The fear of someone watching us in our digital lives is as old as the internet itself. Whether you put tape over your webcam or follow Edward Snowden on social media, there’s always that inherent worry that you’re never quite alone in a room full of connected devices.
Telling Lies on PS4 taps into this fear while also offering a story about deeply flawed people who are trying to stay afloat in a world where their lies anchor them down in a sea of uncertainty and doubt. If you think full-motion video (FMV) games are incapable of rivaling movies, then stick around, because all of that’s about to change, and that’s no lie.
Everybody Lies, but the Truth Isn’t so Black and White
Telling Lies comes to us from Sam Barlow, who shattered the FMV genre with his breakout hit, Her Story, on PC. Telling Lies is the spiritual successor to that title, but it retains a lot of what made the last game so successful.
The premise here covers the stories of four people primarily, with other characters playing side roles throughout. The four main actors and actresses here are notable personalities as well. Logan Marshall-Green, Alexandra Shipp, Kerry Bishé, and Angela Sarafyan all offer Hollywood-quality performances and superb deliveries in some of the game’s more intense scenes.
In my discussion of the story here, I’m going to be purposefully vague because one of Telling Lies’ best qualities is how it slowly unravels its mysteries before you in a non-linear way. The less you know, the better.
The characters in Telling Lies span across various professions, convictions, ideals, and individual motivations. They really feel like a wide spread of people from all walks of life, and the thing that ties them all together is, as you probably guessed, the lies that bind them to their circumstances.
Whether they lie as part of their profession, because it’s how they cope, or any number of other motivations, these characters feel first and foremost like real people. That kind of emotional connection is something we’re all learning right now, given that our jobs have become remote and our ties connected through computer screens.
Of course, our virtual conversations these days are a two-way street. In Telling Lies, you’re playing as a person in possession of a hard drive that contains recordings of conversations and footage that was all taken without the knowledge of the people in them.
The layers go deeper than that, but what you’re essentially doing in this game is watching a single side of conversations. As a result, most (but not all) of the video clips only give you one side of the story in that moment since you can’t hear what’s happening on the other end. Instead, you’ll need to track down the other video that matches up with that one to piece together the entirety of that scene.
Beyond convincing performances throughout, Telling Lies also brings all manner of different topics and themes to the forefront throughout the experience. These themes are all relevant and handled in mature ways that serve to expand the characters, but to offer any more detail would be betraying my promise above to keep things vague.
Suffice to say, it’s a story that everyone will be able to connect with in profound ways. You may not share some of the more harrowing experiences these people go through, but their problems are most certainly a universal language that has touched everyone at some point in their lives. After all, we all tell lies.
A single playthrough will probably take you between four and six hours, but your ending will depend on how much time you’ve spent with certain characters, and what percentage of the total clips you discovered. That, combined with the low price, ensures some replayability.
In terms of gameplay, breaking up the story like this into various lengths of live action video, and then further into one-sided conversations, sounds like it could be a logistical nightmare. That’s where Telling Lies breaks the mold with a completely different approach.
Instead of offering a linear story or a movie with interactive choices, Telling Lies gives you full control over the computer where the main character is sitting, going so far as to show her face reflected in the screen at all times. She even makes small movements to remind you that she’s there, watching these videos alongside you.
On the computer you’ll find a fully interactive desktop with some files that give you a little detail into the operating system and the origin of the clips you’re watching. The main mechanic here is a search engine that lets you input keywords to pull up a handful of video clips at a time.
The main character in front of the computer starts with “Love,” but you will have the option to input whatever you like, view your history, and bookmark any clips you deem important. All the basic tools are there, and you’ll have your own personal list of things you want to search before long.
One thing about the way the search pulls up clips is that it will start the video in the exact moment where that word was said. You can fast-forward or rewind with the right stick, but if you’re like me you’ll want to watch the clips from beginning to end.
There’s a way to do this fairly easily, but the game doesn’t make it known, so it may be an unintended glitch. Even so, I found that if I held the right thumbstick all the way to left and held it there before playing a video, they would start at the beginning reliably every time.
It’s a handy trick given that the rewind and fast-forward functions move fairly slowly through the clip. Given that some of them push ten minutes in length, it was nice to discover this option so I didn’t have to rewind almost every time I viewed something.
The other quirk with Telling Lies in terms of the gameplay is absolutely intended, but it is an oddity as a result of the way these clips were recorded in the game’s story. Since we’re only watching one side of the conversation, there will be stretches of silence where someone is just staring at the screen while the other party is talking.
It gets points for realism, but you’ll want to fast-forward these moments of silence as they don’t add anything other than authenticity to the clips. They’re not egregious by any means, but it’s worth noting.
When I boil it all down, it’s hard not to call Telling Lies a masterpiece, and I say that for a lot of reasons. The story and characters are all incredibly believable and fascinating human beings, flaws and all. The gameplay is wholly unique for this genre, requiring a lot more input from the player in both the gameplay and piecing together the narrative, than you would normally expect.
Above all else, this is a story that offers a lot of different perspectives on life, on communication, and on what’s most important to each of us. It’s not necessarily about the lies we tell, but why we tell them. Those lies don’t make us bad people, but they do make us human.
In a world where human connection is highly limited, and virtual conversations have become the norm, it’s also a perfectly valid subject to consider how certain organizations or government entities could be tapping into or harnessing all of this new content we’re creating and putting out there.
Of course, that’s an entirely different rabbit whole. Let’s discuss how all of this comes together in terms of the presentation.
A New Benchmark For The FMV Genre
I’m extremely happy to be seeing FMV games back in the limelight. When I was young, these types of things were limited to the cutscenes in Command & Conquer, and let’s face it, those were not oscar award-winning performances (I did love them though).
Telling Lies proves that there are still profound and relevant ways to bridge the gap between film and gaming. The performances here would all be welcome in a full theatrical release, and the story itself is more important now than ever. Sam Barlow is moving the genre forward with each and every release.
Telling Lies is an experiment in what can be done when you add agency into film and offer it to the play in a nonlinear fashion, but it’s an experiment that succeeds wildly in proving that the concept works near flawlessly in practice.
It’s worth every single cent of the asking price, and for those who are curious about how games and film could potentially come together to create wholly unique experiences, it’s an absolute must. Just make sure you bring your favorite notebook and a pen, you’ll want to be taking notes for this one.
Final Score: 9.0/10
A copy of Telling Lies was provided to PS4 Experts for review purposes.
Article by - Bradley Ramsey
Insert date - 4/29/2020