On my TV screen, Logan Marshall-Green is listening intently. I know of Marshall-Green, the actor, but I have no idea who Marshall-Green, this unnamed character, is just yet. He shifts in his seat and chimes in occasionally with comments to a conversation I’m not fully part of. This continues until the clip ends. He mentioned a name I’ve never heard. I type it into a database and wait to see what results come back.
Telling Lies, Sam Barlow’s spiritual successor to Her Story, launched last year on PC and mobile devices, and this week, it’s finally available on consoles. It’s a story told through clips of characters played by Alexandra Shipp, Angela Sarafyan, Kerry Bishé, and Marshall-Green, each video a snippet of one side of a conversation. You, the player, are an unknown woman digging through database entries, a sort of Inception-ish conceit, to unravel the story that draws all four of these characters together. Telling Lies might be the same game, now brought over to console, but its once-novel approach hits differently in a pandemic-ridden world.
In practice, the premise means surfing through clips and taking notes of keywords to search that might lead you closer to some sort of answer. There is no clean path. Players have to piece together whatever they find, however they find it.
(This makes it impossible to talk about Telling Lies with specificity without spoiling crucial clues. It may take an hour or more to learn a character’s name, for example, and doing so is likely to open up even more avenues to explore. A throwaway reference to a city can be just as useful the name of a key figure.)
As a mobile game, especially, Telling Lies was an intimate experience. Even when they’re silent, characters are reacting to the part of the conversation you’re not privy to. Sometimes it felt a bit like having a very weird FaceTime with a stranger. But blown up on a TV, the experience feels more passive, sort of like watching a TV show or bumming your way through yet another Zoom meeting.
The experience hasn’t fundamentally changed. For devices without touch controls, like the Xbox One, finger swipes have been swapped for shoulder buttons to rewind or speed through videos. There is still no way to immediately start from the beginning of a clip, meaning you’ll have to rewind with vigilance if you want to watch the whole thing. Given that each clip is half of a conversation, and therefore has long silences by necessity, you’ll do a lot of skipping around regardless.
Despite clips that sometimes are largely silent or others that you could fairly classify as filler — I can’t say I ever enjoyed one character telling bedtime stories to their kid — Telling Lies is still as compelling of a story as it was at launch. The allure is picking apart its story, clue by clue. You have to earn every inch.
Still, there’s something uncomfortably familiar in how Telling Lies uses screentime. Video calls are now the majority of our socializing. Questions of who might be watching our most intimate moments and what those conversations reveal about us are a little too close for comfort. Telling Lies is still an engrossing game where you’re taking notes while watching people talk — but in 2020, that act of watching becomes a much bigger challenge.
Telling Lies is available now on PC, mobile, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.
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