Video games have been a lifelong passion for me, but I have something of a guilty admission to make. At heart, my art form of choice has always been cinema. In fact, I’m even minoring in Cinema Studies right now. Now, do not get me wrong, I truly love gaming, and it is a close second for me, but the transformative power and history of film have always endeared me to it. Enter Telling Lies, a brand new interactive film from Sam Barlow of Her Story and Silent Hill fame. It was released on PC and mobile in 2019 but has now finally made its way to consoles. For this game, Barlow’s brought the big guns out, recruiting top indie-Hollywood talent Logan Marshall-Green and Alexandra Shipp. He’s also gotten noted Hollywood producer Megan Ellison on board to produce and distribute the game under her “Annapurna” banner.
So, with this wealth of talent from both the video game and film industry behind it, what could go wrong? Honestly, not a lot. Telling Lies is in many regards a genuinely brilliant work of art, but how it stacks up as a game is where players will differ in their opinion.
Let me explain. Telling Lies is an FMV or Full Motion Video game, that bridges the gap between the gaming and film worlds in interesting ways. In the game, players take on the role of a pseudo-detective, who only has around 5 in-game hours (I beat the first playthrough in about 2) to achieve her goal. This mysterious figure is tasked with working her way through a hard drive in order to suss out important details about four key individuals: a father with more than meets the eye, his hard-working nurse wife, his activist friend, and a cam girl he corresponds with online. To say anything more about these characters would be to ruin the surprise, so I’ll leave it intentionally vague.
Your job as a player is to go through as many of the 150+ videos as you can within the 5 in-game hours in order to determine the deepest secrets these four, as well as their friends and family, have. These videos are presented as recordings from phone and laptop webcams, so needless to say they didn’t get the memo about covering them up. This leads to, in many instances, a surprising amount of intimacy, as you find yourself face-to-face with these characters. However, many of these videos only paint half the picture. For example, many videos are video chats, and you need to find the corresponding video to complete the picture.
One of the easiest ways to do this is by highlighting key terms and phrases in videos and searching for others that feature the same phrase (i.e. one character uses the term “Pookie” as a term of endearment for another. Searching Pookie generates additional results). Unfortunately, however, only up to 5 videos will be shown, when sometimes upwards of 60 to 70 potential videos exist, which adds an unnecessary level of frustration.
Speaking of unnecessary frustrations, in order to skip through some of the videos’ long pauses (sometimes upwards of 2 minutes), or to scroll back to an important line of dialogue, you have to use the triggers. The end result is not unlike rewinding a DVD or VHS, albeit with only one setting – and it’s slow. This is just one of many quality of life features that Telling Lies is lacking. Others include being unable to search videos by date, having to “log out” of the in-game computer to close the game, and an incredibly inconsistent in-game clock.
If it hasn’t been made clear yet, the gameplay of Telling Lies is far from riveting, and if you are the type of player that values that above all else I’d advise you to stay away. However, what truly matters here is the storytelling, and by God is that where Telling Lies shines. The characters are nuanced, realistic, and captivating, and this is largely due to the brilliant writing and performances. All actors do a great job, but it’s Logan Marshall-Green who truly makes an impression here, perfectly portraying his character David throughout all of his highs and lows. He does brilliant work, and the fact that his work went unrecognized at many major gaming award events last year is a genuine shame.
Finally, I’d like to touch on the performance of the game and other miscellaneous factors. For the most part, Telling Lies looks great, although there are the odd dips in picture quality, particularly in the opening scene. There have also been some notable bugs encountered, such as music not being loaded in, the in-game clock freezing until I re-watched a random video I had already seen, and the in-game cursor highlighting entire paragraphs instead of words when going through video transcripts for terms. The game’s UI is in need of some quality of life improvements, but the team has overall done a great job translating it to the Xbox scene and for use with a controller. It’s helped that it features an easy 720 points of Gamerscore, and a more difficult 280. Lastly, the musical score is great, really adding to the atmosphere of the game.
All in all, Telling Lies on Xbox One is not going to be for everyone. It is very much a cinematic, interactive story first and a game second. However, the brilliant performances and top-notch writing that stands among some of Hollywood’s best easily makes this a must-play for fans of FMV games or cinema in general. I only wish the UI and gameplay were a bit sharper, but on the whole this is a great example of how games can extend storytelling to new heights. Oh, and be sure to play the in-game Solitaire – there’s a very little surprise that made me chuckle.