Sam Barlow's Her Story was a highlight of the gaming year when it came out. Deservedly winning numerous awards, its nonlinear, search-engine approach to FMV storytelling was as lauded as its central performance. Here was a full-motion video game that finally made the most of its medium; a detective game that finally made the player feel as though they were piecing the narrative together. It was all subtly guided, of course, but the idea was so simple and elegant, it's incredible it had never been expressed before.
Now it's been expressed again, in Telling Lies - a spiritual sequel to Her Story, and an expansion of its ideas. Telling Lies isn't quite as contained or perfectly-formed as its predecessor, but it's a terrific piece of interactive storytelling nonetheless - and one of the most compelling examples of the found-footage genre in any medium.
Like Her Story, Telling Lies confronts the player with a catalogue of video files, searchable by the words spoken in them. Unlike Her Story, which focused on police interviews featuring a single actor, Telling Lies' boasts four main players and numerous supporting characters, playing out through Skype conversations, selfie videos, hidden-camera footage, and more. It's also less of a mystery, and more of a thriller. Sifting through this footage, the player unravels the game's story, and there is a lot of footage to sift through. Cleverly, the Skype conversations are split into separate videos, displaying one side of the conversation each, creating an intriguing chain of "eureka" moments as you hunt for whatever it was that made a character react the way they did. As the larger puzzle comes together, so too do smaller, scene-scale ones.
The story itself is one of love, betrayal, corruption, and more that I daren't spoil. Logan Marshall-Green plays the nominal protagonist, but the videos are shared democratically between him and three women whose lives intersect with his. As a result, the story's effective protagonist is determined by the search terms you enter and the videos you watch. It's entirely possible to focus entirely on one character, be it Green's undercover agent, Alexandra Shipp's wide-eyed environmentalist, Angela Sarafyan's world-weary camgirl, or Kerry Bishé’s long-suffering nurse and mother. I got the distinct impression that while I had a solid grasp on the story I was following, I barely even scratched the surface on the others. The script, and the performances, offer as much intimacy as you're willing to extract from them. You can't change the story; only your depth of understanding of it.
While Her Story took place on a '90s-era faux operating system, Telling Lies plays out on a more modern virtual device, and its functionality has expanded accordingly. Though video clips play fullscreen, navigating the database takes place in a window, alongside other apps in a fictional encrypted OS. There's a notepad app, useful for taking down the many names and concepts you'll be searching for. You can play Solitaire. You can look through a limited file system. You're also playing a specific character this time, seen reflected in the virtual screen, who has her own story that progresses in "real-time" as you comb through video. Layers upon layers.
The most frustrating elements of Telling Lies spring from the UI, too, some of them unfortunate necessities of the game's core mechanics. For example: the search engine limits results to five at a time, which prevents simply bingeing through the story and mandates more surgical approaches to figuring it out. That's not an issue, but it means the app window can't expand (lest more results be displayed), a condition that continues in its "bookmarks" tab, which you'll use to piece together a timeline of events - and that gets awfully clumsy to navigate with limited screen space and an ever-increasing range of bookmarks. Likewise, video clips start playing from the point your search entry is uttered, and can't be rapidly scrubbed through - only rewound and fast-forwarded at a fixed, slowish rate. While that encourages a greater dependence on the search functionality, it means you'll spend half your time shuttling through video, possibly even just reading fast-forwarded subtitles instead of watching video. A word of advice: the notepad app does not support undos, so delete things at your own risk.
Those are merely annoyances, though, as frustrating as they may get. Telling Lies is still a substantial achievement in interactive storytelling, building upon the quietly revolutionary ideas of its predecessor. An increased budget (thanks to support from Annapurna Interactive) meant a bigger production, and the cast does a remarkable job, especially given the constraints of the concept. It's not often actors have to stand up to the scrutiny of long, unbroken takes in which their characters respond to others we can't see or hear.
Telling Lies' title says a lot about the experience of playing it. Piecing together a story about characters lying to one another in various ways, you'll quickly become suspicious of everyone. Or maybe, in a sense, their lies are true within the specific context of their relationships. The truth is elusive in Telling Lies, always a few more searches away, and by the end of the game - or rather, the inevitably incomplete look at the ending your playthrough creates - your opinions on truth and lies will likely have shifted a little. It's Ben Kenobi's "certain point of view" approach to the truth, internalised to the level of code-switching.
If Barlow and his team can find a way to bring a more forgiving user experience to this mode of interactive storytelling, they'll have a masterpiece on their hands. They already had one in the compact, self-contained Her Story; Telling Lies comes close, but for its ambition exceeding its grasp a tad. Hopefully, this sophomore effort works out some of the concept's kinks. Hopefully, whatever comes next will find new gameplay innovations to better suit the scale of its story. But if nothing else, Telling Lies demonstrates that found footage works best when you're the one finding the footage.