You could certainly advance the argument that Sam Barlow single-handedly reinvented the long-derided “FMV game” genre with “Her Story,” a cinematic investigative game where players use search strings to parse a primitive video database to solve a mystery. That said, Barlow makes no such claims himself; in fact, he says he didn’t even realize he was making an FMV game until someone asked him why he was daft enough to release a modern take on a dead genre in 2015. After the surprise success of “Her Story,” however, Barlow expected a raft of imitators to follow in its wake, as happens with many successful indie studios. When such a parade failed to materialize, he had a somewhat surprising reaction: bemusement.
“I was so jealous of [Swedish two-man indie developer] Simogo for making really amazing weird things that sell well, so I decided to make something weird and experimental, and I didn’t care if only a dozen people played it and wrote in that they thought it was really cool,” Barlow says. “But after the game came out and sold quite well, I was a bit miffed that nobody tried to copy it. On one hand, I know several indie developers who have lost a lot of revenue to copycats within a couple of days of launch, so it’s a good thing, but still. It made me realize that if I wanted to see the concepts of ‘Her Story’ taken to the next level, I’d have to do it myself.”
Thus, Barlow began to work on “Telling Lies,” the long-anticipated follow-up to the indie hit that put him on the map. While it resembles “Her Story” in almost every element – even down to the simulacra of a PC interface that serves as the game’s central hub – Barlow says that the game represents a “generational leap,” such as the one between the original “Legend of Zelda” and its SNES sequel “A Link to the Past.” Instead of sifting through grimy, artifact-laden tapes of the same interview subject from the ‘90s, you examine government-obtained footage of four seemingly-unconnected people over a period of two years, using your mouse to scrub through one user’s side of each video in a way that feels very reminiscent of early reel-to-reel players. (Barlow says the mechanic was inspired by scenes in the Francis Ford Coppola film “The Conversation,” which heavily fetishizes the rewinding mechanism of such machines.)
While Barlow is very canny to avoid spoilers, he says that the game still has some elements of law enforcement, albeit in a much murkier form than the previous game. One of the game’s most striking visual elements is the face of the woman you control silhouetted in the center of the screen, showing how she reacts to every revelation. As in “Her Story,” while it’s not at all clear what this woman’s relationship is to these four people, it’s pretty clear that she has obtained this footage through dubious means. As Barlow explains, this forms one of the game’s core conceits, that of the passage of time outside of the interface itself. As you scrub through footage and make connections, the flashing time indicator will advance, and things will happen.
Though it’s a fascinating addition of another layer to the game’s core plot, Barlow says that the idea was borne of a vague displeasure about one of the design decisions of “Her Story.” In that game, players can easily view a diagram that keeps track of what slivers of footage they’ve seen, down to every last second. After releasing the game, Barlow felt that while this fostered a sense of completionism in those who played the game – according to him, over 25% of the playerbase ended up seeing all of the clips – he wanted to make the follow-up feel a bit less “game-y.”
In fact, originally, if enough time passed, the game would lock the player out completely, forcing them to start the game again if they wanted to see every scrap of video. “I felt very secure in that decision, until I was playing it one night, and I got so into the footage that I lost track of time,” Barlow says. “And then the game kicked me out, and I was so angry at myself. I realized that cut against everything the game was saying about what games could be, what investigations could be. So I knew I had to change it.”
Though “Telling Lies” will soon exist in a world where prominent game developers often insist that their games are “apolitical,” Barlow expresses no such reservations. “This is a game about how government and law enforcement have sacrificed our privacy, ostensibly to protect us. It has a political agenda, and it is a political game. However, it’s not a game where ‘both sides’ are debated, and are given good arguments. This is a game about the world we live in, and the consequences of these very real issues, and how they affect real people.”