Developed by: Sam Barlow
Published by: Annapurna Interactive
Available on: iOS, PC
Nothing I’ve played this year has felt as intimate or fully human as “Telling Lies,” the latest from Sam Barlow. According to psychologists, the vast majority of children grasp the concept of lying by age four. We lie to ourselves and others for any number of reasons: to make ourselves look better, to further our interests, to spare the feelings of others, to dodge confrontations, to avoid reckoning with our more unsavory traits or, just because our tongues run away from us. “Telling Lies” threads a story around a government employee who gets paid to deceive others. At the same time, the game brilliantly evokes the texture of life in an age of surveillance.
The game, which makes the best use of live action scenes in any game since Barlow’s previous work, “Her Story” (2015), casts players in the role of a woman sitting in front of a computer that’s hooked up to a stolen NSA drive. Using Retina, a program that captures video conversations, players search through a data set related to David (Logan Marshall-Green), a special agent for the F.B.I. By entering words into a search bar you can retrieve up to five videos at a time, most no more than a few minutes long. Thus, if you enter the word “love” you will call up five videos in which David or the person with whom he is speaking mentions that word. Clicking on the video brings you to the moment the word was uttered in a conversation, which has been subtitled. Although you can rewind the conversation to the beginning or fast-forward it to the end, you can only see and hear the video from the perspective of the person who uttered the key word.
That means if you play a video from beginning to end, you’re sometimes left watching the characters’ reactions. The lead actors: Marshall-Green, Angela Sarafyan, Alexandra Shipp and Kerry Bishé, all deliver commendable performances, and it can be fascinating to observe their faces go through a roller coaster of emotions. But drama is not around every corner, which means that watching a character gaze casually into a laptop can be boring, and the rewind and fast-forwarding options aren’t especially speedy. However, it’s precisely the game’s willingness to court boredom that makes everything feel so convincing. In the videos, time often passes in a way that doesn’t seem mindful of an audience, which makes it easier to believe that you really are eavesdropping on actual conversations.
One of the more dramatic scenes happens at the end of a video that consists primarily of a sleeping little girl. Five minutes into the video an emotional eruption occurs after the girl’s mother kisses her good-night and then notices the glowing screen in front of her. It’s a jarring sequence that works because it mimics how things actually occur in our lives — stretches of quotidian familiarity and then chaos.
You can usually pick up a word from one half of a conversation that helps you uncover its other half. Sometimes, though, you’ll come upon the corresponding side of a video chat only after you’ve discovered new information further down the line. Thus, the story comes at you in brain-tickling, non-chronological fragments. It can be startling to stumble on a conversation that triggers something in your memory. “Telling Lies” works its magic by making you rethink things you hadn’t thought to question. With a fair degree of cunning, it shows how vulnerable we are to deception and misinterpretation.
Barlow creates an aura of intimacy around the scenes which makes watching any number of them feel like an invasive act. “Telling Lies’ ” crafted voyeurism should inspire the creep in you.
Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer. His work has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the New Yorker and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.
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