Review – Telling Lies (Switch)
I have to give Annapurna Interactive credit; they are not afraid to publish games that are truly unique. Games like What Remains of Edith Finch, Outer Wilds, Gorogoa, Florence, and Ashen have all been critically acclaimed successes and they are each vastly different from one another. Well they’re at it again, this time partnering with Sam Barlow, the creator of Her Story and Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, to bring us Telling Lies, a FMV game that is the spiritual successor to Her Story. FMV’s have had a rocky relationship with gamers for decades, so the question remains; is Telling Lies worth your time?
In Telling Lies you play as an unknown woman who comes home and boots up her laptop. On it are a few videos that you can start watching, as well as a broken game of solitaire. I spent more time than I’d like to admit trying to beat it before realizing you can’t. Upon watching the videos, you’ll see that they are recorded conversations between a few different people, but you have no idea who they are or how they connect with one another.
Figuring out the narrative of this game relies completely on your investigative skills. Beyond having the initial five videos for you to watch, there’s no direction given as to what you’re suppose to do or what you’re looking for. It reminds me a bit of Outer Wilds in this regard, as both games offer no hand holding whatsoever. You simply have to dive in and go from there. Above the videos is a search bar where you can type in whatever you want. After watching the first few clips, I typed in “David”, which is the name of the man from the first video. Doing this brought up more videos I could watch. Now I was beginning to understand how things worked. I still didn’t know what was going on story-wise, but at least I had figured out how to move forward.
There’s not a whole lot of gameplay elements aside from playing videos, pausing them when you feel the need, fast forwarding, and typing in keywords into the search bar. However, there is one mechanic that is noteworthy for all the wrong reasons: the rewind function. Whenever you pull up a video from typing in a keyword, it will automatically start playing the video from where the keyword was mentioned. Most times this is at least halfway through the clip. You can rewind from there so you can watch the whole thing, but rewinding is only marginally faster than it playing normally.
Unfortunately, there is no option to start the video from the beginning. Since the videos average anywhere between four and ten minutes, this means a huge chunk of your time will be wasted rewinding. I did happen to find a trick to get it to start from the beginning after a while, but it didn’t always work. I would click on the video I wanted to watch and would immediately hit the rewind button as soon as it started to load. Honestly, it felt like I had uncovered a glitch more than anything. It would try to jump to that section, but I would keep flicking the rewind button and it would eventually take me to the start of the video. Not the most user friendly solution to say the least and it only worked about 60% of the time.
It’s also important to know that each of the videos show only one side of the conversation. The way Telling Lies is advertised leads players to believe that there’s two sides to each story and they’ll paint wildly different pictures than just hearing one by itself. While this is partially true, the clips aren’t laid out in a way that makes context a huge factor. Instead, you’re watching the person onscreen talk for a bit and then watch them silently react while the person on the other end says their piece. You don’t get to hear anything the other person is saying unless you find their video that coincides with the one you just viewed.
A lot of the conversations aren’t a straight 50/50 split with how much you’ll hear the person speak. Some clips will have the character giving you almost all of the dialogue, but this also means that there are others that have the person staring mutely for the majority of the clip. Not every video is important either. While there are plenty that will give you clues as to what happened, others will simply be there to give you a better insight into the characters. Character building is indeed crucial, but did I really need to sit for ten minutes watching a little girl staring at the screen silently while her dad tells her a bedtime story?
This leads me to the next major factor in Telling Lies, the story. I was instantly intrigued by the concept of blindly figuring out why I’m watching these people having conversations. However, after hours of weeding through videos I came to the realization that there was no giant mystery to be solved. The true enigma is discovering why you’re there in the first place. In fact, Telling Lies is like navigating through an interactive movie more than anything else. It’s not really even a mystery, it’s a straight drama. The non linear story telling will have you believing that each video is a piece to a giant puzzle that needs to be solved, but in actuality that’s not the case at all.
I will say that certain narrative aspects are really interesting, though. This is largely due to the acting. Every single performance in Telling Lies is outstanding. No one gives cheap, campy performances like those usually found in FMVs. Logan Marshall-Green, Alexandra Shipp, Angela Sarafyan, and Kerry Bishé deliver solid performances throughout the entire game. Even though these are some well known talents, you quickly forget about who they’ve played in other movies and shows as they portray these characters so convincingly. The little girl, Vivien Lyra Blair, is also fantastic and that’s saying something for a child actor.
After spending time getting to know these people, you’ll feel like you really know them on a personal level. This makes certain videos more difficult to watch. When they’re being more intimate with each other you’ll feel almost dirty, like you’re spying on them and witnessing something you shouldn’t. Becoming familiar with them is what drives the game forward. You’re compelled to find out more about them and what went wrong at a certain point.
That being said, the desire to learn the truth about what happened to these people only lasts for so long. After a while, you know exactly why certain things transpired and the decisions they make are not a surprise by any means. There are a couple of twists along the way, but this game takes a long time to get there.
Honestly, that’s the biggest issue with Telling Lies. It’s way too long. It’s a ten hour game that realistically could have been four hours. There’s so much random filler and dead ends that just don’t need to be there. Some of it is needed for character development of course, but as I mentioned before, did we really need to watch several videos of a father reading to his daughter? There are a few other examples I could list, but I don’t want to get into spoiler territory. The craziest part is that Sam Barlow actually filmed one hundred hours of footage and cut it down to ten. At that rate, why not just make a TV show? That’s pretty much what this is anyway.
At the end of the day, Telling Lies is good concept that stumbles a bit in its execution. It would have worked better if there was an actual mystery to solve like in Her Story. Instead of piecing together an elaborate puzzle, we’re left sifting through the drama of a few people. It starts off strong as you’re trying to figure out what’s going on, but the novelty of it quickly wears out its welcome. There are several endings you can get, but they don’t differ from one another all that much. Personally, I’m not eager to invest even more hours into it for so little payoff. This game is definitely not for everyone, but those who like well acted dramas will probably love it. Hardcore gamers, not so much.
The entire game is shot with real actors in real places. The occasional input lag in some of the videos further sells its authenticity.
There’s not a whole lot to do here aside from watching videos. The rewind button is agonizingly slow and there’s no option to start the videos from the beginning.
The performances are stellar all around. There is a very modest musical score in the background that fits the tone well, even if it does play on a continuous loop.
Telling Lies starts off strong with you desperately trying to figure out what to do and who these people are. Weeding through videos to see drama unfold wears out its welcome after a while, though.
Final Verdict: 7.0
Telling Lies is available now on PC, PS4, Xbox One, and Switch.
Reviewed on Switch.
A copy of Telling Lies was provided by the publisher.