It all starts with love. A woman called Karen logs into her computer, plugs in a hard drive filled with illicitly obtained videos recorded on webcams and smartphone cameras, as well as the documentation explaining how best to access them all. 'Love' sits there in the search bar. It has conjured up a selection of five videos, and I'm warned that the search has been limited to that specific figure. Thumbnails show different faces and locations, teasing a multitude of theories and questions, and it's all too easy to dive straight in. Instantly, you're trying to fathom who these people are, how they're connected, and what the heck is going on here.
Like with Her Story before it, developer Sam Barlow has found a way to keep you tumbling down the rabbit hole. All you'll know – and trust me, you'll want to know – is that a woman called Karen has obtained a cache of secretly recorded video conversation that she's able to view on her computer at home. The entire UI is designed like a desktop PC (or modified to look slightly more mobile UI-like for iOS devices), which lets you click around a few apps and notepads, even play Solitaire if you want, although the clock is ticking on your time to access the files. Telling Lies' presentation is similar to the one seen in Her Story, but this time it's less formal and far more intimate.
Release date: August 23, 2019
Platform(s): PC, Mac, iOS
Developer: Sam Barlow
Each clip is just one side of a conversation, which means you'll find yourself clicking through video after video in Telling Lies in an attempt to figure out a) who each character is talking to and b) what they're talking about. Just as you'd expect, each of the five video clips you are initially presented with only raise more questions than answers, pushing you to move from video to video by searching for keywords that you think are going to present more facts and, as a result, more pieces of the story. The words or phrases you search for are matched specifically to the language used in the video, so the more narrow your search, the better. Finding a particularly interesting keyword can send you on a long trail of video clues, putting you one step closer to having all the pieces to the overall puzzle.
You're dropped into each video right at the point that the word or phrase is spoken, usually bookended by chunks of idle chatter on either side. You can then drag back and forth to move through the video footage, subtitles flashing up to remind you that there are potentially more clues to be found. I found it slightly frustrating that you couldn't just skip to the start of a video to watch the whole thing and find the keywords in context, rather than having to slowly rewind through several minutes worth of recordings. But, when you're dropping yourself into these people's lives, it feels like taking time to really study them is part of the process.
Part of their world
Because you're only ever watching one side of the conversation, silences linger like unfulfilled promises. The brilliance of the actors – which include Logan Marshall-Green (Prometheus, Spider-Man: Homecoming), Alexandra Shipp (X-Men Apocalypse), Kerry Bishé (Argo) and Angela Sarafyan (Westworld) – mean you can always tell the kind of person they're talking to just from the silences alone, which helps piece together the fragments of the linear story that beats below the fragmented video clips. Because the majority of these videos are from 1-2-1 video calls, or conversations recorded without the subjects' permission, the content is nearly always of a personal or intimate nature. In the moment, it feels as if you are a part of these conversations, and it feels like the character on the screen is speaking to you directly, waiting for you to respond – or to at least figure out how these characters and stories piece together.
It forces you to play a role in this unfolding narrative. You move between voyeur, to detective and sometimes an awkward third-wheeler, hastily scrubbing through footage that absolutely wasn't meant for my eyes – for any eyes. Whether it's camgirl conversations or someone enjoying some 'personal' pleasure, I regularly felt incredibly uncomfortable while viewing, like I was an intruder in private exchanges. Not uncomfortable enough for me to stop playing, of course; I'm deep into theories and notes by this point and can't stop watching even if I wanted to.
But that quiet and unsettling feeling you get from playing Telling Lies is all a part of the experience. After all, these are illegally obtained videos from the NSA, and you're not meant to be watching them. You're playing as Karen, and you're often reminded that you're not only working against the clock, but also against the system itself. The presence of Karen's reflection in the computer screen only helps sells the sense of pervading voyeurism. Occasionally music starts playing in her apartment, a half-naked man wanders across the shot, and later he reminds you that it's late. But you've not got long, someone obviously knows you're watching this and figuring it all out, and there's a sense of urgency to each of your searches.
Like Her Story, the deeper you dive into the files made available to you, the harder it gets to find new information. I start to feel frustrated when, no matter what keywords or phrases I input into the search bar, I'm presented with a selection of videos that I have already seen. But then, later when I feel like I have all the pieces of the story together, I stumble across something new and I'm off falling headfirst into yet another rabbit hole. It's somehow simultaneously totally organic and beautifully paced. Sam Barlow has another masterpiece on his hands.
A ticking clock
What I also love about Telling Lies – bar its beautifully told story that I couldn't possibly go into here in any detail whatsoever – is that it is a finite piece of storytelling.
I feel like I have been returning to Her Story for years now and still there are some pieces of the puzzle that I'm yet to slot into place. With Telling Lies, because there's a time limit on your access to this footage, your time with it will eventually come to end – not that I'm going to tell you how quickly that'll come around, as the pervading sense of panic underlying Telling Lies is all a part of the fun of playing it.
But, what I will tell you, is that as the credits roll, it's obvious that I've not yet found all the videos. Knowing that, as you get fed a report post-credits, is like a little thorny seed that plants itself in your brain. As someone who has dreamt about Telling Lies' characters, as I attempted to put together all the pieces, you can imagine what it feels like to know you may have missed out on some key piece of information. But thankfully, you can dive straight back in again, rewinding time after you've watched the credits to the minutes before the ending to make sure you've unearthed everything that you can.
So leave me now, to gather the last fragments of these characters' lives; to fall in love with them, chastise them, and befriend them as I have done for the past six or so hours. I'll still have that uncomfortable feeling gnawing at my wrist as I slide the mouse to the search bar over, and over, again to uncover the last few videos, but Telling Lies is nothing if not rewardingly moreish. It's a game that stays with you, and through the medium of its storytelling manages to make you as much a part of the voyeuristic, privacy-invading problem as the entire game tries to take apart. I'm still thinking about Telling Lies, and will be for years to come. Or at least, every time I walk past a security camera, or make a voice call.