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What To Read, Play, and Watch Before Playing Telling Lies

Back at GDC 2019, Sam Barlow filled us in on the syllabus for Telling Lies.

This article first appeared on USgamer, a partner publication of VG247. Some content, such as this article, has been migrated to VG247 for posterity after USgamer's closure - but it has not been edited or further vetted by the VG247 team.

Inspired by a college syllabus, we ask developers what players should read, play, and watch to get a better understanding of their game.

This week, the spiritual successor to Sam Barlow's hit FMV mystery Her Story will be out on PC and iOS. We still don't know much about it beyond its cryptic teaser trailers, only that it's called Telling Lies, it stars four Hollywood actors—Logan Marshall-Green (Prometheus, Upgrade), Alexandra Shipp (the X-Men series), Kerry Bishé (Halt and Catch Fire), and Angela Sarafyan (Westworld)—and it's about sifting through stolen NSA surveillance data.

Not even the names of the characters have been revealed for Telling Lies yet, which I'm sure is an intended choice. After all, figuring out mysteries, even just with someone's name, is part of the fun of Barlow's now very specific brand of FMV adventure game. It won't be long now until we figure out their names, and what Telling Lies is even all about, as it launches on Friday, August 23.

In the meantime, back at the Game Developers Conference earlier this year, we sat down with writer and director Sam Barlow to chat about the ambitious project. He told us what he recommends players to read, play, and watch before diving into the very mysterious Telling Lies.

Read: Subversives: The FBI's War on Student Radicals, and Reagan's Rise to Power by Seth Rosenfield; the works of Sherry Turkle

Sam Barlow: There's a book called Subversives which was about the clash between the authorities and the Free Speech Movement in the 60s, which was super interesting to me about how people were protesting. Like, what do you do when you receive a systemic injustice? That whole world of protest in the 60s and the extent to which the government attempted to crack down on it was super interesting.

Sherry Turkle, who in the 70s was a huge evangelist for tech, felt that devices, the internet, all these things were going to usher in a beautiful new world where people had a voice and where our differences would no longer divide us. And she now is far more cynical.

She wrote this great book about what the digital world has done to conversation [called Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age]. She talks a lot there about Skype and how Skype is very good for peripheral intimacy. So if I'm in a different town to my wife, I might FaceTime her whilst I'm preparing a meal and we can just chat and catch up on what we've been up to. And it's like we're in the same room, and that works over these devices. But the more direct intimacy, things like eye contact; if I'm speaking to you on FaceTime and I want you to feel like I'm giving you eye contact, I would actually have to look up at the camera. And it feels to you like I'm looking at you, but it's this conscious effort on me, so there's a layer of artifice already there, there's a performative aspect to how we speak to each other over these devices. So her book was super interesting as I was kind of getting my head around a lot of these themes.

Her Story, Barlow's game before Telling Lies, has you also navigating a desktop's search engine to watch interrogations with a murder suspect. | Sam Barlow

Play: Her Story

SB: The thing that was cool to me about Her Story was that people could, in a reasonable amount of time, get their hands on who had done what to whom, and then the interesting stuff was the why. Then it was actually digging into that character's backstory and this weird twisty Gothic character study. That was the cool stuff. So similarly [in Telling Lies], your initial question is "what happened here?" Why are these people connected, what's going on? And, you know, in short order you will have a sense of what type of story this is and what's going on, but then the really interesting thing becomes just digging into these people's lives and understanding why they're doing what they're doing.

But it's very on the nose. It's the title, Telling Lies, but a big thematic thing here is you have these various people who are in relationships, and to what extent are they being truthful with each other when they project a version of themselves with someone else. How are they being truthful with themselves? So there's lots of events and things that happen in this story where it's interesting to interrogate, like, was the person doing this for good reasons, did they mean this thing they did or said like this, and really to answer those questions, you're digging further and further into these characters' lives. But it has a very different texture to Her Story because the camera is showing you into all these worlds, and it spans two years.

So you're jumping around time and space, seeing into these characters' lives. There's so much you can absorb from just seeing the locations. Someone's in their apartment and seeing how that apartment might change over two years. There's so much interesting body language from just how someone speaks on one of these devices. The chemistry between the different characters, like you can infer who's being spoken to and who's in this conversation just through how people are acting and all this good stuff.

Watch: The Conversation (1974), dir. Francis Ford Coppola, Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1984), dir. Steven Soderbergh

SB: One of the fun parts of making things like this that I love was just the amount of research, because I'm now an indie developer and I'm doing things in a slightly unconventional way. I can give myself six months to just go off and explore these topics and really dig deep into it. So the high concept pitch for this we're trying to explain to people tonally what it is... I always tell people it's Sex, Lies, and Videotape meets The Conversation.

The Conversation is a great touchstone because that's like a 70s movie back when you had that whole era where they would make movies that weren't afraid to be serious in a way that didn't need to be snarky or glib. And that movie is a great example of it. It was responding and picking up so much on the political climate at the time—so the paranoia of Watergate, the post-Vietnam War—there was a new relationship between government and people and realizing that things were not as simple as they used to be. But that movie told and explored those subjects through this very intense character study in Gene Hackman's character, and seeing what that world and that role was doing to him.

Even at a very simple level, like the premise of that movie of the single, secretly recorded conversation that he listens to again and again and again to the point where it starts to change in his head and then you realize that it meant something different entirely. Obviously it has a lot in common with how we're exploring these stories here. I was really attracted to those kinds of movies that were happy to directly engage with the political climate at the time, but tell these very interesting character-gripping stories.

Similarly, this game asks lots of questions about the intrusion in our privacy by government. There's an elaborate metaphor in there for me of the idea of a father watching his child sleep. We understand how wholesome that is, and the idea that as a parent to protect your children you're going to invade their privacy, you're going to control them in ways, but you understand that that's how family works. That the role of the parents is to look out for their children. Government always uses that metaphor to justify like they're trying to protect us. And for me, when you scale the logic up to that level, it breaks.

Sex, Lies, and Videotape revolutionized the indie film movement. | Criterion, Miramax Films

So I think there's lots of interesting subject matter in modern day law enforcement and how we are treated and how our privacy is treated; the extent to which digital devices have massively made inroads into our privacy. Like every night I go to bed and I put my phone next to where I sleep, and there's a microphone and a camera there, and location tracker.

Oh, Sex, Lies, and Videotape, that movie took a slightly forensic view into the private lives of people in a way that no one had seen on-screen. No one had quite delved into people's lives in that same way. The way it invoked videotape, which at the time was future-tech, like that was very much asking has this technology changed how we relate to each other.

So that was a super interesting case and point for me of a smart movie, like as much as its name was Sex, Lies, and Videotape, it wasn't a salacious pornographic movie. It was actually reasonably restrained, but it took a very forensic view on adult relationships and delved into these people's lives in a very nitty gritty way, and so it felt very fresh to people. That was an interesting touchstone for me in trying to tackle this and figure out like how did these relationships work through technology, how are they different.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Caty McCarthy avatar

Caty McCarthy


Caty McCarthy is a former freelance writer whose work has appeared in Kill Screen, VICE, The AV Club, Kotaku, Polygon, and IGN. When she's not blathering into a podcast mic, reading a book, or playing a billion video games at once, she's probably watching Terrace House or something. She is currently USgamer's Senior Editor.