In 2015, Sam Barlow reignited the FMV game genre with Her Story on PC and mobile devices. Now he’s back with Telling Lies, which he made with developer Furious Bee and publisher Annapurna Interactive. The game released on PC and mobile last year, but now Telling Lies arrives on consoles to weave a six-ish-hour-long mystery told entirely via short FMV clips. The title succeeds as a piece of art, but whether it is worthwhile as a video game will depend upon the individual.
To describe almost anything about the story would be a spoiler. In fact, Telling Lies begins with a woman coming home and setting up a laptop computer. Afterward, you are presented with the desktop screen of that laptop, and then you are left to your own devices to figure out everything else, including why the heck you are staring at your computer. It arguably even goes too far to preserve its mystery. In any case, the entire game is played through this fictional laptop screen, and you can see the woman’s reflection in the screen.
Long story short, the laptop is loaded with stolen NSA database footage relating to an FBI case that stretches over roughly a year’s time. However, none of the video clips are presented chronologically, and you can only locate clips by doing a text search for specific words spoken in a clip. There are two ways to search for more clips in Telling Lies: You can physically type in words, or you can click on a piece of dialogue spoken in a video clip, which lets you automatically search for the text you selected. All of this can be done simply enough through the controller, but it’s faster and easier if you utilize Switch’s handy touch controls. You have to decide whether a big TV screen or faster controls is more convenient for you.
When you do a text search and find clips, a clip will cue up to the precise moment that search text is spoken. If you would rather rewind to watch the clip from the start (or fast-forward to something later), you can — but it is so slow. And equally annoying, it’s finicky too. Too much time in Telling Lies is spent rewinding or fast-forwarding to what you actually want. You can at least bookmark and categorize clips to make them faster to re-access later, but it’s seldom actually required. Also, if you need a break from hours of staring at messily arranged FMV clips, you can always play the Solitaire game that is programmed into the fictional desktop.
A bothersome element of Telling Lies is that its core concept fundamentally doesn’t make sense. Being forced to access clips via specific text only does receive an in-universe explanation, so I’m willing to overlook that. What is much goofier though is how you never hear the other side of a conversation that occurs over a digital device: If you’re watching a man talk at a computer screen to a woman, you will have to text-search and locate the woman’s corresponding video clip to hear her side of the conversation. You will never hear device speaker audio of the other person, even though you hear the person in the video clearly. In fact, when the other person is speaking, you literally just see a person staring in silence at the screen, occasionally reacting to what they hear. Why can’t I hear what they hear? How bad is NSA spyware?
The actors’ performances in Telling Lies are stellar, maintaining palpable emotion and not fumbling over lines during long (sometimes over 7 minutes) clips. Logan Marshall-Green, who plays main character David, expertly shifts his demeanor according to the situation, and he truly delivers on the title of the game. But all of the characters really deliver on their roles, even a child actress.
Likewise, the writing is overall believable, and it doesn’t take long to pick up on the game’s carefully constructed themes. The narrative of Telling Lies was meticulously crafted, an artistic counterpoint to the popcorn-munching style of fellow FMV game The Complex.
That being said, the narrative is large. This “game” consists of staring at your screen just watching disconnected video clips for hours upon hours, and while it is exciting to stumble upon a dramatic “ah ha!” moment that expands the narrative, they’re few and far between. Most of Telling Lies just consists of learning about its characters bit by bit, waiting for that next big plot twist to jump out at you.
Additionally, the concluding portions of the game felt a bit melodramatic for my tastes, and the actual ending(s) doesn’t do a satisfying job of bookending things. The story just kind of… stops.
Telling Lies is compelling but not for everyone
Some people will absolutely love Telling Lies. The type of person who can watch five minutes of a movie and then has to watch the entire thing will surely be absorbed into this game’s mystifying world. However, for other people, sifting through hours of footage and being forced to jigsaw a narrative out of it will just feel like a chore, even if the characters are well depicted. It’s up to you to decide which category you’re most likely to fall under.
A review code was provided by the publisher.