‘Telling Lies’ and the new nonlinear narrative

Her Story‘s plaudits — including from The Game Awards, BAFTAs and numerous ‘best of the year’ lists — also framed Barlow as the brains behind a new form of non-linear, interactive narrative that’s more complex than the choose-your-own-adventure of Netflix’sBandersnatchor Telltale Games titles. Barlow — who previously worked on games likeSilent Hill: Shattered MemoriesandSerious Sam: Next Encounter— is now refining the same mechanic but on a grander scale withTelling Lies, which will be out this year.

“IfHer Storywas figuring out ‘oh it’s neat to have a game where all the exploration gameplay is being applied to the video footage’, here it was ‘how can we expand that, how can we make it broader, how can we make it more tactile,” Barlow told Engadget at E3, where he playedTelling Liesin a short demo.

Telling Liesrevolves around four characters whose conversations with each other have been snooped on for two years. You access a seized NSA database and dive into their video chats, piecing together what awful event has transpired that links them together, as well as the more meta question of why you — the player — are trying to get to the bottom of it. Barlow says the game is about intimacy in the digital age, the ways we are duplicitous to others as well as ourselves and the pervasiveness of government surveillance.

Unlike his previous game, the video clips are not chopped down to a few seconds long. Conversations of up to 15 minutes exist in full, and you can scrub backwards and forwards in them. But there is still a limit of five clips that you can view per search — thus a keyword like “the” won’t suddenly present you with every clip in the game. The other obstacle: You only see one character’s dialogue in each conversation; to get the whole picture you’ll have to infer what was said in response and search for it.

Many key events happen off-screen, which characters only discuss after the fact. Unlike cinematic dialogue, the lines are not tight and time sensitive but may resemble the meandering small chats between partners at the end of the day. One scene voyeuristically shows a character washing dishes for seven minutes. You can watch it, fast-forward, or skip it altogether. But it may have meaning if you know the context which perhaps is only apparent on a later view.

Sam Barlow

In Barlow’s games, the narrative does not move laterally across time. Instead, it drills vertically, generating deeper meaning and subtext with every new perspective. Like a freeformRashomon, it reveals how even the idea of a pure and safe narrative through-line is dubious.

There’s about 10 hours of spliced footage inTelling Lies, almost five times more than inHer Story. According to Barlow, that makes this game less about obsessively tracking every detail — which his last, investigative game lent itself naturally to — and more about nudging you to follow what piques your interest. InHer Story, he says, about a quarter of players watched every clip in the game.

“With this one I kind of wanted to help discourage people from doing that,” Barlow said. “I didn’t want people to watch clips and strip mine them for clues and proceed in that orderly way. I wanted to encourage people to lose themselves, fall down a rabbit hole.”

Indeed, Barlow citesThe Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wildas inspiration for its generosity in rewarding open world exploration, alongside Francis Ford Coppola’sThe Conversationfor its “fetishizing” of scrubbing through analog tape, and director Nicolas Roag for his non-linear editing style.

The sheer scale of this game, the access to full conversations and a way to search new terms directly from video subtitles facilitates players following sparks of inquiry. You can follow any character you want — like the immersive theater pieceSleep No More— without FOMO, or feeling like you need to obsessively check off a to-do list. There’sno single protagonist. “I wanted to really dig into that idea of a game where the exploration is within the video,” he said. “I wanted the sense of the sprawl.” Stoking curiosity, not completion, is the aim for Barlow. And he wants you to do it all through word searches.

Images: Annapurna Interactive

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Chris is associate features editor at Engadget focusing on in-depth stories about the cultural, societal, and artistic impacts of technology. Raised in the UK and Hong Kong, he has worked for the Columbia Journalism Review, Reuters, and the South China Morning Post.

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