Ever since he left Climax Studios to go independent in 2014, Sam Barlow has become known for interactive experiences that blur the lines between video games and film. His first independent game, 2015’s Her Story, was released to critical acclaim and set the stage for Barlow’s future in video games.
Telling Lies, Barlow’s follow-up, takes Her Story’s mechanic of searching a database for video clips and adds a new twist to it. Instead of using police interview recordings to unravel a murder mystery, Telling Lies has the player searching through recordings of private Skype conversations between a cast of four main characters – one of whom is an undercover FBI agent. The unique nature of both Her Story and Telling Lies seems to have been born out of Barlow’s frustrations working as a writer on more traditional games – attempting to flesh out a title’s narrative once development is already underway.
“As a writer on a video game,” says Barlow, “you’re constantly juggling. Someone over there is creating the combat system, someone over there is having to build level four, which is act two of the story – all this stuff is going on while you’re trying to get into a quiet room and write the thing. If you have enough money, if you’re Ken Levine, you can scrap entire swathes of the game because you suddenly realised that doesn’t work with your story. But for most people, you just kind of bodge it together and push on, but it’s painful as a writer to work like that.”
The realities of writing a game like Telling Lies freed Barlow from these constraints. By using an approach more typical in filmmaking than game development, Barlow was able to spend time researching and establishing the game’s narrative long before it went into production.
“With Telling Lies, I knew the story I wanted to tell and I had these four characters in my head. I knew the big picture story, and thematically what this thing was going to be about. So I then went away and spent a lot of time just researching. I had a researcher that worked with me, and we just started from like, ‘these are the four characters, this is what I think they do, these are some assumptions I’ve made.’ So she went away and met with FBI people, and looked into it. Where do these people live? What do they do? We had a lot of questions early on.”
Telling Lies’ mechanics made it essential to have a script in mind well in advance. The player uncovers the story in a nonlinear fashion, by delving through a stolen NSA hard drive by searching for keywords found in the game’s dialogue. Therefore, it was important that Barlow knew just how easy or difficult it was for players to find each individual scene.
“We have a horrific process where the whole script gets sucked into the computer, which calculates how connected everything is. So I’ll then get a report spat back at me saying like ‘scene 56 is really hard to find, because there’s nothing very unique in this scene. It’s gonna be really hard for players to find,’ and you go ‘okay, well that’s bad.’”
“So then I go in and look at it and I can see no-one’s saying anything interesting. For instance, let’s just say this was a Star Wars game and they are talking about the Death Star. But this isn’t working, because enough people have said ‘Death Star’ earlier in the story. So I’ll go in and look at every earlier instance of Death Star and be like, actually, we don’t need to talk about the Death Star in this scene, we can just infer, or refer to it with a different word. It very much becomes an iterative, sculptural thing where I’ll just keep tweaking the script, rerunning the computer, come back and say, ‘okay, now scene 72 is harder to find.’”
Of course, with a game like Telling Lies, it’s not enough to just write it and jump straight into production. Since he’d be working with live actors instead of polygons, he had to be sure that the script was ready to shoot before he could begin with casting.
“The next bit was weird for me, it’s not efficient as far as games go. When you schedule out a game you say ‘we’re going to start here and we gotta finish here.’ And once you’re up and running, you kind of just keep working until it’s finished. But with this, we got to the point where we were happy with the script, we then had to do a test. Because obviously, when you commit to filming something like this, you can’t go back and tweak something without it being hugely expensive. So to make sure this thing actually worked, we did some read throughs of the story and filmed it. Very crude, placeholder footage, a lot of it involving me – I was playing Logan [Marshall-Green]’s character. I was also playing some of the other characters – the mother in law was me in a yellow scarf, which was fun.
“Then we did a series of focus groups where people played essentially the whole game, but looking very unfinished and with all this footage that was in no way representative of the final experience, but at least kind of mapped out ‘this is what the game’s gonna be.’ We did a couple of tests, made a few tweaks and had the thing where we’re like ‘okay, this seems to work.’ Then you have the bit where going into the whole casting process is essentially a tools down moment.
“It’s like ‘right, we’re going to send the script to this actor and we’re going to wait for them to read it and get back,’ and you can only send it to one after another because that’s the etiquette of dealing with talent. So there was a period of time that was just casting. It’s this horrible jigsaw of well, ‘so and so is happy to play this character but they’re only available this month,’ and trying to wrangle that is a whole video game in itself.”
While voice acting and motion-capture in games has attracted high-level talent over the years, casting professional actors to perform in a video game can still be something of a tall order. While the industry has certainly gained a lot more respect in the public consciousness over the years, actors are rarely looking at video games as their next big chance.
“If you go to an agent and say, I would like to cast your actor in a video game, the immediate response is either ‘no’ or, ‘how much are you going to pay?’” Barlow notes. “So if you want Jon Snow to be in Call of Duty, and you’re willing to give them the money, that’s essentially marketing money really, because you want to do a big song and dance about this person being in your game. They very much still see it as a spin off work, merchandise work. It’s the same as doing an advert or something. It’s like, this is not going to further their career, they’re not going to win an Oscar for this. So you do have that challenge.
“Luckily, we had Annapurna backing the game, who has a film side and is known for doing very good movies. It creates a focus that meant that we could, at least, get to the point where we could say ‘look, this is an Annapurna thing, take a look at the script.’ That would then leave the door open. And we would send the script and I’d hear back, where the actor’s like ‘I started reading it at 8PM and it’s past midnight, and I’m still reading the script. So I decided to come talk to you.’ So that really helped, once we had an actor reading a script, and they’re like: ‘Oh, hang on a minute. This is clearly not a typical video game.’
“As well as that, I think one of the bible docs that we shared said that the story doesn’t necessarily have a single protagonist, there are these four characters and they all have a whole story’s worth of stuff. And if you’ve been in a movie and you’ve been cast as the wife of the main character, you’re getting like two scenes or something. So I think when they actually got the scripts in their hands, they’re like, ‘oh shit, no, there is a 100 pages of stuff for my character to do.’ So then you meet with the actors and see if you have a rapport. I think any actor that I was in a room speaking to had kind of pre-selected themselves, because they’ve read this huge-ass script and seen just how much was involved and had an understanding of what we were going to do to shoot it, so if they were still interested, then they were clearly in it for the right reasons: to come and do something a little bit different.”
IF YOU HAD ONE SHOT
A little bit different is putting it mildly. Not only is the production process of a game like Telling Lies alien to typical game development, it’s also radically different to how a normal film shoot would go. Since the story is told by the player viewing one half of a Skype conversation, both sides of the call had to be filmed in a single shot.
“Everything that’s in the game is essentially a one shot” says Barlow. “So if you have a 12 minute scene, you are going to shoot for 12 minutes non-stop. And if something goes wrong, if a plane flies overhead, or someone forgets a line or trips up, then you have to stop and go back to the start again. So that is a huge demand on the actors – there are some very famous actors who cannot remember more than a page’s worth of dialogue and will just deliver a line at a time, and it’ll be fixed in the editing room.
“I felt it was important to be able to watch someone’s face while they’re listening to someone else talk at them. There’s something intimate and interesting about these conversations, so it was important that we actually shoot people talking to each other.
“So if you see Logan talking to Kerry [Bishé], Logan is on location in his place and Kerry’s on her own location, we’d have two separate mini teams. And they’d be speaking to each other over our version of FaceTime where they would have a little monitor and they would have this camera rig they’d be holding, and we would run everything simultaneously. And we would have to keep running the scene until we got a good one all the way through.
“Nobody shoots like that. That’s not how you shoot a movie or a TV show. So everyone was out of their comfort zone. Because this meant that when we called action, we had to clear the set, to essentially have 360 degrees. Because if the actor’s moving around in the space and is holding the camera, you can’t see lighting crew, you can’t have big, obvious lights that are actually physically in the space. But the cool thing was, if you were shooting this as a movie, you would have tonnes of different camera setups, you’d be spending a whole day and shooting a single scene, all the different angles. The actors wouldn’t necessarily be speaking to each other, right? They’d have stand ins and stuff. Whereas here, if we got all the way through a 10 minute scene and got something beautiful, we were done with that scene and we could move on, and suddenly you’ve shot 10 minutes of footage, which is a pretty large amount of footage to grab in one go. So it was a very different way to work, but once we kind of hit our rhythm it was a cool way to shoot.”
To add an extra layer of complication, the importance of the player being able to search for clips via keywords meant that the actors had little room for ad-libbing. So not only was the cast required to remember large sections of their lines at once, they had to remember them exactly.
“On a film set, you have a script supervisor. On a normal shoot, their job is to worry about continuity, and just kind of keep track of the complexity of the story you’re shooting. When you’re shooting it out of order in bits and pieces, the script supervisor will be the one to go ‘hang on a minute. We’re shooting this scene but didn’t she have her scarf on before?’ They kind of track all of that stuff. With this one, we had a little program where as she’s watching it, if an actor is supposed to say ‘I would like a ham sandwich today’, and instead they say, ‘I would like sandwich today’ instantly she could check to see if they had just ruined things – like, is the word ‘ham’ in any way a useful thing within the scene? And if it was, we would have to reshoot it.”
THE ART OF SWEARING
“The thing that I think that was the hardest was if an actor added a word. Especially swear words, because they are particularly emotive, I think when someone curses it’s usually coded to character. So certain characters get certain swear words.
“Kerry gets more scatological stuff, she gets all the shits and craps, and I think Alex [Shipp]’s character gets all the fucks. It drove Kerry wild that she couldn’t say fuck. There’s a scene where she says screw and she was like ‘ugh, I would rather say fuck than screw,’ and she just can’t. When you’ve got an actor in a scene and they’re emotional, they might throw in an extra swear word. They would just naturally do that, even if they’re hitting 99% of the script as written. And the script team would be quickly looking and be like, ‘oh shit, the fact that you just adlibbed a couple of curse words means that you’ve just made the scene that follows this one doubly hard to find so sorry, we’re gonna have to go again.’
“We’d get like a beautiful take of a whole scene. And you’d be like, ‘sorry guys, you’re gonna have to go again, because one of you said a word that you shouldn’t have said.’ Every now and then I would cheat, and I would use that as an excuse for an extra take. But I didn’t use that too often!”
But that challenging production looks worthwhile now, with Barlow proud of what the team put together.
“It seems to be doing well! My biggest concern was while, on paper, the differences between Her Story and Telling Lies seem like little tweaks, the impact they have on the overall experience is huge. My question was: ‘are people going to be okay with this being different?’ My touchstones were things like True Detective season two, Serial season 2, The Killing season two – these shows that were huge hits, and for their second season, they mixed up genre or tone in a way that really pissed people off. But I think that’s gone pretty well, there’s a good balance of people prefer one or the other. They generally feel strongly about that opinion, and I think it’s a good sign.”
And with Barlow already planning his third title in the same vein, one that promises to return to his gothic horror roots, we expect there’ll soon be a third camp of opinion to add to those two.