The (in)Complete Picture

How do you talk about a game that, through its own design, asks the player to remain silent? That thought surfaced 10-20 minutes into my time with Telling Lies, and it remained even after I “finished” the story, or was pushed to stop exploring it by the faux reflection on the other end of the screen. Sam Barlow’s latest nonlinear FMV adventure has been advertised with a collection of actor names, faces and clips, all jumbled to obscure who their characters are or why you’re watching them. Like Her Story, this is a game that asks you to type in search terms, then use names or phrases that appear from the resulting clips to search again, using context clues and lucky guesses to reconstruct a scattered narrative.

As presented, Telling Lies makes it clear that even uttering a character’s name (or their presumed name) to another player constitutes a spoiler. Everything starts with the player character booting up a computer, opening a confidential database, and typing in the word “love”: the rest is supposed to naturally flow from the results of this search, so any outside information from another person would interfere with this goal. Even the game itself discourages you from learning the full story, as a text file mentions that after a certain amount of time, “they” will come for you. An in-game clock, which jumps forward of its own accord, ticks away in the upper-right corner. When it decides you’ve seen enough, it brings up a new program and does everything it can to make you end the game of your own accord.

If mentioning any character and their actions gives away the game, and it pushes its own players away from seeing the full picture, how do you even discuss or critique it? For my part, I’m going to spoil a significant chunk of the story, because there’s no other way to tackle the heart of the matter. Telling Lies is a voyeuristic character study that works best when it remains in pieces: once the bigger picture is visible, it becomes a clumsy Rorschach test, flubbing its way through subjects that deserve more nuance than this.

In case the previous paragraphs didn’t make it clear, what follows will spoil Telling Lies. You’ve been warned.

While your purloined database of wiretapped footage follows over five characters (including the woman in the reflection of your in-game monitor), everything revolves around a man named David. He’s an undercover FBI agent, assigned to infiltrate an environmental activist group, use them to link up with an even more audacious group, and incriminate them all in the planned destruction of an in-progress natural gas pipeline. David’s handler, a generic suit who keeps samurai swords behind his desk and is seen chopping up meat in his kitchen, refers to these groups as “American jihadists” and wants to make a public example out of them. The more time you spend watching this man, the more you realize he’s a collection of outlandish character traits instead of a living, breathing person.

The game’s take on activism doesn’t fare much better. Intending to leave his impression on the woman that will get him into the group (Ava, dubbed Snow White in the operation), David crashes a meeting where the members of a community center are reluctant to participate in a protest between Antifa and Nazis: he argues for getting into a physical confrontation, “…putting my privileged, white, male, able body where it can do some work”. You could claim that this is meant to be knowingly awkward, some cop doing a poor job of blending in with his environment, but there are plenty of equally clumsy moments that follow this one.

Take “Max,” a cam girl cut from the same cloth as any number of women from Sam Barlow’s previous games. Most of her footage has her sprawled across a comforter, posing in revealing outfits while intoning trite sexual lines and inventing one sob story after another. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: she’s a seductress that’s secretly keeping tabs on all of the men she speaks with (one of which being David, who foolishly decides to tell her over a live stream that he once killed a man in cold blood), recording footage she can then use for blackmail. After David tracks her down to demand she delete all the footage, she even shoots him in the kneecap. Clearly, the game sees Max as the villain in this scenario, right?

The only thing is, Max’s post-game cutscene appears to disagree. If you watch enough of her archived footage, you get a short clip where she sells her home, hops in a car, and triumphantly drives away to start a fully-fledged cam girl business of her own, one where all of her employees will be paid fairly. This last-minute empowerment coda feels completely out of character for Max, who spent most of her runtime feigning vulnerability in an environment she controls fully, playing a character to receive generous tips and control over her clients. It’s an ending that Telling Lies doesn’t earn for itself, and it feels like it’s only there to downplay the fact that they just portrayed a sex worker as a cliché, manipulative criminal.

When Telling Lies decides to tackle sexual violence, this flimsy attempt at moral ambiguity plays even worse. David notices that Ava is uncomfortable around one of the activists at a party: when he digs into the matter, he finds out that this activist is seen as the group’s “missing stair,” drugging and photographing underage women while everyone else looks away. Predators existing within otherwise safe activist spaces is a real issue, and one worth discussing, but the way this situation resolves left a sour taste in my mouth. Enraged, David beats the predator within an inch of his life, and is universally chewed out by all parties involved, from his cartoonish Langley handler to the activist group he’s spending time with. Under a more nuanced writer’s guidance, I could see this scene working out. As-is? It feels like a misstep in a script that wavers between grounded drama and pulpy nonsense.

I should reiterate that even though I “finished” Telling Lies, the game pushed me away from seeing all the scenes it had to offer. Just before 6 AM rolls around, the on-screen character’s phone starts urgently buzzing, and she pulls up a faux Wikileaks upload service to send off all the clips that were catalogued thus far. Once the game was over, a cutesy FBI report mentioned I had watched just under 50% of the clips. With that in mind, it’s possible that I somehow missed vital clips that made the Antifa/Nazi showdown less embarrassing, added more depth to Max’s sultry cam girl persona, and even justified the bumbling attempt to portray sexual predators protected by their activist organizations.

In any other game, I may have accepted that not seeing every single clip would render such positions incomplete. Unfortunately, Telling Lies makes a point out of shooing away every single player before they can see the complete picture. There’s a hidden achievement for uploading 100% of the clips, and I’ve heard some players theorize that the timer doesn’t matter past 5 AM. All I know is the game decided when I’d seen enough to form an opinion, and unless I go back to start a fresh five-hour playthrough, this is the best picture of its story that I’m going to get.

When faced with a story where every detail is a spoiler, and every reading is based on incomplete details, how do we critique it? We look at the pieces that were visible to us, recognize that this is what the story intended, and form our thoughts from there. It’s a shame that the pieces I saw from Telling Lies added up to an awkward, inelegant whole, ill-equipped to handle the topics it tackled.

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