In most video games, the player assumes the role of the main character, taking action to drive forward the plot. But in the new game Telling Lies, the story has already taken place, and it’s up to the player to sort out what’s happened. This process of discovery will be different for every player, resulting in multiple possible understandings of the events in question. The experience is thus inextricable from the player’s interaction with it, rather than forcing the player to perform a predetermined set of actions to advance the story in an A-to-B-to-C manner.
In one of multiple metafictional conceits, the entire game plays out on a computer screen — that is, one besides the one you’re already looking at. An initially unnamed woman plugs a hard drive into her computer and opens up “Retina,” a government tool for archiving and sorting through surveillance information (all of which was performed and shot with real actors). Stored on the drive are hours’ worth of context-less video clips — chat sessions with only one participant’s side of the conversation, footage from hidden cameras, social media posts, etc. The player is tasked with viewing the clips and gaining an understanding of the events they portray. Your only method of pulling clips is putting keywords into a search bar, which will then trawl the transcripts of the videos to present relevant ones from the database.
Telling Lies, then, is a detective game which rewards paying attention and keeping track of myriad contextual clues. Your only way to discover new clips is to keep an ear out for anything you might not have heard already. The name of a character, location, or organization could lead to a vital puzzle piece. But the search tool limits you to accessing only the first five results for a term, so you can’t just punch in an important character’s name and then roll through all the videos they are referenced in. The process can get addictive; in particular, there’s a great rush to watching a clip of a video call and realizing that it’s the other half of a call you viewed earlier. Some of the game’s best twists come when you comprehend that what looked like one kind of conversation was in fact about something else entirely.
A lot of the thrill in Telling Lies comes from this sense of discovery, but even though I’ve avoided revealing anything here, the narrative does not necessarily suffer from spoilers. There’s a time limit built into the game which makes it impossible to view all the clips in one playthrough (although anyone should definitely be able to get a good sense of what’s happened in one go). Replay value comes from considering new iterations of “But what if I tried this?” and gathering new findings. Fittingly, considering the many perspectives involved and the mechanics of its gameplay, this is a story about how limited knowledge and deception shape human behavior. The fact that all of it is recorded footage lends a sinister pall to the proceedings, making for a dark statement on the omnipresent hand of governments in the information age. (This is also directly part of the plot, though I won’t say more than that.)
Telling Lies was directed by British developer Sam Barlow, and expands on many ideas previously addressed in his 2015 game Her Story, which used a similar setup. That game is simpler, featuring one actress in a series of police interrogation videos, though it, too, reveals itself as something deeper as the player shapes their own understanding of it. The idea of one input leading to many different experiential possibilities is a recurring theme in Barlow’s work. His 1999 text game Aisle presents a simple setup of a man standing in a grocery aisle. The player gets to enter a single command, which will prompt the man to perform that action, with the description illuminating some part of his past, whereupon the story “ends.” Playing the game is thus a cycle of trying new actions, each time creating a different backstory for the man, or suggesting a different mental state he’s in.
If there’s a weakness here (besides some stiff and/or obvious dialogue), it’s that a lot of the thematic ground in Telling Lies was already tread by Her Story. But the incorporation of multiple points of view helps to reinforce these ideas in a vivid way. And the smartest thing about Telling Lies is how it confronts players with the illusion of omniscience. You may be tempted to think you can fully understand the story, since you have a perspective on it none of the characters do, but you are in fact limited by whatever clips you dredge up, to say nothing of how the database itself is still but a sampling of their lives. The game’s ending is also different depending on the kinds of terms the player inputs and which characters they choose to follow the most, emphasizing your biases and approach. What at first looks like a simple mystery to solve instead flips around the whole idea of understanding anything. Telling Lies marries story and play in a way few games manage.
Telling Lies is available now for iOS, macOS, and Microsoft Windows via multiple online retailers.
Editor’s note: The author of this piece playtested an early version of Telling Lies for Annapurna Interactive, for which he was given a gift card. This review is based on playing the released version of the game, for which he received no compensation from Annapurna.