STAFF REVIEW of Telling Lies (Xbox One)

Friday, May 29, 2020.
by Adam Dileva

Telling Lies Box art FMV (full motion video) games used to be really popular back in the 90’s. Since then it’s mostly died out, though it has made a small comeback in the last few years with a handful of titles. Instead of handcrafted experiences and graphics, instead, everything is filmed much like a movie, though with some added interactive elements. Telling Lies is the newest in the genre, and nothing like anything else I’ve played before.

Has someone you known ever given you their phone or PC to check something out? What about when they weren’t looking; did you ever get the impulse to start sniffing through their photos, texts and videos? Let’s be honest, if you’ve not done it you’ve most likely at least been curious what the next picture in their roll is. What if you were going through someone’s private messages and videos and become so intrigued and curious that you had to delve even further down the rabbit hole? This is what the basic premise to Telling Lies is, combing through a backup of a hard drive with tons of secretly recorded videos of people’s video chats. Directed by Sam Barlow, creator of the smash FMV hit Her Story, starring Logan Marshall-Green, Alexandra Shipp, Kerry Bishé and Angela Sarafyan, Telling Lies is more of an experience than a game, but one that will test how intuitive you can be.

Most narratives have a beginning, middle and end, and while Telling Lies has this as well, it’s not given to you in the correct order. You see, you’re sifting through a hard drive with nearly 200 videos and hours of footage broken into small chunks, and since there’s no timestamps, this investigative thriller is told in a non-linear way. We like to be oblivious, as we all know that our phones and computers are constantly recording everything we search, watch, message and record, but choose to ignore that fact. Telling Lies showcases what can happen if someone were able to check all of these secretly recorded videos, piecing together part of your life. Would it uncover secrets you didn't want others to know?

You are some sort of agent that has a stolen NSA hard drive of these footage clips, desperately trying to piece together what happened and who was involved so that you can find out the truth. Instead of simply having a folder with all the videos in it, you’ll need to search keywords to watch said videos. Every clip is usually anywhere from one to seven minutes long, but is captioned, allowing for easy searching.

The game starts out by searching the keyword “love”. From here you’re shown any clips where this word is spoken in the captions, bringing you to that moment in the matching clips. You can scrub the videos, deciding to rewind or fast-forward anywhere in the clip or simply watching from where it started. The searched words will bring up any related videos, but in no particular order. If you happen to search a specific keyword that takes place in the last video, that’s possible, but you won’t know any sort of timeline or meanings until you all piece it together; something easier said than done.

Part of what makes doing so difficult is that every video is only that person’s camera viewpoint and audio. Have you ever listened into someone else’s conversation, unable to hear what the other end was saying? That’s exactly what every video here is like, as you’re only getting one viewpoint of a conversation. So to find the other ‘half’, you’ll need to be creative to figure out a keyword that the other person’s video would also have or relate, then match them together in your head.

Given that all of these videos are recorded without the people’s knowledge, there’s obviously a lot of stuff that is quite private, leading to a shocking ending that I didn’t really expect. David, the main character, is the first person’s videos you’ll start to watch. You’ll be introduced to a handful of other characters as your search more words and terms, one where the real “truth” is sort of a moral grey area and that you decide for yourself. I don’t want to delve into any of the story or characters, as that’s the real meat of the experience, and one that you must determine.

Interestingly, your whole experience is utilizing and navigating a fake computer desktop, opening files, folders and searching. There’s no real tutorial, as the game assumes you know how to use a computer for the most part, though nothing is terribly hard to figure out. Scrubbing through videos is as simple as using the Right Stick to rewind or fast-forward, and bookmarking videos is done with a single button press. You can even pause the video, move your cursor to a word or phrase in the closed captions and search it simply that way as well. This really is the majority of the experience within Telling Lies, so if that sounds boring, you may want to look elsewhere for a more traditional ‘game’. For those that like to be nosey and pry into people’s lives, you’ll have your work cut out for you, trying to figure out the timeline and how all the videos and characters relate to one another.

You’ll need to have not only a sharp eye, but try to remember certain conversations and which ones relate to others. There’s no mechanic that tells you if you’ve watched all the videos or the timeline order they are supposed to go in, so be prepared to make a lot of notes. When I finally had the credits roll, I was glad to see that someone pieced together every clip in order and side by side, so it was like actually watching the conversations, though having this included inside the game would have been a much better experience.

Given that Telling Lies is a completely FMV game, it needs to rely on the strength of its actors and actresses to carry the weight of the narrative. Thankfully this is done excellently, especially with Logan Marshall-Green’s performance, as he is completely believable and conveys a range of emotions. Powerful performances from Alexandra Shipp and Angela Sarafyan (Westworld) also help Telling Lies carry weight in its believability, as the cast all around was fantastic.

In one video I really liked the David character, in another I think he’s a jerk, but it’s not until you get the whole picture and piece it all together that you can accurately judge the characters. Once you start to go down the rabbit hole and see what’s really going on, and why these videos are so secretive, it’s quite a depressing story, even if you have to sift through hours of mundane and one sided conversations. Telling Lies certainly isn’t going to be what everyone thinks of a game or an entertaining time. It can be downright boring at times, watching minutes of a one sided video where they are simply listening to what the other person is saying, but you’re unable to hear or see what they see on their screen.

It’s obvious that a lot of work and care went into crafting the unique experience Telling Lies gives, it simply takes some out of the box thinking to really appreciate and hours of patience to piece it together. While I enjoyed the outcome and its complexity, it’s tricky to recommend unless you’re the type of person that would enjoy snooping through hours of private video conversations and can somehow keep track of it all.

Overall: 7.0 / 10
Gameplay: 5.0 / 10
Visuals: 8.0 / 10
Sound: 8.0 / 10


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