Over the holiday season we’ll be republishing a series of Nintendo Life articles, interviews and other features from the previous twelve months that we consider to be our Best of 2020. Hopefully, this will give you a chance to catch up on pieces you missed, or simply enjoy looking back on a year which did have some highlights — honest!
This interview was originally published in May 2020.
For many gamers the term ‘FMV’ may still be loaded with memories of shlocky ‘cinematic’ clips crammed into games in the early 1990s. The memory space of the CD-ROM enabled developers to ‘wow’ people who had invested in their first personal computer with compressed video clips, not to mention the poor gamers who until then had had to ‘make do’ with pixelated blips and blobs. When the clips weren’t simply serving as cutscenes, the results generally ranged from so-bad-they’re-good to just-plain-bad, and it has taken a long time for the genre to shake its reputation for low-quality video and lower-quality acting.
We’ve come a long way since then, of course, and there is a small and select group of developers still exploring the potential of interactive movies, and none are more interesting than Sam Barlow. Having previously worked on the Silent Hill franchise (notably, the excellent Silent Hill: Shattered Memories for Wii), Barlow struck out on his own with the engrossing interactive hit Her Story in 2015.
A collaboration with developer Furious Bee, Telling Lies is a spiritual sequel of sorts; a detective thriller which has you reviewing NSA footage of four protagonists’ intimate conversations over a 2-year period. We very much enjoyed the game and recently had the chance to question its creator about the logistics of making a compelling interactive movie, the process of bringing it to consoles, and returning to the horror genre with his next project…
Nintendo Life: First off, just how do you go about writing something like Telling Lies? With so many intricate links and relationships for the player to uncover in a non-linear fashion, do you write it ‘straight’ and find the complexity in the edit? Tell us about the writing process.
Sam Barlow: The process I kinda developed across Her Story and Telling Lies was to spend a lot of time up front on the research, the character’s lives, back stories, etc. so that when we get into the plot of the game itself we have enough layers built up to support players really digging into it. So that in any given moment there are two or three things happening at once in people’s minds.
With Telling Lies it was important to carefully map out the main characters’ lives over the two years of the story, ensure those stories sparked off each other and were well balanced against each other. I can tell you what each of them was doing for every day of that period! Then we write the scenes and really just do that from the characters’ perspectives, trying to create interestingly authentic, organic moments. Finally, we then have a stage where the computer analyzes the script and points out balancing issues. Scenes with no good searches to find them, words that are over or under used. We iterate and iterate from here, tweaking scenes until the computer thinks things are fine.
Anyone who played Her Story will feel immediately at home with the RETINA system and its keyword searches, which feels beautifully weighted in the amount of information it displays while letting the player piece clues together. After the success of Her Story, did you feel hesitant at all to return a similar set-up for Telling Lies?
Definitely when Her Story came out I wasn’t keen to jump into a direct sequel. But once time had passed I was interested in exploring further the element of Her Story that I thought were most unique — the idea of exploring story/video in the way you would a 3D world in a normal game. I wanted to see how we could build on that idea, whilst telling a very different story on a very different (bigger!) canvas.
One of the weird things about creating a new genre is how the games are seen to look the same. If I was making a military FPS, I could tweak something tiny — say the reload mechanic — and it would be seen as a big innovation. But because Her Story is such a radically different game in itself, even though Telling Lies has many departures from the first game, from a distance it looks the same! To me the games feel like siblings — they share the same parents and genetics, but end up growing into two very different individuals!
If I was making a military FPS, I could tweak something tiny — say the reload mechanic — and it would be seen as a big innovation.
Finding that delicate keyword balance to create intrigue must have been tough to achieve, and doesn’t seem like the sort of thing that’s easy to change after the footage is in the can. How do you strike the right balance? How do you playtest and tweak a game like this?
We played the game as we developed the script. We had a program that would turn the script into fake movie clips with timed out subtitles. So we’d “play” it and get a sense for the scope of it, the way things were laid out. Then once we had a full script that we liked and that the computer liked we recorded a read through with actors and myself, just talking heads, over a few days. We used that footage to make an alpha build of the game and put that through several play tests. We’d have people play for 3-4 hours and track their progress. It was reassuring to see how well people ‘got’ the experience even with very simple footage — and we used the data to help tweak some areas and improve the general flow and balance of things. Once that script was then locked we moved into production…
Tell us a little about the filming. We’ve read that it mainly took place in a single studio ‘compound’. In comparison to Her Story and its single actor/location, a cast of actors and multiple settings must have made this infinitely more complex to coordinate, logistically. How long did filming take?
We shot for five weeks with about the same amount of time spent in pre-production and the lead up to the shoot. That’s a pretty intense shoot for the amount of content we had to capture! But everything was organized to prioritize the actors — give them a setup where they could be very natural, where they could play off of each other. So we would shoot simultaneously on two locations and the actors were free to move around in those spaces, to block things out in a way that was true to the body language, the way you’d move around in spaces like that. You can tell who is talking to who just from how they answer the call, how they move.
Because the actors were free to point the cameras anywhere, it was important to shoot on location rather than on a set — and we lucked out, finding an area where we basically took over two homes, three apartments, a cafe and a small TV studio across the road. We wired it all up so we were able to be in real places, but run two crews at once.
Because the actors were free to point the cameras anywhere, it was important to shoot on location rather than on a set — and we lucked out
Presumably the actors have to follow the script very precisely. Was there any room for ad-libbing or ideas on set which you incorporated later, or was everything mapped out and nailed down beforehand?
Yeah, once we’d tested the script, we had to stick pretty close to it! On set, the script supervisor had a program that would tell her if a word missed (or added!) was going to break things and we could use that to catch any problems that required us to go again and get another take. The biggest challenge was having the actors not ad-lib words in the most heated scenes where it feels natural to just let words come out. They did a hell of a job!
Would you say you’re a hands-on director? Which part of the process of making games like these do you enjoy best?
Yeah, I like to get into the weeds. I’m a tweaker, whether that’s nudging a small setting on a post process effect by 0.01, or messing the arrangement of a small piece of set dressing. Anything I can get into, I will!
In terms of my favorite part… it’s a toss up between breaking the story — seeing the outline of the story start to take shape and become real — and being on set with the actors. Walking in the spaces that a few months prior were just words on a page and seeing the actors bring stuff to life and making it special. It’s a real privilege. I also like to play the game once we have the content in, lose myself in the exploration of the footage — even though I know what’s in there, I still love that core experience!
We imagine this sort of game presents unique challenges when it comes to ‘selling’ it to players. Obviously, spoiling the experience isn’t an option, but random cam shots of people talking to a screen don’t convey the thrill of following narrative threads and playing detective, either. Is this something you’ve worried about?
I think you have to lean into the mystery — you can be opaque to some extent, if you’re confident that players are going to want to rise to that challenge. I like to aim for a good kind of ‘what the f**k?’, the kind where a player wants to find out what the hell this thing is. I think if you can explain the tone of it, the atmosphere of it, people have a pretty good sense of what is in store for them.
A lot of games have replayability but how many do you really remember years down the line?
Without spoiling anything, we enjoyed how the report at the end of the game highlights the player’s ‘habits’ and nudges you in directions you may not have investigated. Is the possibility of players ‘missing’ big chunks of narrative a concern? Is replayability a big consideration for you during development?
I’m more focused on making sure people do have a personal, unique experience. So for me it’s less that they ‘missed’ stuff, and more that they saw stuff that only they saw. I’m very much a ‘play once, but dig in as much as you want’ kind of person, but I know that a lot of people can’t help but want to track down every detail — so that’s there as an option!
At the end of the day I want to make games that people play intensely when they play them, and remember them long after. Being an intense, memorable experience up front is more important than replayability. A lot of games have replayability but how many do you really remember years down the line?
The conceit of Telling Lies seems to make playing on PC the most ‘natural’ home for it, although the game translates to TV play very well – far better than expected, if we’re honest! Tell us about the process of bringing the game to consoles and the work involved to avoid a sub-optimal experience.
We had consoles in mind from the start — the idea of putting focus on navigating by selecting subtitles directly was a big part of that. But I was surprised and pleased when I first tried it out to see how special the experience of playing on a TV was — having those windows open up into these private, domestic spaces in your own living room, with the actors kinda life sized talking directly to you… that made things feel intimate in a very different way to phone or computer.
Taking the idea of scrutinizing or ‘deep reading’ live action […] and making that a gameplay loop… I think there’s a lot of ideas we can build on there.
Do you think there’s room to explore further ideas in the framework of these types of games? Do you have potential ideas that you couldn’t implement here, for whatever reason?
Yeah. I think this idea of applying exploration gameplay, all the richness of 3D gameplay directly to the story content is something I feel opens up many possibilities. Taking the idea of scrutinizing or ‘deep reading’ live action (in the way people often do on reddit/etc!) and making that a gameplay loop… I think there’s a lot of ideas we can build on there. I get very frustrated now watching shows and movies on my TV and not being able to jump around their timelines and pick up on clues and immediately leap forward in the story!
We had ideas during development that we didn’t use for Telling Lies where they didn’t fit the tone, or the realism of the story. Also some that would have added too much complexity! Some of those made it through to the next game where we have the liberty to be more playful…
Can you tell us anything about what the future holds or what you’re working on next?
We’re currently in development on a horror title that is — very loosely! — in the same kind of space as Her Story and Telling Lies. It’s another factor again more complex and ambitious (I am my own worst enemy!) and is looking really cool so far, but we have a ways to go yet! I love the horror genre and had a great time working on the Silent Hill franchise before, so this is fertile ground for me! It’s been exciting to see what we can do with some of these ideas in a genre where we can screw around with player’s heads more.
Our thanks to Sam. Telling Lies is available now on the Switch eShop. We enjoyed the game a lot – check out the Nintendo Life review for our full verdict.