Sam Barlow was traveling a lot. Following the success of his award-winning game Her Story, he found himself often using FaceTime or Skype to talk to his wife and kids. It got him thinking: what happens to a relationship when you’re living it through a device?
That question is the basis for his upcoming project, Telling Lies, a narrative game that examines how well you know those closest to you. “You know the extent to which, in a relationship with someone, you have an idea of who that person is,” he says. “But you can never truly know the extent to which that person truly knows themselves … This is very much an exploration of people not being honest with each other, people not being honest with themselves.”
Her Story focused on a single character speaking to police about the untimely death of her husband, but Telling Lies has a broader focus on four central characters. Its cast is a star-studded lineup featuring Logan Marshall-Green, Kerry Bishé, Alexandra Shipp, and Angela Sarafyan. Its format is similar to Her Story, in which players scrubbed through police interviews by searching for specific keywords. This time around, however, information is stored on a hard drive that contains data stolen from the National Security Agency database — a treasure trove of surveillance on the game’s characters, taken from phones or laptops, recorded without their knowledge. “You know that there is a reason that these conversations have been grouped together,” Barlow says. “And that these people have been watched, and that their private moments have been recorded.”
The game is set over the span of about two years. Rather than watching short snippets, players will be able to tap into full conversations. If players access a seven-minute clip, for example, a keyword will drop them into that specific moment — but they’ll be able to scrub back and forth at will. “You get this sense of wandering across conversations, of overhearing these things, this real sense of stepping into a conversation that’s already happening,” he says. Many of the story’s biggest plot points will happen off-screen, while players are left to sort through the dust.
Barlow didn’t want to make a “straight-up sequel” to Her Story, though he says it would have been the easy, sensible thing to do. With some distance from the game, it was easier to pull on the threads from the original project he found to be the most interesting. Her Story’s video invoked the feeling of watching old interview tapes on sites like YouTube. Telling Lies is indicative of Barlow’s fascination with video installation art.
Take Sam Taylor Wood’s project where she filmed David Beckham sleeping. “There’s very little happening, which makes you look even more closely. But at the same time, it’s this incredibly intimate thing, that act of watching someone sleep,” Barlow says. It’s a piece that can only exist in an art gallery. “No one is going to go to a movie theater and watch two hours of David Beckham sleeping … And it’s not going to be something you can put on TV, and it’s not a texture you could explore in a conventional movie.”
In other words, it’s about subtext. Watching someone do the dishes isn’t interesting on its own, Barlow says. But knowing that their wife has left them 20 minutes prior makes every movement an opportunity for interpretation, left up to the player’s discretion of how much they choose to watch. “If I asked someone to kind of remember a failed relationship, you don’t have like this clean, A, B, C, D, E version of the story,” Barlow says. “You might instantly think of the first time you met this person, fell in love with them. Then you remember the screaming row in a restaurant, that was awful, and it’s all jumbled up … When you’re playing the game and you’re jumping around these characters’ stories in this way and just immersing yourself in all this footage, it has that texture.”