The Washington Post: How did you get into the video game industry?
Sam Barlow: I had a thwarted career in the dotcom world. I was working for a company that was doing database stuff and it was all about business intelligence and getting to know people through their transaction histories and all these interesting big data things which have now possibly ruined the world. But it gave me an insight into some of that stuff. And when the dotcom crash happened. And in particular, the company I was working for had some iffy--
WP: This would have been in 2000?
Sam Barlow: 2002 or 2003, I think. I was working for this company called Microstrategy. The way in which they were registering their revenue fell afoul of SEC regulations or, it was like a whole big gray area, you know, it was the digital Wild West.
I had a friend who was a programmer for a video game company and he was like, ‘Hey, you do all that art, why don’t you be an artist for video games?’ And I was like, ‘Oh yeah, okay. I could do that.’ And so I think over a mad weekend, I kind of put together a portfolio. And with that I got myself a job as a game artist. I very rapidly transitioned from being a game artist to being a game designer, mostly because I wouldn’t shut up in the design meetings, and kind of went from being a designer to a lead designer because I still wouldn’t shut up.
At some point my team got the chance to do some “Silent Hill” work because there was another office that we were associated with was doing “Silent Hill: Origins.” It had a lot of problems and we helped them out at one point to put together a demo to show that some progress had been made and then a little bit later further progress had been made. And at this point, it was me and our lead artist Neale Williams, who were like, ‘We know Silent Hill and we get it, and we know what’s special about it. We should be the ones making it.’ Eventually, we were listened to and we took it over, but it was a handful. What we managed to salvage was impressive given the constraints.
And that became “Silent Hill: Shattered Memories.” That was really the point where I kinda sat back and went, ‘Huh, I guess I have always wanted to direct interesting interactive narrative things.’ I could probably pretend there was a deliberate trajectory there, but it didn’t feel like that at the time.
WP: What did you take from the development of “Silent Hill: Shattered Memories?”
Sam Barlow: As a teenager, the games that I thought were the pinnacle of the form were the immersive sims, right? So I was obsessed with “Thief,” “System Shock,” and “Deus Ex.” And there’s definitely a point where I thought, well, this is the essence of our medium. It’s all about immersion in a 3D space, it’s about simulation. It’s about these kind of nested systems that all speak to each other. To some extent, “Shattered Memories” was kind of a love letter to that stuff. But in making it, I kind of questioned the extent to which we lean on immersion in a 3D space as this thing within the medium. I think I also kind of realized that actually the things that I loved about games was the sense of place, the atmosphere, some of the storytelling pieces..
I had a post-it note on my desk when I was managing Silent Hill that said, ‘the player is not the protagonist,’ which definitely played out on a macro level in “Shattered Memories” in terms of how the story was revealed. I was really interested in pushing against this idea of total immersion in a virtual space. All of the stories that I was interested in really had layers and layers of dramatic irony, and perspective, and framing that for me created the special source of the storytelling. And this idea of there being no frame, of there being no distance between the player and the protagonist, was something that I was really kind of digging into and pushing against with “Shattered Memories.”
WP: What inspired you to create games based around live-action scenes?
Sam Barlow: I really wanted to explore crime fiction/police procedurals. Those genre trappings interested me and I felt they were was relatively unexplored. I kind of very quickly zoomed in on the idea of the police interview. I think a lot of this came from when growing up, I was obsessed with the TV show “Homicide: Life on the Street,” which had these amazing sequences that took place in the interview room. ... Thinking about the interrogation room feels like a smart indie decision. I’m constraining the world; I’m not bringing in all the stuff that AAA detective games do: car chases, gun battles.
And I’m also focusing on something which is relatively untouched, which are the human moments of dialogue. At that point I just went off and did a lot of research. I was reading about what happens in the interrogation room. I was reading all the police manuals. I was reading academic treatises on the psychology of the interview room. I was reading up on some particular cases that were interesting to me and was getting as many transcripts of real life interviews as I could.
And one of the things that I was doing, and this was slightly ahead of the explosion in true crime, was like discovering this trove of real life interviews on YouTube in particular things like the Jodi Arias case.
I was also watching movies that might or might not be relevant, in terms of understanding the tropes of the genre. So I was re-watching “Basic Instinct,” which has a very famous police interrogation scene. And on the DVD they had some casting tapes where [the director] Paul Verhoeven was trying to convince the exec that Sharon Stone should be the lead. ... And he basically filmed her in a hotel room, very low quality, simple lighting. And the camera is just fixed on Sharon Stone’s face. And Verhoeven is reading the detective’s lines offscreen in his broken English. And I just remember watching the scenes and being like, “Oh my God!” ...This stuff feels so much more raw and interesting than the, you know, kind of noir-y, cinematic end-result.
WP: Were there any lessons that you drew from your work on “Her Story?”Is there anything that sticks out to you about its development?
Sam Barlow: One of the things that makes “Her Story” unique is the extent to which there is no handholding and the extent to which there is very little imposed structure. Early on, I was imagining ... I’m probably going to have to draw a giant spidery train track diagram of how people discover things, what leads to what, a big flow chart. And some of that research where I was digging through interview records, I found that plugging those into a very rough prototype and playing through them this kind of free associative using words to explore and kind of digging through the records — even in something that was unscripted and undesigned — actually felt like it had some shape to it and was super interesting and felt like a texture I’d never seen before in a game. So that was a key moment.
I think a lot of “Telling Lies” was thinking about what was interesting to me about “Her Story” and realizing the extent to which all of those verbs that I loved in those classic video games [were in it.]. I loved “Metroid,” the way in which you navigate an environment, retraverse it, gain new powers and mastery [which makes it] feel more like a lived-in space.I kind of realized that I was doing a similar thing with “Her Story.” It was taking the content, the video, the story, and that was the level design I was retraversing. ... So with “Telling Lies,” I thought, how can I open that up more? How can I give more exploratory choices, more of a tactile connection, so if it really is about exploring video and what does that mean?
WP: Walk me through the process that led you to create “Telling Lies.” Was there anything that inspired you to construct a game around the lying?
Sam Barlow: So there were some particular story ideas that I wanted to explore, very much about the intimate lives of some people and this kind of very primal question of how well do you know the people in your life that you’re intimate with? How well do you really know your lover? One of the unexpected delights of “Her Story” was people telling me that despite it being a somewhat dry abstract setup, you end up feeling very intimately connected to Viva Seifert’s character. So I was like, that is a texture I am really interested in how can we do more of that if we take things away from the formality of the interview room. And I was thinking a lot about webcams and how technology has transformed people’s intimate lives, whether that is dating, or just general communication.
[I knew] the story was going to take place over two years and have multiple relationships that radically shift in their tone and that it would have this kind of nonlinear conceit where you would jump around a timeline. A way through this project, I started getting into [the director] Nicholas Roeg and reading some of his opinions about filmmaking and how he would cut things up nonlinearly, sometimes play things backwards to create this more impressionistic idea of how memory and experience work for humans.
WP: What about the aspect of lies? How did that became the subject?
Sam Barlow: Here’s where I get spoiler adverse. There are some particular real world events and stories that very much involved straight up lying, in a very specific instance, but at the same time had a very primal sense to me of like this idea of how do you know the person with whom you’re sharing a bed with? How do you know that everything they’re saying is actually true? To what extent is what we tell ourselves completely true, and how truthful are we to ourselves?
WP: One of the things that fascinated me about “Telling Lies” is that the videos feel real because not every second of every video is infused with comedy, drama, or something trying to hook the viewer. Sometimes you’re just left with someone staring into a screen. Did you ever worry about players getting bored or was boredom a part of your aesthetic strategy?
Sam Barlow: It was definitely a decision at the top… I think people referred to “Her Story” as an interactive movie and I’d be like, well, it’s kind of not that movie-like, it’s almost anti-movie. We are not game designers who want to be film directors. This is about exploring video and that in itself is very un-cinematic. ... This is not a director curating very precisely a series of shots to tell a story.
And I was obsessed with this piece by [the artist] Sam Taylor-Johnson where she’d filmed David Beckham asleep in his hotel room for an hour as part of her series on masculinity. ... There is no drama, there was no structure to it. But at the same time, it’s intimate. Watching David Beckham sleeping is not something we would ever normally get to do. The fact that it is boring almost forces you to lean in closer, to pay more attention. I thought that had a fascinating texture.
WP: It’s an avant garde technique.
Sam Barlow: Yeah. I love some of that avant-garde texture and what it does but because player is in control, because they can skip around, because the idea of this format is there might be three or four threads you’re following at a given time. What happens is the choice to sit through that stuff is a choice. And there is something very different about being told you have to sit through this boring thing to going, “I’m going to choose to sit through this.”
WP: Let’s talk about the idea of intimacy. “Telling Lies” feels incredibly intimate because of all the things that you were talking about. I mean, especially when you’re considering scenes in which a parent is just watching his young child going to sleep. Was there anything noteworthy that you did to foster a special atmosphere on set when you were filming?
Sam Barlow: Yeah. Everything we shot pretty much we tried to shoot simultaneously. So if character A is speaking to character B we’d have two small sets with small crews running simultaneously. And when they’re talking to each other, they’re looking into a small device and they’re seeing each other. And so, you know, if I’m saying it’s going to be interesting to watch someone talking to her husband for 30 seconds, for me to deliver on that promise it’s going to help the actors to actually have the husband on the other side. So you’re getting that edge between them.
And then the other decision was we can’t shoot this on a stage though it’s very practical, especially if you want to be wiring lots of things up. But you are usually talking about a room that has only two or three walls, maybe it doesn’t have a ceiling. And, you know, you have all that artifice. I wanted the actors to be free, if they needed to, to just move around and to handle the camera in a way that they would if it was a phone in their hands.
WP: What games are you playing now?
Sam Barlow: I’ve got like a big stack of stuff that I haven’t touched. I’m excited to go play Outer Wilds because I’ve heard good things about it and it scratches that itch for video game exploration but its condensed and doing interesting things with knowledge, traversal, and mastery. I really want to get back to Heaven’s Vault which came out while I was making “Telling Lies.” From what I saw of it, it is possibly the most ambitious thing I’ve seen in terms of dynamic, semi-procedural storytelling where you can do stuff and the story will kind of fall and check around you.
WP: Where would you like to see video games go in the next five years?
Sam Barlow: For the longest time I was working on consoles and every console cycle I was like, just make these things cheaper, make them easier to get a hold of to reduce that barrier. I think phones have done that to some extent, but there’s still this you have to go to a tab that says video games, and “video games” still mean fun and high scores. So I’d love to see that [definition] getting more and more degraded and see the audience increase in a genuine way.