When it came time to create his next live-action mystery game Telling Lies, Her Story creator Sam Barlow had a few key components in mind. He knew he wanted a story that was made up entirely of secretly recorded clips, ones that would often be viewed out of order by players. He also knew that he wanted to have players experience both sides of the conversation, but not at the same time; you might watch a husband speaking to his wife over Skype, but while she’s talking you’re only able to view his reactions. “My original pitch was ‘I think it’s going to be interesting to watch someone’s face whilst they listen,’” Barlow explains.
It’s an intriguing concept, but it also came with one slight problem: how was the team going to actually film all of this?
For Her Story, filming was relatively simple. The entire experience consisted of a series of video clips, all pulled from police interrogation tapes, of a single woman discussing a particular crime. Players then had to scrub through the videos in search of clues for what really happened. Barlow’s second release, which rebooted WarGames as an interactive TV show, maintained the found footage concept, but added multiple characters, and viewers were able to change their focus during conversations in real time, subtly changing the story along the way.
Telling Lies, meanwhile, has a cast of four different characters — played by Logan Marshall-Green, Kerry Bishé, Alexandra Shipp, and Angela Sarafyan — and a trove of footage of conversations between them, found on a stolen NSA hard drive. Players can search the hard drive for specific keywords and it will bring up related clips, which you can then watch to uncover new topics to search for. The idea is that, much like in Her Story, you’ll slowly be able to piece together the story and how these characters are related. However, because of the nature of these conversations, you’ll only be watching one side of the discussion.
“I got my steps in.”
Barlow says that he wanted to shoot on location, not on a set, in order to create a more natural feeling. But that also made filming tricky, as he wanted both sides of the conversation to be recorded simultaneously. “What I’m thinking is going to be fun is actually having the two performers bouncing off of each other, so more natural and less cinematic conversations are happening,” he explains. “That’s only going to work if we have two people actually in real time having these conversations. That was an early requirement from me.”
The production team came up with a novel solution. They were able to rent out what Barlow describes as a “compound” which featured multiple houses, apartments, and other buildings. They were all distinct buildings, so that the actors could still feel as if they were having a remote conversation over a distance. But they were also close enough together that the two locations could be wired up and connected, and filmed at the same time. Further complicating matters was the fact that, unlike WarGames, where most of the conversations involved young hackers talking to each other while sitting at desks, Telling Lies has a broader array of scenes and locations, many of which were captured over video chat on mobile phones.
As director, Barlow watched events unfold from an editing bay in between the two sets, which meant a lot of running around — though it was made slightly easier by the fact that the actors were essentially chatting over Skype the whole time. “In some cases what I would do is run to one set, and then speak to both of the actors over the video chat. In other cases I’d run between the two. So I got my steps in,” Barlow explains. “There’s a rule that you’re not allowed to run on film sets because they don’t want anyone to get hurt. So it’d be like a mini stealth game where I was trying to run as fast as I could without any of the PAs spotting me.”
Telling Lies was filmed mostly in chronological order — it takes place over the course of two years — and a lot of footage was recorded. Barlow says that the team captured around 100 hours of conversation, which was cut down to about 10 hours for the final game. That makes it slightly longer than Her Story, though players won’t see everything. You’ll be viewing clips out of order, and depending how you search, there will be plenty you won’t even see. For the actors, this required a bit of faith that the director could put this massive amount of footage together in a way that players will understand.
“Trust me,” Barlow remembers telling the actors, “this will all make sense when people play the thing.”
Telling Lies is launching later this year on iOS and Steam.