How Annapurna Interactive's 'Telling Lies' Blurs Lines Between Film, Gaming
In 2015, veteran video game designer Sam Barlow released Her Story, an interactive live-action video game "about a woman talking to the police," on PC and mobile. The game went on to sell over 100,000 copies and garnered numerous accolades, including a best narrative award at the Game Awards that year.
Four years later, Barlow is set to launch his latest game, Telling Lies, through Annapurna Interactive, the gaming division of Megan Ellison's production company that has released a string of critically acclaimed indie titles since its inception in 2016.
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"When I originally pitched it to them I wasn’t necessarily looking for a publisher, but when I was introduced to them it really made a lot of sense, having that filmmaking pedigree that I could access," Barlow tells The Hollywood Reporter of his partnership with Annapurna. "On the gaming side, they have some really experienced people who have historically sought out the more interesting and different experiences."
Barlow's work certainly falls under the "interesting and different" banner. In Her Story, players take on the role of a homicide detective sifting through a database of police interviews to solve the case of a missing man. The game was unique in that it was live-action, shot with real actors, featured a central gameplay mechanic that was navigating a 1990s computer interface and dealt largely with ambiguity in its storytelling.
"Hardcore critics would say, ‘Why don’t you just upload these videos on YouTube; that’s not a game,’" Barlow recalls.
The game was a modest hit, however, and solidified Barlow as a strong voice in the vast indie game landscape. With his latest project, he aims to push the boundaries of game-making even further.
"If you read a novel, you can be in a character’s thought process. You’re that intimately involved with him but it doesn’t feel gross or icky, it’s not voyeuristic. For me, what we’re doing here is finding a way of giving you that novelistic closeness to characters who are being filmed," Barlow says of Telling Lies.
Details about the game's plot are still unclear, but it centers on four distinct characters and grants players access to their most intimate moments and personal relationships. Once again shot in live-action, Barlow's new game stars Logan Marshall-Green, Alexandra Shipp, Kerry Bishe and Angela Sarafyan.
"The things that I heard when it came across my desk was that Annapurna was behind it and it was from the creator of Her Story," says Marshall-Green. "I had not played Her Story, but I had heard of it because I’m a gamer. I had also played most of Annapurna’s titles, including What Remains of Edith Finch, which I adore."
The first thing Marshall-Green did upon reading the script was to boot up the author's last game, Her Story. "I was probably playing it like 10 minutes and I just ran and set up a meeting," he says. "When I started reading the script for Telling Lies, it was gorgeous, from page one to page 260. It just ticked every box."
"This is the story of four characters who have various relationships and there are essentially several discrete stories that intertwine, but they all reflect back on each other," says Barlow. "It’s that very primal question of when you’re in a relationship, how well do you truly know that person."
While he now has the backing of Annapurna Interactive — which has built a solid reputation as one of the leading publishers in the indie gaming space over the past few years with titles like Florence, Donut County and What Remains of Edith Finch — Barlow admits that Telling Lies is a harder sell than his previous title. "I need a sexier phrase than ‘political thriller,’ but it’s like Sex, Lies and Videotape meets The Conversation," he says.
The game's scenes are presented in a somewhat voyeuristic manner, with players looking into private scenes via the camera on a mobile phone's screen or a laptop webcam. Shooting the scenes, says Marshall-Green, was a very unique experience.
"It was two sets working, for the most part, shooting concurrently, separately in a compound," he says. "So, we’re talking lots of cable fed into a village where the maestro sits," Marshall-Green motions at Barlow, "and two full units calling it, starting it and two actors holding these rigs having a conversation."
Having the actors play the scenes in real time helped add authenticity to the production, says Marshall-Green. "That back-and-forth is so pedestrian, but the more pedestrian it is, the deeper it is, the more you’re scrolling through it and forgetting that you’re digging into people’s private lives."
"I think we took away a lot of the safety nets that these guys would normally have," adds Barlow. "It took a lot of trust because you’re telling your actors you're going to be in a scene and you’re going to be present for seven minutes and you’re going to be operating the camera."
With a script that's 260 pages long, production was a daunting task for the stars, but Marshall-Green applauds his co-stars that worked "at a level that I haven’t seen in this medium."
"Sam just got so many amazing actors," he says before adding with a laugh, "And then me. You can't win 'em all."
Telling Lies is due out later in 2019, and while Barlow remains mum on the story, he is excited for audiences to see the final product. "The central conceit of the game is looking through video footage, piecing together a story like a jigsaw, really going to town on the joy of watching a performance, digging into the subtext and discovering story reversals and reveals through your own actions."
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