Upon starting Telling Lies, the latest FMV cyber-sleuthing game from the genius Sam Barlow, I was immediately greeted with flashbacks to Barlow’s previous success, Her Story. Everything from the mock operating system, to the auditory ambiance setting the mood for sitting at an old computer had me feeling nostalgic for the now 4 year old game. Of course, both are also games about punching search terms into a database of videos and watching performances in order to unravel the labyrinthian mystery placed before you. The biggest difference in Telling Lies, though, is that there’s no longer a single actor monologuing to a camera.
Telling Lies is instead focused on a small handful of main characters, and the majority of the clips play out as back and forth conversations taking place over something like Skype, but you can only ever see one side of the conversation at a time. This change greatly increases the complexity of the game compared to Her Story, but in a way that works to support the type of story being told, rather than simply to make the game feel different. While that was a welcome addition to the formula, the most notable change for my playthrough, and arguably the one with the most impact, was getting to play it with my girlfriend.
The first time I played Her Story was hunched over my keyboard, frantically entering search terms alone in my dark room. While perhaps fitting given the tone of the game, it was a solitary experience filled with a singular approach to the mystery at hand. Every search was in service of a narrative that I had constructed before even getting all of the pieces I would need to do so. It was, unfortunately, something that I considered disappointing because it didn’t tell the story I wanted it to. Clearly, I didn’t get it. My first playthrough of Telling Lies was seeming like it would go the same way, until my girlfriend entered the room (during a scene where one of the female characters was undressing herself - not a great look for me).
After the (awkward) introduction to the concept, she was immediately hooked. A game where the entire premise is to play Internet Detective, hunting down pieces of an elusive puzzle through these little slivers of peoples’ lives, was unsurprisingly engrossing. We sat down and began writing out anything important on pieces of paper. “Did that guy just say what his name was?” Down it went. “Wait is that the girl they were talking about?” Oh you know that got hastily jotted down.
As things progressed I ran into the same problem I had with Her Story. I found myself thinking I had things figured out before getting enough information and steering the conversation that way, but my partner-in-crime-solving was always there to talk me down and offer up alternatives. What was once an experience that felt wholly isolating - that kept me locked in my own train of thought - became a collaborative one. The end of every clip wasn’t a mad scramble to type in whatever new search term would get us to the next part of the story we wanted to be told, as was the case with Her Story. Instead, it became a democratic exploration of what we had learned so far, where what we knew and what we wanted to know weren’t so closely tied together.
Not only was everything easier to parse with a second person to bounce ideas off of, but her life experiences played a big role in the ways that we solved the smaller mysteries toward the ultimate goal. Given the multiple perspectives of the game, having insight from more than one person (or more specifically, gender, race, etc.), can have a huge impact on your ability to parse the other side of the conversation.
So much of Telling Lies is about how well you can figure out what the person on the opposite end of the video call is saying. While I had an easy enough time guessing what the men were saying to each other, when the conversation was between a woman and a man or two women, my girlfriend had a much easier time knowing exactly what they were saying. Even noticing certain subtle actions, like whether or not someone was injured, was something that - again, given her life experiences - she had a much easier time catching.
This is all to say that playing a game like Telling Lies or Her Story, one that’s so steeped in mystery while only handing you bite sized chunks of it at a time, really does benefit from having someone there with you to keep track of what’s important. Someone to act as a buffer through which your notions can be challenged. It’s easy to get lost in your own head with this sort of game. Even by what seemed like the end, I was still hunting for more clips to figure out what else there was of the narrative that I wanted. If it wasn’t for my partner, I would probably still be typing in search terms right this second, trying my best to find the end of a seemingly endless narrative.
Her refusal to keep playing wasn’t due to lack of interest, but came from a place of having reached the end of the story that we had found. Telling Lies was no longer a practice in finding the story that we were supposed to be told, or even the story that we wanted told to us, but it became a collaborative one. One that, when the credits rolled, we knew was over - at least for us. We reached our ending, and we were content.
While there are so many questions that still linger about the story Sam Barlow weaved together here, I’ll look back fondly not just on the bits of it that we gleaned during our 7 hours with it, but the feeling of playing it itself. From passing around real, physical sheets of paper, trying to find the one needle in the haystack that we needed, to the genuine shock with every new revelation, Telling Lies was and will continue to be, an experience that for the both us, was ours.