Telling Lies Switch Review
There are very few video game creators who become household names, but Sam Barlow is making a run to join that special club. With his second game, Telling Lies, his signature style is starting to take place: interactive mystery/puzzle games played completely with live action actors. Now, we already reviewed Telling Lies when it came out for PC, and it’s a good review, you should check it out! I am reviewing the Nintendo Switch port. First I am going to get into how the game works as a port, then I am going to offer a contrasting view on the game overall.
In Telling Lies, you are a voyeur trying to untangle the lives of four people. The game is live action. You play as a woman sitting at a computer screen with leaked NSA video files. You can see your main character’s face reflected on the monitor but mostly, you’re going to be watching video chat files of people who don’t know they are being monitored.
Each video is subtitled, and you can click any word in the subtitles to get a list of every other video file that includes that word. Pick a bland word like ‘the’ and you won’t really learn much. But pick a more unique word (like say, a character’s name), and patterns will start to emerge. It’s your job to figure out who is being honest about what, and get to the truth at the core of the story.
Best Played on PC
We really liked Telling Lies when it first came out, but one major shortcoming was the interface. Immersion is the top priority, so it tries to simulate a computer interface as accurately as possible, for better and for worse. The clunkiness is really exacerbated on the Switch. A lot of the game interaction happens through typing words into a search bar. On Switch, the immersion is broken completely when the grey Switch keyboard jumps up and covers the in-game keyboard interface.
I’m of two minds about the port. Switch is clearly not the ideal system to get the “true” Telling Lies experience. It’s a game that tries to emulate a PC, and thus, probably feels best on the PC. But I love my Switch. We all love our Switches. The Switch is a magical little console. So while the port loses some points for clunky controls, it gets a few back for being portable, and part of my wonderful library of charming Nintendo and indie games.
All that being said, I’m very interested in Telling Lies as a work of art. It clearly aspires to be one – at least, that’s what I assume when a game designer puts their name at the forefront like that. Sam Barlow is the auteur and despite a production and development team that probably included dozens of people (in the least!), Barlow is the name that appears most prominently. Well, his and the four lead actors. Performances have long been an important part of video games, but in making the experience live action, Telling Lies begs to be compared to movies or TV, other live action media.
Domestic Drama or Spy Thriller?
Now, I have seen all four of these lead actors give absolutely phenomenal performances. Kerry Bishė was one of the stars of Halt and Catch Fire, at times stealing the show from the rest of that extraordinary cast. Angela Sarafyan plays Clementine in Westworld, and is absolutely unforgettable in the role. Logan Marshall-Green has become the go-to guy for daring performances in independent horror movies, with standout performances in The Invitation and Upgrade. And Alexandra Shipp held her own in a couple of really crummy X-Men movies. She also held her own in crummy romcom Jexi… OK, I have yet to see Shipp in a really good movie or TV show, but it’s always obvious that she has talent, and that ain’t nothing.
I point this all out because all four of those actors give performances unlike anything they’ve ever given before. Furthermore, their performances are all strange in similar ways — they are campy and over-the-top. Bishė in particular finds little moments of truth in her role, but her exaggerated body language and camera-mugging are way more than anything she’s ever done before (and she starred in the latter seasons of Scrubs!). Marshall-Green often plays subdued dudes in situations spiraling out of control, and in Telling Lies he is no different, but he’s constantly contorting his face like a cartoon character.
All of this leads me to believe the fault lies in the director who is credited as, you guessed it, Sam Barlow. I find that interesting as hell. I’d venture that Barlow lacked trust — either for his actors or the gamers — to find meaning in subtle performances. He goes big, shooting for something halfway between the MCU and Shakespeare. I like it, but it doesn’t fit the subtleties of the story as written, which verges from domestic drama to spy thriller.
When compared to other games, Telling Lies is a massive accomplishment, bringing unheard of levels of talent. But when compared to movies or TV, the performances and production design feel a little bit lacking. I’ll certainly be playing future Barlow games — the ideas are too cool to ignore. But in the future, I’d be keen to see him try his hand at something campier, or maybe let a more experienced director handle the actors. Sam Barlow presents Command and Conquer: Red Alert? Yes, please!
***Nintendo Switch review code provided by the publisher.***
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- Great cast
- Unique gameplay
- There’s truly nothing quite like it
- Clunky port
- Weird direction
- Tone doesn’t fit the story