Just like in film, it’s easy to fall into the cult of the auteur in video games and forget there are whole other teams or individuals making it happen behind the curtain. Of course, when Sam Barlow made Her Story, the non-linear detective game that brought FMV back into respectability, it had really been a solo project, at least for the Steam and iOS releases. But when it came to bringing the game to Android, he sought outside help.
“Sam asked for me to do some bug fixes on the iOS version at first,” says Lizi Attwood, technical director at Furious Bee. “I did some fixes, and then he said, ‘Do you want to do the Android port?’, so I did the Android port for him. By then, he was like, ‘Well, you know, you may as well do the next game too.’”
That next game is Telling Lies, which returns to Her Story’s search engine-style investigation of video clips to try to parse the story and find the truth, only this time with multiple characters spanning different time zones over two years.
The story and vision is all Barlow’s, but the ambitious scale made more hands on deck a prerequisite. Publisher Annapurna Interactive’s background in film production was instrumental in casting actors hailing from Hollywood and TV like X-Men, Halt and Catch Fire, and Westworld. This is also a contemporary story with modern technology, meaning a nostalgic return to Windows 95 wasn’t an option, so as well as coding the game and putting the hours of video footage together, Furious Bee was tasked with building a functioning OS desktop that players would be spending a lot of time in front of.
“I had quite a lot of influence in the design during that process – the first pass went in without any guidance, really,” says Attwood. The UI looks indistinguishable from a real desktop, including a battery icon that might catch some people out – it’s reading 100% by the time Attwood has finished showing me the game, though in actual fact her laptop is almost out of battery.
Fortunately, she’s also able to show the game running on iOS, the icons looking a bit bigger to feel better on a phone, but otherwise retaining the conceit that it’s taking place behind a desktop.
Adding to that immersion is the woman you can see reflecting back from the screen, essentially FMV superimposed onto the image, and still present when you’re watching other clips. “There’s two FMV games,” Attwood laughs. “I started by taking footage of myself to put in, to show that a reflection could be done in video, and it would be way more realistic than you could achieve in CG.”
Who this woman is and what exactly she’s searching for, however, remains a complete mystery, and Attwood is at pains to keep a lid on any story details or character names. Whereas at least with Her Story, the player was aware there was a murder investigation, the only background you have in Telling Lies is that you’ve obtained a stolen NSA hard drive containing hours of video footage, and it’s up to you to work out how the lives of those you watch are linked.
It’s very much been described as an open-world game except with text, so you can use Retina (a program modelled after Tails, famously used by NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden) to search for video clips based on a word or consecutive words (it’s not quite Google though, so multiple keywords or more advanced search techniques aren’t possible).
That said, a modern OS does allow for slicker and more tactile ways to search for the truth. As with Her Story, you’ll only be provided with the first five results of a search in chronological order, so are encouraged to narrow things down, but the video will play from the point the keyword is used, while also time-stamping any other moments it’s used.
If you pick up on a keyword or phrase through your investigations, you can even just highlight the subtitles then go straight to search from there. It’s also easy to scrub footage backwards and forwards. With over ten hours of recordings at your fingertips, it means you don’t need to be sitting through all of it. Nor is that the intention.
“Sam is not keen on people trying to 100% the game – he’s perplexed that people did that in Her Story,” says Attwood, explaining that there’s ultimately no way of finding out how much footage there is that you haven’t seen.
What you will be able to do, thanks to a search history, and multiple bookmarking and tagging options, is piece the story together through your own discoveries. Say, if you find two individual clips that have the same date and time (bearing in mind that some characters are speaking in different time zones to each other), with the exact same duration, then you’ll have successfully found both sides of a single conversation.
Initially you may have been inferring what was being said by the second party; a discovery like this will open up the truth – and further investigations.
“You can watch this footage in any order you want, but even if you do watch it close to the end, you won’t have the context to understand it at that point,” says Attwood. “So then you can go back to an earlier clip, and then suddenly it takes on a whole different meaning because of other things you’ve watched in between.”
It won’t be long until players can get their hands on this themselves, and just like the time shown on the top-right corner of the screen, it’s a mystery that will keep you playing late into the night.
Genre: Investigative thriller
Format: PC / Mac / iOS
Developer: Furious Bee / Sam Barlow
Publisher: Annapurna Interactive