In Her Story, developer Sam Barlow did a rare thing: He created a new video game format.
Four years later, he's made Telling Lies, which releases on August 23rd. It's a game with almost identical gameplay -- centered simply on typing search terms into a video database -- but a lot more polish. It's the fat-budget feature film to Her Story's shoestring indie. Whereas the original was carried by one actor, its successor has four main performers, nearly 100 cast members and dozens of speaking roles.
Telling Lies' mechanics are still engrossing. But for those who've played Her Story, the new game poses the question of how to follow up a hit indie. How can you preserve your unique concept while testing how far it stretches? How does scale change the precious thing you made?
The original gem in this case is Barlow's search-based gameplay. After the briefest of FMV intros to Telling Lies, your screen shows... a laptop screen. It's midnight on a Sunday. You have a hard disk with 10 hours of NSA-recorded video clips and a search bar to explore them.
The word "LOVE" is already typed in, so you may as well hit search. Five clips appear. All of them involve people talking to each other by video, and all of them mention the word "love." You can watch any of them, scrubbing forward and backward.
The rub is that you only see and hear one side of the video conversation at a time and have to find the other half yourself. So if a character starts playing with his beard and talking about the tooth fairy, you can search "beard" or "teeth" and see if a corresponding clip appears. From the response "I'm not gonna tell you," you could perhaps infer that the question was "where are you?"
It focuses your attention on dialogue. It gamifies being a good listener.
Or maybe that search will reveal another clip entirely. Every video raises fresh questions -- why is the main character apart from his kid? What's his relationship with this other woman? -- and every revelation you uncover registers as a small personal win.
This is one of the most groundbreaking aspects of the gameplay: how it focuses your attention on dialogue. It gamifies being a good listener.
In an RPG made by Bioware or Obsidian, you might have half a dozen dialogue options to progress from a given conversation. In Telling Lies, your options are as limitless as the number of words in the dictionary.
Even a well-written traditional RPG can cause your eyes to glaze over and impatiently skip ahead to the response options. Telling Lies forces you to listen, because any word could be a portal to the next level or an illuminating side quest.
And that's how you progress in the game: by discovering more and more specific keywords. (By the time I finished my first playthrough, I had 86 search terms scribbled down and had seen only about half the clips.) You're motivated not by winning or losing but by curiosity. There's an incredible freedom to explore within a tightly constrained search bar.