Need to know
What is it? An investigative thriller set on a computer desktop.
Developer Furious Bee, Sam Barlow
Publisher Annapurna Interactive
Reviewed on GTX 1080, Intel i5-6600K, 16GB RAM
Buy it Steam
Telling Lies is a series of one-sided conversations. You play as a woman whose motives are initially unclear, who has been given access to an archive of secretly recorded video calls taken from the laptops and mobile phones of four very different people. When the game begins you know nothing about them. These troubled souls are complete strangers to you, their lives a mystery.
But by the end you'll know them intimately, and will have uncovered a series of shocking truths about their lives. Well, in theory. Because some of these people are, as the title suggests, liars. Separating fact from fiction is at the heart of this new 'desktop adventure' from the creator of narrative experiment Her Story. Like that game, your interpretation of the plot is determined by which clips you discover and the order you view them in.
As you search the database you'll see clips of a father reading his daughter a bedtime story, a couple watching a movie together, and other snippets of people just living their lives. But then you'll hear something that piques your curiosity. A reference to a mysterious incident, a name, or a place. And you'll search for these things in the database, unravelling yet more intriguing threads, slowly revealing an intricate, labyrinthine story that takes place across two years. The game's blend of the blandly domestic and the thrilling is an effective one, setting the everyday lives of the characters against a bubbling plot of conspiracy and duplicity.
I'm being vague here, but that's because even telling you the characters' names would spoil the experience. Discovering these things yourself by paying close attention to the dialogue, and sometimes the environment, is part of what makes Telling Lies such a rewarding detective game. Especially when you realise that something a character has said about themselves could be (and often is) a lie, encouraging you to find more clips buried in the database to reveal the truth. Starting the game with literally nothing, and ending it with a complex story mapped out in your head, is an immensely satisfying experience.
It almost felt like a personal betrayal when I learned something about a character that contradicted everything I thought I knew about them, which reflects the experience of some of the characters in the story. Telling Lies is incredibly absorbing, especially if you play at night, in a dimly lit room, with headphones on. The moody, almost neo-noir atmosphere, and a gorgeous, cinematic score—composed by Nainita Desai, performed by the London Contemporary Orchestra—makes it a game you can really lose yourself in.
Telling Lies is a lot of things at once, skipping between moods, themes, and genres. One minute it's a family drama, the next it's a tense crime thriller. And it's all brilliantly acted, with a cast of established film and TV actors providing some impressively natural-sounding dialogue. Logan Marshall-Green was the highlight for me, playing his duplicitous, conflicted character with real depth. But the whole cast is great, and the production values are excellent throughout—which is just as well, because 99% of the game is watching videos.
That doesn't mean this is a passive experience, though. Far from it. You aren't just watching a story play out in Telling Lies: you're constructing one. A seemingly throwaway word in a conversation—the name of a city, perhaps, or even something more subtle than that—can be massively important, opening up a whole new winding subplot that totally transforms your understanding of the story. This means you have to be constantly engaged with the characters and what they're saying, and if you're anything like me, taking pages of notes.
The game takes place entirely within the desktop of a PC. There are some clues scattered around here—documents, images, notes—that give you an idea of who you are and what you're looking for. You can drag windows around, write things down in a notes app, and even play a spot of solitaire if your brain needs a rest. The whirr of the PC's fans, the churn of the hard drive as you access video files, and the moving reflection of your face in the smudgy sheen of the monitor makes interacting with the computer feel wonderfully tactile.
Occasionally, and I could never figure out if this was random or triggered by something specific, the reflection in the monitor will become clearer and you'll see something happening in the woman's apartment. One of these moments in particular is very clever, and made me jump because I was so engrossed in the story. But again, it's best if you discover it yourself. There are a lot of nice, mischievous little details in Telling Lies, like how your vision blurs if you stare at the screen for too long without moving the cursor—simulating the fact that you're supposed to be looking through these video clips in the wee hours.
It's also something of a stroke of genius to only show you one side of each conversation, leaving you to fill in the blanks or do some database hunting to find the other half. Wondering what the person is reacting to, or what the other person is saying, gives the game an extra layer of mystery. This also means that, in a lot of the videos, you'll just be watching the subject sitting in silence, listening to the unheard person on the other end of the call. But thankfully you can scrub through any clip you find, rewinding, pausing, and fast-forwarding at your leisure. You can also bookmark important clips and view a log of all your searches.
One thing I miss from Her Story, however, is the database tracker. This lets you know how many clips you've found, and how many remain undiscovered, and I found it a useful way to get an idea of how complete a picture I had of the story. Telling Lies is much more opaque in comparison, by design, but the completionist in me was left with the feeling that I hadn't seen everything. A report at the end of the game gives you a vague idea of how many you found (in my first playthrough it said 'just under half'), but I'd have liked a more explicit visualisation of how much of the narrative I had left to uncover. This hardly dampened my enjoyment of the game, but it's one thing I wish had made it over from Her Story.
Because the conversations you're watching and listening to are so private, I experienced a really powerful connection to the characters in Telling Lies—almost feeling like I knew them by the end. But this also made me feel like a creepy voyeur, seeing things I had no right to. There's something uneasy about listening to a couple talking intimately about their relationship, or watching a little girl in bed listening to her dad tell her a story. But I get the feeling that's what I was supposed to feel like, and if that was the case, well, it worked. However, my desire to know more about the characters and story always took precedent, and the deeper I got tangled up in their lives, the more I fell in love with them, and the game.
If you played Her Story, Telling Lies will be instantly familiar. It even has the same limit of only showing you five clips from any given search term, the explanation for which is a little more tortured this time around. Essentially this is Her Story with a bigger budget, a much more sprawling story, and a surprisingly huge cast. Outside of the four main characters there are dozens of minor and background characters, and a few supporting characters who are just as fascinating as the stars of the show. So, in many ways, Telling Lies feels more like a refinement of what was established in Her Story, rather than a bold new experiment in storytelling.
But that's fine, because the core concept—an open-ended story that's revealed in a different way to every person who plays the game—is still enormously compelling, and only possible in this medium. You might find a clip in your first ten minutes that I found three hours in, and it's fascinating to think about how that would completely skew your perception of the story. But even with all this randomness, it's amazing how the game almost feels like it was paced and structured by hand. Her Story pulled the same trick, but the greater variety of stories here only heightens that sense of mystery, discovery, shock, and revelation.