Playing 2019’s Telling Lies Is Even More Unsettling During COVID-19

Telling Lies is an achievement of narrative design, but playing it during the COVID-19 quarantine makes it all the more unsettling. Achieving a new level of uncomfortable realism in 2020, Sam Barlow’s most recent provocative feature is a story told entirely through conversations captured by webcam, and it is as rewarding as it is painfully intimate.

Playing 2019's Telling Lies Is Even More Unsettling During COVID-19

It isn’t a stretch to say that 2020 has been particularly unkind to the social centers in our brains. The recent strictures of social isolation governments are enforcing around the globe to curb the spread of COVID-19 continue to play a somber role in our daily lives. Technology can serve a cardinal function in a space where being home-bound is no longer particularly voluntary. If we can’t physically manifest our affection to our friends and loved ones during this dystopian cultural moment, we can A) enjoy synthetic relationships with fictional beings in a many-a-fantasy world (I heard they just remade the famous dating sim Final Fantasy 7) or B) utilize the magical black mirrors we all happen to carry around in our pockets that allow us to share our tender double-chins and black-head-riddled noses with each other and the world.

Though a concept that has existed as long as radio communication, “videotelephony” is a comparatively recent phenomenon (save for a stint or two in 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Jetsons, and – oh yeah – NASA’s first manned space expeditions). Only in the last ten years or so has the technology for video calling really been effective enough to allow Sam Barlow’s most recent narrative turn Telling Lies to exist. 

Logan Marshal-Green delivers a stunning performance as the game's frustratingly likeable protagonist

Logan Marshal-Green delivers a stunning performance as the game’s frustratingly likeable protagonist

Playing the Game

It’s hard to summarize this game without spoilers, so I’ll refrain from covering the story and characters in depth. This is a game about discovery, about trial and error, about tedium punctuated occasionally by narrative explosions so incredibly welcome I would smile stupidly each time I unearthed some shred of the game’s connective tissue. The gameplay essentially consists of scrubbing through webcam footage, investigating innumerable conversations, one side at a time, between a colorful cast of characters. The UI looks like a simplified Mac desktop, with only a handful of clickable icons and a program that allows you to access these recorded conversations, all of which take place over the course of a couple years, and the game asks us to – well, just play.

Retina is the NSA surveillance mechanism through which the game takes place.

Retina is the NSA surveillance mechanism through which the game takes place.

There is little to no exposition; a search bar opens on the desktop’s first screen containing a single word: Love. The UI then pulls five videos from a database, of which contain the word “Love” at some point. Your job is to dutifully search. Allow the conversations and the clues they hold to dictate the words and phrases you enter into the search bar. This will open seemingly endless rabbit holes of plots and subplots. It’s kind of like the movie Memento, except Guy Pierce is actually four distinct individuals, all of whom are involved in a convoluted web of romance, political intrigue, and – you guessed it – a whole bunch of lies.

Who are we?

You play as Karen. We don’t know much about Karen. Actually, it’s pretty easy to forget that Karen exists, because we see through her eyes. Only occasionally do we catch a glimpse of her movement in the reflection of the monitor. We periodically see her cat stroll mercilessly across her keyboard, or the reflection of her shirtless lover asking when she’s coming to bed. Our existence as Karen means that we have a goal. There is a story here to be uncovered. It’s our job to excavate an increasingly dangerous truth, like an archaeologist piecing together fragments of history through careful scrutiny. This provides for perhaps the most unique narrative experience I have ever enjoyed. 

Westworld's Angela Sarafyan has a poignant turn as both camgirl and provocateur.

Westworld’s Angela Sarafyan has a poignant turn as both camgirl and provocateur.

Brave New World

However, I became quite aware of the macabre realism here as I sunk one long evening into my “research”. I know I am not alone when I say that the majority of communication I have had over the past month of 2020 has been through Zoom, Skype, Discord, or Facetime. This science-fiction technology is no longer an alternative to talking on the phone. It’s not a way to see your loved ones’ faces who are perhaps hundred of miles away. It’s ubiquitous. It’s how we talk to our neighbors, our friends, our parents, our grandparents, our children, our lovers. In a social moment that discourages face-to-face encounters, video chat technology became a miraculous replacement. Playing through Telling Lies, witnessing deeply personal exchanges between these tremendously acted characters (the encounters do get quite *ahem* intimate at times), it becomes profoundly clear that I’m the invader.

The charming Alexandra Shipp conveys some of the game's most painful honesty and emotion.

The charming Alexandra Shipp conveys some of the game’s most painful honesty and emotion.

These people express their love, elation, pain, and grief without knowing their interactions are being recorded, pored over, and manipulated to achieve some mysterious end. What if all of my personal conversations could be scrubbed with granular specificity, exposing every flaw in my speech, every white lie? When is my loss of temper founded? When is my dishonesty justified? What would my Karen find?


This was already a wonderfully eerie story-telling experiment when it released on PC and mobile in 2019, but through the lens of a quarantine in an age where listening devices pepper our homes like houseplants and Zoom-happy-hours are the new Friday norm, it’s hard not to let the dystopian shivers cut a little bit deeper. Although to be completely fair, I have a feeling that after five minutes of watching one of my remote D&D sessions, my Karen would probably find some other handsome target far more worthy of investigation.

TELLING LIES | Launch Trailer

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>