Sam Barlow and Furious Bee
PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, Mac, iOS
The man on screen is looking straight at me, speaking into the camera. My attention drifts to his surroundings in an attempt to learn more about his life. It looks like he is in a fairly small apartment, perhaps having recently moved in. No signs of family or roommates, so maybe he lives alone? He has finished speaking and is poised, ready to listen.
I don’t reply, because this isn’t a lockdown-mandated Zoom session. I am playing Telling Lies, which has just had an aptly timed release on consoles following its PC debut last year. The game sees you searching through a series of video calls and recordings, mostly consisting of conversations between a man and three women, along with a handful of other characters, in an attempt to solve a mystery.
At the start of the game, you don’t even know what you are looking for. A video shows a woman sitting down at her computer, and you take control of the desktop. In a nice touch, her reflection in the screen remains partially visible throughout, a mirror of your voyeuristic self. You can even play a game of solitaire.
On the computer, there is a database of video clips apparently stolen from the US National Security Agency. You can search the videos for particular words, but only the first five results are watchable – there is a slightly hokey in-game reason for this limitation – which forces you to tease out clues. The clips are all shot with real actors on phones, laptops or other in-fiction cameras, adding to the realism.
I am being intentionally cagey about the nature of the mystery you must solve or even the names of the characters involved, because discovering them for yourself is part of the fun. One word in particular would let you instantly access what I think is the final video in the chronology, but that would probably leave you with more questions than answers.
This extreme non-linear storytelling is fascinating, and great fun when experienced with a friend. My wife and I played together over a couple of evenings, swapping theories and suggestions of “ooh, try this word”. We played developer Sam Barlow’s previous game, Her Story, in the same way, but while that consisted entirely of clips from a police interview cell, Telling Lies takes the same idea and broadens it.
An interesting twist is that the database contains both sides of a video call, but you can only view one at a time. That leads to you attempting to guess what the other person must have said in their half in your efforts to fish it out of the database, which is fun. Less so is fast-forwarding and rewinding through the long gaps of silence. Barlow says he intentionally made it difficult to scrub through a clip at will, which I understand, but that doesn’t make it any less frustrating.
He hasn’t yet announced the next game he is working on, but I would be surprised if Barlow wasn’t at least considering the pandemic as a possible setting. We have already seen the rise of video call scandals and intrigue, whether it be pornographic Zoombombing by trolls or a reporter, then at the Financial Times, allegedly accessing virtual meetings at other papers covertly.
A few months ago, I would have said that the video calls in Telling Lies feel false: why bother turning on your camera, when audio works just as well? But now, with WhatsApp, Zoom and a seemingly endless list of other apps being the only way to see friends and family, I appreciate having dozens of little windows on the world.
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