Telling Lies Review: A Master Class In FMV Storytelling

Telling Lies has the thematic depth, character exploration, and plot development of serialized drama.

Telling Lies is a new full-motion video game from Annapurna Interactive and Furious Bee Limited. Director Sam Barlow has created a fully realized version of the format first created for his previous game, Her Story. While the experience of Her Story is akin to a 2-hour film, Telling Lies has the thematic depth, character exploration, and plot development of serialized drama.

If you've played Her Story, you already have a foundation for the structure of Telling Lies. From the perspective of a woman named Karen, players will watch a seemingly endless collection of short clips in an effort to make sense of a strange and complex narrative. The database, called Retina, works as such: type in any word in the search and you'll be presented with a clip of every time someone said that particular word. You can only watch the first 5 clips chronologically however, meaning earliest clips in the timelines will be much easier to access than clips that happen towards the end of the story.

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There is no progression system in the game per se. You are free to explore footage for as long as you'd like, only "completing" the game when you feel satisfied that you fully understand the events as they happened. This is no small feat, though. The story Barlow has constructed (or de-constructed, rather) is a deeply personal and complicated narrative that doesn't rely on figuring out a twist to make sense of it all like Her Story does, but instead takes the player on a thematically rich journey through the lives of four very human characters.

Evolving The Genre

As connected as Her Story and Telling Lies are, their differences can not be overstated. Her Story felt like a journey to answer a single burning question, and each clip got you one step closer to that answer. Telling Lies, on the other hand, offers a constant sense of discovery as characters, relationships, motives, and events are revealed, expanded, and even sometimes contradicted in each clip.

Simply figuring out each character's name feels like a huge win, and opens up entirely new avenues to explore. From there, you'll begin to collect a list of nouns that help push the story forward. Every mention of this place or that person is a potentially important detail to help you figure out what's going on, and in Telling Lies, the devil truly is in the details.

Each clip is labeled with a date and time, which quickly becomes a very important factor in your investigation. Keeping careful track of these time codes can help you place conversation in your mental timeline and match up overlapping events. The bookmark function has a secret benefit of putting saved clips in chronological order, if, like me, dates and times tend to run together.

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Investigating the clips in Telling Lies is an incredibly natural experience that immerses through the knockout performances of the cast and the intuitiveness of the system. By positioning the player as an observer, the game managers to perfect an immersive experience in a way no other game ever has. After a few hours alone with these characters in their most vulnerable and intimate moments, I was entirely convinced that not only was what I was seeing real, but that my investigation and understanding of the story was of the utmost importance.

The Intimacy Of A Conversation

When characters aren't speaking face to face, you will only be able to hear one side of the conversation. This leads to frequent long, uninterrupted moments of silence while the person you're watching is simply listening to the other person speak while you analyze their facial expressions. These clips are a continuous take, sometimes up to 9 minutes, in close-up, of often intensely emotional dialogues.

It doesn't take long to begin developing strong emotional bonds with these characters, both sympathetic and repulsed. This, along with the interaction of selecting the order of each clip you watch, creates an immersive and overwhelmingly intimate experience that neither film nor game can create on their own.

Telling Lies is a larger-than-life story grounded by exceptionally human performances from the cast. The occasional 'game-y' moment in which an actor seems to be over-reacting with facial expressions as a clue to the player looking for the other half of the conversation is forgivable, because after nearly eight hours of combing through every last clip, I was truly captivated more times than I can count.

Minor Details Make A Big Difference

Through the entire game, a reflection of Karen can be seen on the screen, watching along with you. She will react to things just as you will, creating a strange sense of being guided emotionally as you are guiding her methodically through the footage. The effect is subtle, but enhanced my experience immeasurably.

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Composer Nainita Desai's score is a dreamy orchestral embrace that simultaneously invokes the mystique of Hitchcock, the foreboding of Fincher, and Lynchian surrealism. The score fades in from time to time, never too suddenly or over-powering, to subtly pull you deeper in. Again, the music functions as part of a whole that completes this fully realized experience.

There are many dead ends in Telling Lies, threads you will pull and pull that don't seem to get you any closer to a conclusion. Remember the journey though. Some of those dead ends were the moments I continue to dwell on long after "finishing" the story. Barlow should teach a master class on the presentation of themes. Telling Lies is a puzzle with pieces that don't seem to match until you can step back and look at the entire picture.

Like Her Story, Karen's desktop holds many clues and thematic details, one of which I still haven't completely come to terms with (a certain King of Hearts, Sam? Help me out) and it's very important to analyze all of the information available, not just in the clips. Further, just because a clip starts two minutes in, doesn't mean you can't rewind to the beginning and watch the whole thing.

Telling Lies swept me away like an incredible film and engaged me completely like a brilliant puzzle game. It is the best of both mediums and Sam Barlow has proven himself to be a new kind of auteur. No Let's Play or explainer will ever capture what it's like to play Telling Lies yourself. It's a genuine treat no story-lover should pass up.

5 Out Of 5 Stars

A review copy of Telling Lies was provided to TheGamer for this review. Telling Lies is available now on PC and iOS.

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