Her Story is one of the most unique experiences I have ever witnessed and is still one of my favorite story-driven games ever. However, Sam Barlow was not done with this concept as we got another FMV-game in the form of Telling Lies. It is definitely in many ways a spiritual sequel to Her Story in mechanics and style, however, Barlow wanted to create a new setting and story that was not related to the previous game, which I personally welcome. Despite being a huge fan of his work on both Her Story and Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, Telling Lies simply stumbled upon me and I was intrigued, but afraid this was going to be on the low-level drama-series of any punchline you could think off. Luckily, with snacks and drinks along, I uncovered a grand and entertaining story with Telling Lies.
Discover the truth
The game’s story is a mystery-novel and as such, giving a solid intro is almost impossible without spoiling anything. Though what I can say, is that you play as a woman utilizing a computer to find video conversations to figure out the events that occurred, who was involved in what way, and hopefully find some answers you didn’t even know you needed.
A heavy influence on this game’s plot was the idea of being watched over, similar to how a parent would, as well as movies like The Conversation and Shame. Barlow went the extra mile to make this concept and setting believable, as he even did research on surveillance methods in order to make this experience feel more authentic. It really grabs you in comparison to how a movie ever could, as you are clearly interacting with this computer and try to piece together the conversations that occur and what the overarching plot revolves around.
However, authenticity can only go so far. This title focuses heavily on finding conversations, so character builds and a clear red thread is heavily important in order to follow the story. Firstly, I can say that every character is written to feel like real humans. All contain diverse personalities that make them relatable, instead of just being simple tropes, and it is impressive how much you will end up caring about every single individual. Even if they lie or do something you would not contend, you understand their motivations, at least as soon as you uncover the reasons behind them, making me care about everyone’s journey. This all is strengthened even further, by its strong dialogues, that are always well-written and corny only when it feels believable. All are clear individuals that are written to be memorable, which is in itself an impressive accomplishment.
There is certainly a lot going on, so you will have to take notes in order to keep track of subtle names, events, or simply words that might sound like a recurring theme for example. This again, adds to the mystery, as you will always be spoon-fed important or interesting information about everyone involved, as well as what happened, You will be left with plenty of things to search for if you focus on taking notes, making it easy to always feel one step closer to uncovering the entire plot, which makes for a great storytelling: Giving only enough to make the audience more hungry and ask for more.
Although the character-driven plot is exciting to make it the best drama-show I have ever witnessed, the overall plot outside of the character’s life is not as intriguing. It is a clear motivation and interesting to find out what is going on, but since it does not affect everyone on a personal level, it feels more like a side-activity. Luckily, Telling Lies focuses more on the characters’ connections and how this will let you know more about them, instead of the overarching events that push some character’s forward. It even has some neat theming and symbolism which I do not want to spoil, but makes for nice character-study. Despite its grand cast and stories, the story is also easy to follow due to how everyone has a connection with a red thread. However, just to not give much away, I do wish the ending was shorter. It tries to give you some ending closure to what happened afterward, but it feels ineffective to be given a straight answer when you yourself could simply piece together your own theory like you have done for the entire playthrough.
This does not change the fact just what a gold drama Telling Lies presents. Every character is written to be clear and memorable personalities, the plot is great at giving you many events and descriptions to get invested with, and how you are spoon-fed through technology that feels authenticity, is just fantastic. It focuses more on the characters than the overall plot, which I am also severely happy with. An actual quality drama.
Story Score: 9/10
Connecting the conversations
As stated earlier, you will be playing as an unknown character whom you can only see through your screen-reflection, as your entire-screen turns into the computer she is using. This form of authenticity is a strong contender for why immersion through interactivity is so important in a game, and Sam Barlow shows it again with Telling Lies. Using an installed program, you can search for videos and find recordings on whenever they said a word, but only the five first videos will be available. Because of this, you will have to find subtle words the characters are uttering (or scribbled in the background perhaps), in order to find new videos you might have not seen before.
This is a fantastic way to play detective, as you will have to take notes and be aware of every conversation. There is a helpful notepad installed on the computer, so that certainly helps too. You can even instantly search for words in a conversation if you have subtitles on, which is a nice feature, but not needed. This is because you will have so many words to search for, that it makes it hard to figure out which one will be worthwhile and which will only give you trivia. You will also only see conversations from one side, so you will have to be mindful of what context their dialogues refers to.
For a nice convenience, you can also bookmark the videos and there is also a nice history-vlog should you ever need it to keep track or find an earlier video for clarification. Conversations you have already seen or booked will be highlighted with an icon, which is a nice touch to make you not rewatch every video to find a new one. However, while you can rewind and fast forward, there is no runtime-bar. This makes it tedious when you simply want to watch the whole video from the start or only specific parts and need to rewind. With a computer using modern technology, this is an odd design choice that does not benefit the game’s mechanics in any way. This holds especially true when some videos can be over 7 minutes long and since some characters will be listening to the other one, long periods of silence will occur.
Speaking of, I do wonder why you cannot scale the size of the videos and the notebook in order to take notes while you are watching. It is more immersive with a bigger screen for videos, sure, but the option for multitasking would have helped a lot. In fact, would it not have been a nice touch to be able to see two conversations at once and see if they match? These issues don’t necessarily damage the authentic experience Telling Lies wants to create, but are oddities that should have been ironed out in order to make this device more user-friendly (which is the idea of modern computers). As it is though, it is perfectly suitable for conducting detective-work in an engaging and immersive way. Just needed a couple of updates.
Gameplay Score: 7/10
The authenticity of current technology
I am really impressed first and foremost by how real this whole experience feels, with the computer having all the needs, such an icon for its battery-life, clock, option for different internet-connections, and folders. It also shows how modern this computer is, and while I would have liked to be able to customize it to my liking, I suppose it is hard to do so when this is clearly not yours. Just someone else’s computer you are messing with.
The actors do a phenomenal job at utilizing facial-expressions in order to tell their moods and thoughts, or even make you unsure if what they are actually saying is a lie or truth. I am severely impressed by their talents, and their direction with voicework is overall superb. Everyone creates a unique and believable character that has clear emotions, and how they talk or react to a person over their video-calls is impressive, so I honestly have nothing to really fault them here. The locations are also varied, which makes sense when you are having conversations from different locations, be it someone’s houses, workplace, at a cafe, or outside. It makes it more impressive when you consider that most of these shots were done in one compound the team rented.
The environmental sounds are also impressive. Be it the hardware you are using, programs, or the atmospheric ones, it all adds to show that you are in one location, typing on a computer, and that these people are in specific places audio-vice, such as outside on a busy street. It is all great for giving great immersion to this setting, and should they be a hindrance, you can always alter the volume, individually. While there is little music, it subtly sneaks up on you for creating a stronger mood, like how a TV-show would and I am impressed by how much it works. It creates a strong contrast to the eerie silence before, making the events more significant. It contains lovely piano-tunes, and I was surprised to find out it was not Her Story’s Chris Zabriskie who composed, but instead Nainita Desai. She really adds to the atmosphere, and it is worth buying the soundtrack for the tunes that create calm, stressful or thoughtful moments thanks to their use of varied tone and speed.
I also love how subtle things in the background can happen, and how it is a great way to showcase that just because something is in the foreground, does not mean it is the only important thing on the screen. It really makes you appreciate the amount of details the team went for. My only real, yet minor issue with the presentation is the reflection of the character you are playing as that is constantly on the computer screen. It is subtle and certainly used for making this as authentic as possible, and it will even be highlighted whenever you are not using the computer or you are hitting a milestone. However, I would have liked the option to turn it off as it can be distracting.
Presentation Score: 9/10
The worst, yet most interesting solitaire ever
I am just going to leave it at that and say it is a nice way to relax and take your mind off the game when you feel overwhelmed with options. Also, while I thought it was odd how I could only pick one card instead of 3, I do know why after I played through the game. A nice foreshadowing if you will, just not a good version of solitaire at all. There are other minor elements on the computer to tinker with, but I will let you discover them yourself. The best part is that while the game has clear endings, there are about 10 hours of videos to witness in total, making it contain plenty of interesting tidbits and emotional events that you want to see or understand. You could probably find the necessary videos within 5 hours in order to beat the game, but due to how easily sucked in you will be, it is hard to not say you want to search out just a bit more.
Extra Score: 7/10
Telling Lies is easy to compare to Her Story in concept and idea, yet they are completely different in the experience they provide. While Her Story was rather a simpler and more focused tale that demanded the player to pay attention, Telling Lies is big and has diverse areas to pay attention to. It does not make it better or worse, it makes it on par with strong quality writing and story-telling, immersive presentation, a believable cast, and gameplay that is easy to get sucked into. I guess this is similar to comparing to a hot tea vs an ice-tea. They are similar in many aspects, but provides different experiences. Regardless, Telling Lies is one mystery-drama that is better than any housewife TV-show could ever provide. In fact, it is actually great.