FMV-based narrative driven stories are in one hell of a good place right now. Whether it be the Wales Interactive / D’Avekki output or Flavourworks fantastic Erica, as technology improves to allow you to feel more involved than ever in these live-action gaming experiences, Sam Barlow’s Telling Lies arrives on consoles after, well, you could say a hugely successful year on Steam to take its place and stand amongst the best the genre has to offer.
Telling Lies is quite an easy sell. From the creator of 2015’s Her Story, it’s another live-action FMV thriller that tasks you with dissecting a plethora of video footage to find the common threads and reach a resolution, good or bad. This time around there’s a tangled web of a story that you need to piece together bit by bit as you go, stranding together the truth from these characters that on the surface, isn’t easy to decipher. The phrase ‘you need to bloody pay attention’ hasn’t felt to apt in gaming since, well, Her Story.
Sam Barlow evidently has a gift of storytelling, allowing you to fall into his tightly crafted narrative with little more than your own intent focus and a metric ton of characters talking into a video camera. At first Telling Lies is somewhat intimidating. Your visuals are little more than a laptop screen, used to play the evidence videos connected via an external hard drive. You play as an investigator who attempts to piece all of these stories together, her outline very faintly visible throughout the game as a reflection on the screen and providing the odd cut-scene as she talks to her partner, lurking behind her at milestone moments in the story.
As with any solid narrative-driven interactive experience the story soon becomes Telling Lies primary mechanic. It’s your weapon and your shield as you navigate your way through the seemingly endless amount of content (it does end, thankfully, though it sure feels like a mountain to climb at the games beginning). Your primary character, – who is referred to as various names throughout – played by Upgrade’s Logan Marshall-Green and should definitely play Joel in The Last of Us TV show, becomes the centrepiece to which the other three characters stories intertwine. Logan’s performance is spectacular as we see him vulnerable, brutal, dangerous and terrified in the space of little more than jumping through videos. The rest of the main cast such as Alexandra Shipp (X-Men Dark Phoenix), Kerry Bishé (Red State, Argo, though I remember her most vividly as Lucy, the character who took over from J.D. as the lead character in the final season of Scrubs) and Westworld’s Angela Sarafyan are all fantastic in their various roles, engaging and unsettling in equal measure, each with a huge role to play in proceedings as the game progresses.
Thankfully, the material is more than a match for the performances with a story that’s engaging and with enough twists and turns to justify the slightly muddled way your videos are presented. Perhaps this is unfair, Telling Lies’ UI is cumbersome and intimidating but the game does a good job of allowing you to keep a note of particular videos or phrases which become important later on. Should you want to find videos with a certain key phrase in them, whether it be a name, a location or anything else, the search engine allows you find not only the video but the exact moment the word was uttered, and will allow you to start the video from those particular moments. This certainly saves time later on when something triggers a reminder from a couple of hours ago, circumventing having to go through every video to find a single piece of dialogue and instead bringing them all to the forefront.
The search engine is of huge importance overall, though if you want immediate results you’re able to search keywords directly from the videos subtitles. This can save time when certain videos can veer off in several different directions and you need to keep track on who said what and when and why it’s important right now. The UI will also clearly state which videos you’ve already watched, making it easy to find new ones if you’re missing certain clues as you progress Telling Lies at times can feel like it’s getting away from you as there’s just a sheer amount of content at your disposal and shifting through them all – they very from seconds to 7-8 minutes long – may feel like a heavy task, thankfully player interaction has been considered throughout and it goes a long way to helping streamline the overall playthrough(s).
There’s various moments as the story falls deeper into its own rabbit hole I found myself not rooting for any of the characters. There’s a fair amount of hidden camera footage that’s included, allowing to see our protagonists without staring directly into the camera and their true selves can become somewhat exposed. There’s always at least one person in the room who’s fully aware they are filming, but the deeper subtext of ‘they all suck, just find the most ‘less-terrible’ one’ does grate at times. The story of Telling Lies is intriguing and engaging, though it can go to some dark places with moments I stumbled upon that made me wonder if I even wanted to know where these threads were leading me. As mentioned above, the characters keep your interest throughout and as their stories are exposed there becomes far more to get stuck into as the primary investigator.
And though it can be really rather simple to find keywords or phrases, the games ‘rewind’ function is a really bizarre oversight considering the simplicity of the other mechanics.
Telling Lies naturally wants you to watch every single video you can find in order to be clued up with the most valuable information, that’s why it’s so strange how time consuming and unhelpful it can be to do so with the ‘rewind’ function. As mentioned above certain keywords will be found in the exact spot they’re said in the footage. This may mean a solid chunk of the video has been skipped over in order to find it.
To navigate around this you’re given a rewind function that’s so painfully slow, with seemingly no way of speeding it up, to get to the beginning of each video becomes a slog, so much so that my first playthrough I eventually skipped watching every video in full, merely focusing on dialogue as I skipped back and forth. As some of the footage is conversations from two different perspectives, there’s an awful lot of silence you can jump through, as they’re merely reaction to content you’ve already watched.
Now, these moments of silence can be skipped, but why not make it faster to search through earlier parts of the video that may not feature those keywords you were looking for but could still hold valuable information. Telling Lies really makes you work for it and can take the tension out of scenarios written for this specific segment of the story with very little effort.
There’s plenty to like about Telling Lies. The central performances are spectacular, thankfully, as games such as this can live or die on the actors involved. Fortunately the cast more than rise to the occasion in an immersive, intense and at times overdramatic story about keeping a multitude of lies spinning in the air at once whilst they’re so close to smashing to the floor.
You’re going to want a pen and a pad nearby to keep track of your characters, the threads and the keywords you’ll want to search for, and some questionable design decisions hold the game back from being an all-out classic of the genre – with the shocks and twists of Her Story towering over Telling Lies’ endgame – but it’s still well worth exploring if you’re looking for an interactive mystery to untangle.
Telling Lies is available now on Steam, PS4 (reviewed on PS4 Pro), Switch and Xbox One
Developer: Sam Barlow
Publisher: Annapurna Interactive
Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we were provided with a promotional code from the publisher. For our full review policy, please go here.
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