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Published 21.08.2019 00:00
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Telling Lies review

Telling Lies is a game from Sam Barlow, and it certainly feels like it. Much like his previous title, Her Story, this is a game about scrubbing through hours of video footage to piece together a narrative. This is a much bigger game with more characters and moments to unpack, which makes for a richer-but somewhat messier-experience.

Cyberstalking

Telling Lies opens like a TV show. There's an establishing shot and a short credits sequence that introduces you to a woman named Karen as she's arriving at her apartment to go through a huge amount of video footage. From there, you take control of Karen as she pores through this data on her computer to learn about the people in these videos and why they're important.

These archives are stored in RETINA, which is described as a tool for the NSA to gather and record video conversations for counterterrorism purposes in a file on Karen's external drive. The way this software operates is very similar to the video search tool in Her Story, which is to say that you search by text to pull up clips that mention the words you type in. Also similarly, your search results are limited to the first five clips that match your terms, meaning you'll have to do some digging and develop more specific searches as you play to get further into the data.

Searching for truth

Where Her Story was about reviewing interview recordings, Telling Lies is about observing people having normal video calls with each other. This complicates the game's storytelling in a few ways. First, conversations hop around between topics and don't follow a set procedure or logic. More importantly though, watching video from a video call only gives you access to half of a conversation. The other half is on a recording with the other person. RETINA seems to hold all of these "other halves," but finding them can be tricker than you think.

Fortunately, Telling Lies gives you a lot of tools to keep track of all these videos. As part of RETINA, you can bookmark moments in videos to revisit them later, or you can highlight dialogue and use it for a new search. You can even tag old clips, filter them, sort them, or view your entire history of search terms throughout your playthrough. These tools are all welcome, as Telling Lies sports over six hours of video footage, which is more than three times the amount that was in Her Story.


How do I decide when I am satisfied?

Unlike many games, Telling Lies doesn't give you specific quests or milestones to hit to reward you on the progress you're making. Much of the experience feels a lot like searching through files on your computer. It's messy, solitary, and not always rewarding. Your goal is to just understand how all of these videos are connected and the story that they tell. I am avoiding delving into the details of that story because that's core to the mystery and satisfaction of playing the game. Just trust me when I say it's well worth digging into.

Aside from the mystery, another big part of what makes scrubbing through these videos so compelling is the quality of the acting in Telling Lies. While it's certainly true there are some moments where characters deliver awkward lines (that I'm sure were written so they'd match some search terms but not others), certain scenes from this game have really stuck with me because of the acting. Conversations with flirtatious undertones, tender family moments, paranoid outbursts as things fly off the rails-all of these feature actors who understand and replicate the little ticks and mannerisms of people talking to each other through a screen.

Because of this, I'm less bothered by some of Telling Lies's more troublesome aspects, like navigation. Although RETINA gives you powerful tools for organizing videos, searching through them can still be a pain. Rewinding and fastforwarding video in particular both feel very slow, even when going at full speed. These tools are unfortunately almost always necessary to use on a clip because your search results play video from the moment where your search term is spoken, meaning you have to rewind clips to the beginning if you want to know what the full (half) conversation was like.

The bottom line

Telling Lies is a huge expansion on the ideas in Her Story. This makes for a game that feels less groundbreaking than its predecessor, but also somehow more ambitious. There are so many characters, storylines, and moving pieces in Telling Lies's footage that I'm surprised at how well you can explore it via game systems. While this exploration isn't always the fun part, the payoff is. The footage in Telling Lies goes beyond simple exposition or plot progression to deliver a lot of small, human moments that make digging through this messy archive feel real and compelling.

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