This is a new video game which sounded really interesting. And it is! I just finished it. Or “finished it”. More on that later.
This is from the creator of Her Story, which I haven’t played, but if you have, it’s like that, only with more characters and a bigger budget.
All these people are totally [redacted].
You don’t get to shoot anyone; you don’t even get to walk around. You watch video clips from a database, and you eventually piece them into a story.
The clever bit is that you choose the search term in the database. The game starts you out with the search term LOVE, which returns five videos. You can watch them, and you probably will. Or you can choose a different search term and see what you get.
Now, this is rather close to a project I was working on. For the Verdurian game I’ve been working on approximately forever, I wanted to have dozens of dialog options, and my initial idea was to make the user actually type them. E.g. Ticai finds that her husband is missing, and she could ask her maid about her HUSBAND. But if you could find better search terms, you could get more information. E.g. you suspect he has a MISTRESS, or you ask if he is CHEATING. If the maid says (say) he is with a mane named ZONVURAN, you can ask about him. As you can imagine, this involves a lot of writing and debugging, which is why I haven’t finished it.
Well, that’s how Telling Lies works. Watching a clip will give you leads to pursue: names, locations, code words, topics. You will probably need to take notes, especially at first, when possible topics proliferate.
Now, because of this, I can’t give you details about the story, even simple things like the names of the characters, because part of the game is finding out these things yourself. You don’t even know what you’re after, at first. Are these just random recordings? What sort of story is being told? The title of the game is relevant too: some of the people are telling lies, elaborate ones. When, if at all, are they telling the truth?
You also don’t know who you are, except that you’re someone. At the start we see a woman going into a house and booting a laptop, and you see her reflected dimly in the screen from then on. So the idea is that you are that woman, who is doing the search. (She never comments or helps out in any way. At intervals, however, the reflection is enhanced and something happens in the house she’s in.)
A key concept: the keywords are tied only to the words spoken in the video. E.g. that initial search will find videos where someone says “love”. This can help you narrow things down, because there’s no need to search for “that long-haired girl” or whatever– only things people say can be searched. On the other hand, one search term gives you a maximum of five videos, so (say) searching for a character’s name will not give you every video where they’re mentioned.
(The game marks videos you’ve seen, which is a help. So later searches will often give you only a few new clips.)
The end result is that you explore the database in little jumps, for several hours. I never had trouble thinking of things to search for. Intriguingly, every person’s experience of the game will be different, because they’ll see clips in an entirely different order. One player might find a given secret very quickly, another may see it much later, or never.
I’ve read a few rapturous reviews, but this one is closest to how I feel about the game. They call it “flawed but fascinating,” and that’s about right.
First, the fascinating part. I really did get into the search. You get to know the main characters and quite a few minor ones. The overall outline of the story becomes clear soon enough– though getting a grasp on its chronology and even its outcome is much harder. The clips are all well acted and almost everybody has an interesting backstory. There’s a nice range of tonal variation, from the everyday to the romantic to the dramatic.
More than that: this is about the best experience of detection I’ve ever had in a video game. Most adventure games, even if they have mysteries, don’t let you actually detect; they simply dole out the mystery in the order the developer sees fit; you’re about as useful as a toddler handed a magnifying glass to gape at the clues thrust in your face. Here, even though all you’re doing is watching videos, the game makes you feel like an investigator. You have to identify the clues, pursue them, and try to piece together the story.
It’s about the best dialog system ever, even if all you’re talking to is a database program. The reason is, you’re not given three options and occasionally an extra one if your Speech skill is high enough. You have to come up with keywords yourself. This is a trick to an extent, because most of the keywords are obvious, like the names you hear. But you feel like you’re doing work. Plus, to make any sense of the clips you’ll probably have to take notes on what happened, what the relationships are, whether someone seemed to be lying, and so on.
If all this sounds interesting… well, go and get it! It’s a really different type of game, and quite well done.
The flawed bit mostly has to do with the time limit. You see, after five hours you’re out of time– you have to upload your videos and finish the game. You get some cutscenes and a very terse report summarizing what you were doing. (At least you learn ‘your’ character’s name, if you hadn’t learned it already.)
To be honest, I pretty much hate this feature. I can see the idea of limiting your search, because after all they couldn’t film an infinite number of clips, and at some point the process would probably become frustrating or tedious. But, well, I feel like I wasn’t done. I have a good picture of the story– maybe I even have all the big pieces, I don’t know.
But that picture feels incomplete, and I don’t feel any closure. The final report says I found “just under half” of the clips. Another review mentioned the same phrase, so that’s probably normal. But, why do you they want to limit you to seeing half of the game?
Now, it’s completely possible to go back in and keep searching the database! I did, a bit, but it doesn’t feel the same. I feel like the game told me it was over and I was done, and shouldn’t it know? At this point I kind of want to know how far I actually got and not just carry on filling in details.
I could also start over, but that sounds completely unattractive. The clips are well done, but not so amazing that you’ll want to watch them over and over.
A couple of minor cavils. One: clips often record just one half of a conversation. Often you can find and watch the other half. The process is fascinating for the first few hours, then slightly annoying. E.g.– not infrequently, by using a good search term and seeing clips with the same length, it’s clear that I have both halves of the convo in front of me. But there’s no way to watch them at the same time. Why not? The actors are good at actively listening, but in effect we have the watch the same conversation twice. (You can fast forward, though.)
Another: the database will start clips at the point when your search term is spoken. But generally you want to see the whole clip, and there’s no way to start at the beginning without a slow process of rewinding.
The game includes an in-game notepad, but this is a missed opportunity. I have 13 pages of notes, and it was easier to flip through the pages than to use a computer file. What would have been really useful would be the ability to create a pin board like in detective movies. E.g., a character portrait, room for notes, a place where you can pin the actual video clips. Another place where you can record searches still to be made.
One last discussion point: would this story have worked better as a movie? That is, is the whole database search an extremely eccentric way to make you watch what could have been presented as a straight story or TV series?
Overall, this is answered by my point about detecting. I think the gameplay works great as a process of exploring a story. About the only thing that compares is an in-person mystery RPG. The idea is good enough that (again, for the first several hours at least), it’s easy to forgive the occasional unexciting clip. Some clues in a good mystery story are red herrings.
That said, I think I like the characters and the themes better than the actual story. But as I can’t tell you what the story is, and as I’m not even sure if I got the actual story, there’s not much more to say about that!