Every Friday, A.V. Club staffers kick off our weekly open thread for the discussion of gaming plans and recent gaming glories, but of course, the real action is down in the comments, where we invite you to answer our eternal question: What Are You Playing This Weekend?
Sam Barlow’s 2015 BAFTA-winning Her Story began with a simple premise: How much game could you make out of nothing but watching a person talk? Quite a bit, as it turned out. Starring Viva Seifert as a woman undergoing a police interrogation in a series of video clips, Her Story tasked players not only with sussing out the proper keywords to bring up different video segments through the game’s intentionally obtuse search bar, but also with analyzing Seifert herself. Like L.A. Noire—but, you know, good—Her Story prized the ability to read body language and hunt for subtle expressions just as much as it did more traditional video game detective work. (Notably, the game’s end condition was not “defeating” an opponent or catching a culprit, but saying “yes” to a question asking if you thought you understood what had happened.)
Four years later, Barlow and Furious Bee’s follow-up, Telling Lies, is back to tread a much wider swathe of similar ground, to far more head-spinning effect. Centered on a man named David (played, in a dazzling degree of emotional shades, by The O.C.’s Logan Marshall-Green), the game is, on the surface, extremely similar to Barlow’s last. You’re once again watching clips—this time halves of full-length video calls, instead of snippets of interrogations—and hunting down the breadcrumbs to try to piece together whatever the hell is going on. You’re still watching the flickers of people’s faces, still making note of important phrases, still—inevitably—stumbling onto a clip that seems like it’s revealing more of the story than you were actually ready for. Even the interface is fundamentally the same, as you click around a fake desktop, the face of your player character occasionally showing up in the reflection of the virtual glass.
(Meanwhile, in what’s either an obscure clue, or a joke about the inherently messy incompleteness of this sort of “sifting for the truth” approach, the desktop solitaire game you can waste time with between watching clips provides an unwinnable set of 51 cards.)
But while the mechanics are similar, Telling Lies is an evolution in scope from Barlow’s earlier effort, expanding to a cast of more than a dozen performers, and far more situations than a simple interrogation room could hold. That allows the game to dive into a much wider set of worries and tones; given that David is, in some form or another, in a sexual relationship with each of the game’s three main female characters, some of these moments can be shockingly intimate. “Should I actually be watching this?” is a thought that will crop up more than once, heightened by the constant reminders that you’re viewing these stolen moments through an NSA tool designed to eavesdrop on people’s video chats. If Her Story was a locked-room Agatha Christie brain teaser, Telling Lies is far more like one of Paul Auster’s rambling, digressive existential mysteries, dipping its toes into questions of identity, morality, and the toxic ugliness that can lurk behind even the best of intentions.
But that widening of focus can also be bewildering, even disruptive. For as twisty as its narrative was, Her Story felt “solvable”—even if people are still arguing, years later, about what that actual solution might be. Telling Lies is so big—and the game’s own sense of mounting pressure so unrelenting—that it’s unlikely you’ll see more than half of its clips in a single playthrough, allowing a sense of overwhelming despair to set in. Partly that’s intentional, underlining a reality in which “good enough” is, by necessity, where our attitudes about the truth are forced to rest. But for a game that dares you to make sense of the ineffable, it’s also an unwelcome frustration, a prevarication as irritating as the endless lies David feeds to every single other person in his life. (And, often, himself.) And yet, the process is no less fascinating to watch play out, forcing you to hunt for the solitary piece of information gleamed from a cam girl’s faux-sincere flirtations, or a sleepy daughter’s fairy tale, that will unlock the mystery—even if, like a missing king in a game of solitaire, that winning card never actually existed.