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If you slept on Telling Lies last year, look, I can't be mad at you. I barely touched it myself in 2019, playing only a small section on my laptop as others on the team sang its praises up our end-of-year best-of list (it landed at 15 - not too shabby, but in hindsight, too low). I'd have seen a lot more of the PC and Mac release, but there's something about working and playing on the same computer that just puts me off. That, and I'm a terrible console peasant.
What can I say? I like my twin-stick controllers more than I do mouse and keys. Nowadays, having to share the one television in the house with three other people who all have different tastes in their viewing (and gaming) habits, the vast majority of my own play time - for work or pleasure - is on Switch in handheld mode. Slouched on the sofa or sat up in bed, that's where my gaming hours are going. Far, far less so on PlayStation 4 or Xbox One - with the only notable recent exception to this rule being Final Fantasy VII Remake on the PS4, which I couldn't not review, obviously.
But now I've no excuse to not play more Telling Lies, as director Sam Barlow's follow-up to the critically acclaimed Her Story of 2015 has just launched for Xbox One, PS4 and Switch. What's more, reader, I have been playing more of it - enough, indeed, to run the battery on my Switch down to zilch, which is something I've not done with any other game on Nintendo's wonderfully versatile platform. In short: it's a game I refused to turn off, to put down, until the hardware it was running on gave up on me.
For those reading this with no idea whatsoever as to what Telling Lies is, give me a minute, because I'm not wholly sure as to how to explain this, best. Hang on. Getting there. Okay... Let's try this.
Telling Lies is a whodunnit where the who did it doesn't take too long to be obvious, but working out the why behind the it, as well as who else was instrumental in it happening, can only be worked out through careful analysis of the clues. And all of those clues are, like Her Story before it, video files that must be watched for telltale keywords - names, companies, locations, lies.
This is a mystery unlike many others, perhaps any others, in the video game space, where the gameplay - the UI of a computer, basically, and the scrolling of video clips to pause on select phrases and words - is merely a tool for your own grey matter to crunch the numbers, to do the heavy lifting. You can't just click on everything, or poke an avatar into every corner of a room feeling for secrets, and answers will present themselves. Telling Lies demands that you watch, listen and think - and maybe, probably, make a whole load of notes as you go, scrawled across whatever paper you can grab.
I don't know if that's made the game any clearer for absolute beginners. I hope it has, though, because to miss out on Telling Lies, especially now that it's one all major home consoles (and iOS, too), is to miss out on a modern classic. And I don't say that flippantly, or without measured appreciation for what's in front of me.
In this job, as you can imagine, I see and play hundreds of games a year; and as someone who's now into their 40s (uh), I've been seeing and playing games for a long time. Never in that time have I encountered a game quite so uniquely gripping as Telling Lies. And now, let me tell you why.
Video games, more often than not, fit into boxes. You see a set of sights on a screen, a gun barrel sparking and smoking below, you know what sort of game that is. A ball being chased by a gaggle of virtual athletes: you know what sort of game that is. Blocks falling from the sky to sit neatly in rows; an animated adventurer leaping across chasms and swinging on vines; slavering undead reaching for your face; back-and-forthing to find one thing to open another thing: you know what sorts of games those are.
Telling Lies is none of those things while also being, wholeheartedly, a video game. (And a full-motion video game at that, proving there's life in the genre long after the Digital Pictures boom and bust of the 1990s.) The effect that this has on the viewer, the player, the participant, isn't akin to binge-watching a DVD box-set, or letting the latest thriller on Netflix or Amazon run from one episode to the next, to the next, until night's become morning and what are the days of the week anymore, anyway? You're not a spectator - here, you're both the director and the editor, the detective and the witness.
Am I doing a terrible job of this? Probably. Telling Lies is that sort of game: easily addictive, dangerously effortlessly so, but hard to explain to a friend as to why you're all bleary-eyed this morning after playing through 'til 2am.
Is its compelling quality born of the writing, of how each clip - often one of a pair, as many are video calls - needles at you to find the next, and the next, and the next, until you've closed a circle and completed one chapter, I suppose, of the story? Definitely, but not exclusively.
And the performances? Foremost amongst them those of the headlining quartet of Logan Marshall-Green (Prometheus, Spider-Man: Homecoming), Angela Sarafyan (Westworld, The Promise), Kerry Bishé (Argo, Halt and Catch Fire) and Alexandra Shipp (X-Men: Apocalypse, Straight Outta Compton)? Each amazing but, again, those are not the main reason(s) for sticking with this.
It's the masterful poking through of the loose ends. That's the thing, here. If there's one thing to be isolated. Whatever clip you - and you are a fifth main character in this, ex-FBI agent Karen Douglas, whose reflection is always on screen and whose investigation is occasionally interrupted (but those moments are magical, so I'll say no more) - pore over, it always ends with three or four of these loose ends. These names, companies, locations, and lies.
You select a word within a video, on a hunch or something more, and you search for it. Eighteen more videos are returned, but the computer can only display five. You watch those five, and now you've 20 or more fresh loose ends. You scribble away: who's this character or that organisation, and what does this person mean to this other one, so very elsewhere, with so much emptiness in her eyes? Why does this man speak this way here, but so differently there? And just how much can one life change in two years, which is roughly the span of this game's story?
The loose ends start to bind, to become whole with other leads, other avenues of questioning and of curiosity. Answers can pop into being over just a couple of conclusive videos, where before them came several of uncertainty. Even dead-ends are rarely so simple: two minutes of sustained silence will always mean there's two minutes of sustained something on the other end of the line, providing you can find the clip's other half. And that something can be everything as you, as Karen, complete the biggest picture of Telling Lies, and hit upon the why that's driven everything and everyone to a climax likely seen hours before.
I haven't found the why, yet. I'm still playing - or rather, waiting to play, tonight, from 100% down to whatever comes first, resolution or expiry. My path through Telling Lies won't be the same as yours. Yours won't be the same as the next person you recommend this game to (and, if I may, allow me to add how intuitive it is to play on Switch, whether on rumble-enabled Joy-Cons or the quieter, perfect-for-bedtime-play touchscreen). But if you commit to it, even belatedly like I have, you will end up recommending this to a friend.
So, if you slept on Telling Lies last year, I can't be mad at you - but I do hope you've read these words and you're now heading to your chosen console's digital store. (And yes, I'm kicking myself for letting it languish at 15.) You can leave the Netflix app alone for a while because, truly, Telling Lies is the best thriller you can have on your console, right now.
Telling Lies is released for PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Nintendo Switch on April 28th. It's available now for PC, Mac and iOS. Switch code was provided by the publisher, Annapurna Interactive, for coverage purposes.
Featured Image Credit: Annapurna Interactive