notes by hand or on a phone while playing.

The concept of parsing through video clips is augmented by the fact that each webcam conversation includes two videos. One video features David and the other is whoever is on the other side of the call. As such, expect to watch videos full of long pauses or dialogue that is confusing before seeing both halves of the conversation. Each conversation half must be searched for on its own — they don’t come paired. Unfortunately, videos also play from the point of your search term being spoken. This means you might launch a video only to have it show you the last five seconds of an eight minute clip.

The biggest problem with the video interface is there’s currently no built-in way to automatically start the video from the beginning. You must rewind — as if it’s a VHS player — for a while until reaching the start. This is how Her Story worked, but it made sense with the story and each clip was relatively short. Here it makes no sense for a laptop computer to have a featureless fullscreen video player which can only rewind or fast forward at slow speeds. The trouble with rewinding to get context is also that you tend to spoil yourself on the video because each clip features subtitles which still display during the rewind process. Players have already modded the game to allow for restarting a video without rewinding.

Another matter is the focus of this story. Without spoiling anything, it should still be clear that David is a pivotal character given that all conversations revolve around him. A character with so much focus really should be far more captivating than this. With that said, the three main women he interacts with online all offer up more interesting characterizations and backstories to keep things moving along. Their acting skills also assist with them coming across as more realistic than monotone David. Even with over 150 videos, the story also feels a bit truncated. Some of the motivations of the characters are never fully fleshed out, leaving some unsatisfying gaps.

There’s no word yet on when a patch will be released, but multiple players have reported bugs with the video-playing component on PC. These include videos playing too fast or too slow, or simply showing a black screen. If anyone wants to see the storyline but can’t right now, the only workarounds are to access the movie files from the game directory. The plus to this is then you can use any preferred video player to gain full control over scrubbing through clips. The negative is that this removes the entire term-querying aspect of the experience and should only be used as a last resort.

Every single video does not need to be watched in order to beat Telling Lies. Instead, the game automatically progresses time after watching distinct videos. Although it seems like there’s a time constraint, it’s actually possible to keep playing beyond the “end” to see everything. Finishing the game does provide a closing video which changes based on your play style. All in all it should take most players somewhere between four and ten hours to beat the game, depending on how thorough they are.

Closing Comments:

Her Story is a tough act to follow, and unfortunately, Telling Lies does not hit the same emotional highs that Barlow’s previous game did. Opting to use the same barebones video player both does not make sense for this storyline and introduces an annoyance that players are forced to deal with. The story is still intriguing, but not to a binge-worthy degree. Telling Lies is worth playing for Her Story fans, but can’t quite hit those same high notes despite its best efforts.