Chances are that the very screen you're reading this review on has a camera either built into the shell or sitting in close proximity, and its the notion that government agencies are capturing our every action through the devices we use everyday that gives Sam Barlow's Telling Lies its central conceit. Following the static, single-room/single-actor set up of 2015's excellent Her Story, Barlow expands on that premise with a larger cast and multiple locations and the result is an ambitious detective thriller every bit as engrossing as his previous FMV hit. Coming to consoles after releasing last year on PC and mobile, it pleases us no end to say Telling Lies survives the transition to your TV very well.
The game has you reviewing video clips of four main characters and an assortment of support players using various video capture devices. You only hear one side of the conversation, but you have the ability to search the fictional RETINA database (the repository for these surreptitious recordings) using any word from the dialogue, and much of your detective work relies on finding the other half of a conversation, identifying that person and listening for new leads and search terms.
Anyone who played Her Story will be quickly familiar with this system. Type a word ('nice', for example) and you'll see get a list of every result where that word is mentioned (34 in that case). However, the catch is that only the top five clips are viewable, which forces you to get more specific and refined with your search terms. Within each clip, multiple instances of the keyword or phrase are timestamped separately, and an icon appears after you've viewed it once. You can also bookmark clips and they are all logged in your search history.
Listening for names and other clues enables you to gradually assemble a picture of how these people relate to each other and what's going on. A subtle detail like a haircut, an injury or a name on a background object might lead to a new thread and it's the thrill of pulling on these threads and uncovering details about these people and their relationships which sadly none of the screenshots on this page can capture.
The entire game takes place in the confines of a Mac-like OS called Castle, and given the fact that you see your character's reflection on the screen at all times, we were sceptical about how well the experience would translate to consoles given its more 'natural' home on a PC or laptop. Fortunately, Barlow and Furious Bee have managed to make it work just fine on a gamepad. You control a mouse cursor on the left analogue stick, but it automatically snaps to buttons around the screen. The right stick controls fast-forward and rewind functions complete with HD rumble, although its particularly buzzy implementation here became distracting, especially when scrubbing through long clips (fortunately you can disable rumble in the Options menu).
In handheld mode, touchscreen input works as you'd expect, save for the aforementioned fast-forward and rewind function - swiping right to fast-forward (rather than rewind) felt totally wrong to us. Maybe we're just used to scrubbing through videos on iOS, but using the right stick felt much more natural. Your finger will never be as precise as a mouse cursor, but that sort of precision is almost never required and touch input works well. The ability to tap any word in the subtitles and immediately search that term is a very nice touch, and despite the dissonance between you and your desktop-bound character, we never felt that we were playing a compromised experience in handheld or docked modes.
To detail any of the narrative would be to rob Telling Lies of its bread and butter; it really is best if you go in knowing nothing. Digging through fragments of conversation and watching unguarded people in intimate moments is what this game is all about. Early on before you're privy to the appropriate context, there's an inevitable voyeurism to some of the clips--especially around female characters--but in the context of the unfolding narrative and the relationships explored, it ultimately earns those moments. As you'd expect given its title, you'll watch conversations between duplicitous characters and have to deduce whether they're telling the truth, putting on a performance, or perhaps a bit of both.
On the subject of performances, you can safely cast any notions of hammy early '90s FMV from your mind. The acting here is generally strong and this is a top-quality production across the board. It's in the details that Telling Lies really impresses: you can tap the WiFi symbol for a list of connections, peruse the Trash or even play a game of Solitaire to clear your head. Your investigation is interrupted occasionally as your character speaks to their partner in the background. A musical score also drifts in periodically as you fall down what feels like a warped Wikipedia hyperlink hole, only with the added thrill of assembling the scraps of information you come across and painting a picture of the situation like a true detective.
Like any good detective, we found it helpful to keep pen and paper notes as we played. By the end our pad was filled with scribbled names of people and places and hastily sketched spider diagrams linking characters to each other; we were only missing the Polaroid pictures and red string. Upon completing your investigation and seeing an ending which differs depending on your searches, a report opens up which reveals more details and gives a brief in-world analysis of your detective work. You're also able to return to the moment just before the endgame triggers and uncover more of the story threads and connections you may have missed.
Ultimately, much like its predecessor, the triumph of Telling Lies is the way it doles out vital clues and information at just the right rate to keep you totally engaged for the few hours it takes to see credits. The alignment of player and protagonist here really puts you in the shoes (or more accurately, plonked down at the desk) of an investigator and conveys the thrill of unravelling a mystery like few other detective games.
On paper, searching a large database of phone-filmed video clips doesn't sound too exciting, but Telling Lies offers an exhilarating few hours of detective work thanks to clever construction, strong performances and exceptional polish. Given that the game takes place almost entirely in windows on a virtual desktop computer screen (and would therefore seem 'at home' on PC), it survives the transition to Switch entirely intact. While there's not much incentive to reopen the investigation once it reaches its climax, uncovering Telling Lies' web of relationships and intrigue is a case definitely worth taking on.