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Telling Lies' FMV performances modernise the way we tell stories in games

(Image credit: Annapurna Interactive)
GOTY 2019

(Image credit: Future)

Accompanying our team-selected Game of the Year Awards for 2019, individual members of the PC Gamer team will each discuss one of their favorite games from the last 12 months. We'll post a new personal pick, alongside our main awards, throughout the month of December.

Looking through the casefile of this year's best games, the evidence shows that it's been a fantastic year for desktop detectives—from the painting that killed its creator in Tangle Tower, to the ancient, planet spanning mystery that runs through Outer Wilds. Jenny LeClue, Later Alligator, Frog Detective 2 and even Disco Elysium—there was no shortage of clues to track down and suspects to question.

I've enjoyed scratching my head over all of these mysteries, but Telling Lies is one that had me glued to my computer—late nights in the office surrounded by empty cups of coffee and scribbled notes, not wanting to leave until I had figured it out. With the game's predecessor, Her Story, Sam Barlow handed us one woman's testimony recorded over the course of a month. With Telling Lies he gives us the tangled testimonies, twisted timelines and half-truths of four people who have all come together because of one lie. 

Telling Lies tasks players with looking through an NSA database filled with recorded clips of the personal conversations of four people, unaware that they have been surveyed and recorded. Type keywords into a search bar and videos where someone has used that word will pop up in the search results, with a cap of five videos per search. The whole mystery and how to solve it is hidden within the spoken words of these four people, and, after looking through hundreds of video files of the same characters over and over again, you quickly learn that it's not only what they say that matters but also how they said it.

Logan Marshall-Green, Alexandra Shipp, Kerry Bishé and Angela Sarafyan play the four troubled characters, and every second of their FMV performances are extraordinary—they pin this whole mystery together. As a seasoned detective this 'ain't my first rodeo, so as well as listening to what they are saying, I'm watching their body language. What was that awkward shuffle about? Why did she look apprehensive when she agreed? Nothing gets past my peepers. The thing that makes Telling Lies a stand out is that the actors all give a detailed enough performance where there is stuff to see and intuit.

Rockstar tried to achieve with it's hard boiled 1940s detective thriller LA Noire, where players would watch a character's facial expressions to see if they were lying. But because it's performances where mo-capped, characters have exaggerated (and unintentionally comedic) reactions to being interrogated, making it obvious to spot a guilty suspect. The witness, Marlon Hopgood, is not making direct eye contact, which, from experiencing previous interrogations, means he's lying. That, or there's a fly darting around that he wants to swat. 

This is what Telling Lies does right. Even when characters are waiting for the other person to stop talking (for a full ten minutes in one clip), they are constantly expressing. Telling Lies' mechanics don't differ much from Her Story, but the player's interaction with the game's suspects changes dramatically because you're analysing the thoughts and motives of four people, not just one. I'm watching for every side glance, every awkward pause, every fidget until my brain synapses kick in and suddenly I get it.

(Image credit: Annapurna Interactive)

Those moments of realisation are not planned, and Barlow has no way of predicting which clips you will watch in what order, so that eureka moment comes completely from within your own investigating. It's something that Telling Lies shares with Outer Wilds and—one of the best story driven games from last year—Return of the Obra Dinn. Everything you need is there and you just need to put the time in to work it out. 

That's not to say that Barlow doesn't have control over the pace of the story. Some keywords link to videos that are meant to be watched towards the end of your investigation and, even through all the unpredictability on the player's part, Barlow has created a delicate, invisible structure, using careful dialogue choices and particular keywords to plan a dramatic, eventful finale.

Telling Lies doesn't do things by the book. It has a unique investigative game mechanic that uses brilliant writing and spellbinding acting to challenge the player and create a compelling story. Never in a game have I had to analyse the body language of a character and use it in the same way I would hard evidence. Sam Barlow tested it in Her Story, but he's perfected it in Telling Lies.