Games that include full motion video are still an oddity with the video elements often feeling out of place in the game world. This has gotten better of time of course, with the games in the mixed-media genre (Quantum Break being the most recent example that comes to mind) combining elements in a way that highlights the best of both mediums. The newer genre of interactive fiction, which takes away most game elements in favour of a predominately FMV or cutscene based experience, has also started to find its feet over the past couple years. Her Story, which I unfortunately never got around to play (even though it was on my to review list), was widely acclaimed to be a standout example of that and so when I saw Telling Lies, done by the same developers, I figured that it’d be worth diving into this particular brand of interactive fiction. I have to admit that whilst it’s a novel way of telling a story there’s a lot of room for improvement in just the base story exploration mechanics which would make the whole experience just that much better.
Telling Lies puts you in charge of an unnamed person who’s gotten ahold of an intel dump relating to a particular case. What you’re given access to is a database of videos, each of them fully transcribed so that you can search for certain words and phrases to find new videos. These videos have mostly been captured from one side of the conversation, meaning you’re only going to hear what one person is saying at any given time. So in order to find all the videos you’re going to have to listen carefully for clues that will lead you to other snippets so you can piece together the multi-layered puzzle that has been laid out before you.
Since this is supposed to be a kind of “found footage” experience a lot of the visual aesthetic is grainy cell phone style videos with muted colours. This is part of the experience of course and there’s not a lot of room for creative cinematography when you’re supposed to be viewing video chats between two people or footage from a hidden camera. It’s quite obvious in some shots that the pictures aren’t coming from equipment that the characters in the game would have (the shot below being a good example of being far too wide for a standard laptop camera) but unless you’re a cinematography geek that’s not likely to impact on your experience. For what it seeks to recreate Telling Lies does a good job of giving you the feeling that you’re peering into parts of normal people’s lives, even if the drama has been amped up a bit for effect.
The searching interface you have to use is pretty basic, giving you a keyword search box, the ability to bookmark and a log of your search history and videos viewed. The search is artificially limited to 5 results which prevents you from using very broad terms like “the” or “hi” to get a long list of videos to chew through. Once you’ve picked up on a particular element it can be pretty easy to then follow it through for a fair while, utilising snippets from the conversation to branch out to other videos which, in turn, provide you even more search fodder.
The game does actually provide you a notepad to keep track of things but honestly I actually enjoyed keeping my own physical notes that I could flip through as I was playing. I’d keep track of people, key words and other interesting items as they cropped up, ticking them off as I ran a particular vein dry. This strategy got me through the bulk of the game, probably about 130 videos or so, before the clock got stuck at 4:45AM and I couldn’t find a way to progress further. If you happen to get to this point just know that you’re not doing anything wrong, it’s just that the game has a hard stop at a few points where the timer won’t progress until you find a specific video. For the first few stage gates finding them isn’t a problem but the last one can be a real pain in the ass to find if you don’t know what you’re looking for.
This also isn’t helped by the fact that the interface for watching videos is total ass. When you search for a video you’ll be taken to where in the video your search term appeared which could be anywhere in the timeline. If you’re like me (and most of the people on the Steam forum) you’ll want to go to the start of the video to watch it. You can do that but you’ll have to rewind the video like it’s a VHS tape in order to watch it all the way through. I’d hazard a guess I spent a good 2~3 hours just watching video rewind which honestly serves no purpose to the overall story.
There’s also a lot of videos that don’t have good keywords in them, meaning that to actually find them you’re going to rely on a hefty amount of guesswork in order to find them. For example in one video it’s clear that one character has made a comment like “You’re huge!” or “You look big!” but it’s actually nothing like that and the other keywords you might think will give you the other side of the conversation don’t work either. This starts to become quite a chore later in the game when you already have the overall narrative down and are just trying to get through to the end, ploughing through video after video just to move the time ahead.
Indeed this is the problem with games that present their narrative out of order like this as once you’ve got the general idea of what’s going on all the other scenes just end up feeling like filler. I stumbled across some very late in the timeline videos early on in the piece and so was pretty sure of what was going to happen after an hour or so. To be sure exploring some of the different character arcs was enjoyable but after a certain point I was done and just wanted the game to end. Thankfully the developers are pretty junior when it comes to actually structuring these games and all the videos in the game are helpfully available in a single folder in the game directory. So it was just a matter of cycling through those, finding the right keywords and watching the videos in game to finish it off.
As for the story itself? Certain aspects are done well, like giving each of the main characters enough screen time to truly develop them completely (if you invest the time to find the videos, of course). The choose your own path storytelling does mean that the pacing is all over the shop, some search queries leading to intriguing veins of information that keep you going down the rabbit hole for hours on end. Other times you just find video after video that reveals nothing new nor provides anything interesting to go on and you just feel bored with the whole experience. Honestly I’d love to see all the videos stitched together, both sides of the conversation included, in chronological order just to see how it’d stand up on its own. In this format it’s interesting but a bit all over the place. As a cohesively told narrative I feel like it’d probably be a lot more.
Telling Lies is an interesting piece of interactive fiction that’s predominately let down by its exploration mechanics and the inherent pacing issues with navigating your own path through a narrative. The team behind the creation of the videos, from the actors to the tech guys to the audio engineers, have all done well to create the experience in this way as I’m sure it was a real challenge to create and capture moments like this. It’s just a shame that the exploration isn’t a little more refined, needing a few touches and perhaps a few mechanics to push the story along when it’s clear that you’re not getting to the points that they want you to get to. I still think it’s worth playing but would love to see a few patches to really tighten up the rather mediocre mechanics.
Telling Lies is available on iOS and PC right now for $28.95. Game was played on the PC with a total of 8 hours playtime and 64% of the achievements unlocked.
Back in the day when computer graphics weren’t as capable as they are today the inclusion of full motion video was a pretty standard affair. As time went on it faded away and was mostly relegated to being a novelty for the few games that used it. The last few years have seen a resurgence of these mixed-media titles with some great examples like Quantum Break and The Late Shift showing what is possible when the line between games and movies begins to blur. Then you get the horrific messes like The Quiet Man which makes all the mistakes you could possibly think of when it comes to crossing media bounds; both in terms of how it tells a story from a cinematic perspective and how to deliver an actual, functional game.
I’m just thankful that no one but the most avid of game reviewers is likely to ever come across this.
There’s a plot in here somewhere however you’re not likely to understand what it is, I sure as shit don’t, because apart from a few breadcrumbs of dialogue at the start the game’s audio is all weird muffled sounds. Now this wouldn’t be an issue usually, I’ve played my fair share of games without a lick of dialogue, but the problem here is that much of the story is bound up in that dialogue. The game tells you at the start that subtitles will only appear for stuff you’re supposed to know but even that’s not consistent as you don’t even get subtitles when your own character is talking. So what you get is a bunch of FMV vignettes interspersed with short game play sections that appear to tell some kind of story but without any scraps of that dialogue making it through to you what you get is really a horrendously confused mess.
The Quiet Man has the audacity to bill itself as a game that(and I’m quoting from the Steam page here) “delivers an immersive story driven cinematic action experience seamlessly blending high-production live action, realistic CG and pulse-pounding action gameplay”. If you would care to cast your eyes down to the screenshot below you’ll see an example of their “realistic” CG which is honestly about 5 years behind what I’d consider passable for good graphics these days. Even worse than this is all the animations are horribly stiff and unrealistic, making the below par visuals stand out even more. Honestly I would’ve given them a pass on it if they hadn’t lauded it in their opening statement on the sale page but, come on guys, when you say realistic CG and then deliver this you deserve to get criticised for it.
Now mixed-media games, depending on how they blend the various elements together, aren’t renowned for having in depth game mechanics. Still that doesn’t usually matter as long as whatever is there is in aid of the story (since most games like this tend to be narrative-first) but The Quiet Man’s beat em up mechanic is simplistic, repetitive and worst of all terribly inconsistent. It definitely takes inspiration from other games like Batman: Arkham Asylum but it lacks any shred of refinement. There’s a bunch of fight mechanics in there that are available to you however the game never tells you how to use them, nor does it introduce challenges to you in such a way as to demonstrate how they should be used. The only way the challenge increases is that the game will throw more enemies at you in one go which just invites the already janky mechanics to start spazzing out with reckless abandon making even the simplest fight a real chore. Again I was almost willing to forgive this until the game threw about 10 fights in a row at me that were basically all the same and then the game crashed, forcing me to replay all of them again as it only checkpoints at the start of scenes.
All of this isn’t the game’s greatest sin however, that lies in the horrendous approach they took to building a story around the fact the main character is deaf. Instead of building a game (and the associated FMV sections) up from the point of view that your character can’t hear, making use of other storytelling mechanisms to convey its meaning across, they did the opposite. This means that they essentially finished a full game and move, sound design and all, then bastardised the thing into a muddled mess by removing a critical piece of the narrative structure. It wasn’t even done in a way that makes logical sense, I.E. I don’t understand when people sign at me nor do I even understand anything when the character I’m playing is speaking to others.
If this was some experimental, indie project it’d be one thing but this is Square Enix publishing something from Human Head Studios, you know the ones who gave us the original Prey. That means this entire experience, end to end, made it through various levels of testing and review before it was dumped on the market. How they didn’t pick up on the fact that this was such a hot mess is beyond me. Of course there’s a possibility that they did and just wanted to make whatever cash they could but honestly, the people involved in this should have known better. They had aspirations of doing something like Quantum Break but should have tilted much more towards something like Late Shift as the actual game components add absolutely nothing to the story at all.
The Quiet Man fails to achieve anything that it set out to do, instead providing a frustrating, confusing experience for those who’d dare give it the time of day. The approach and execution of the creative vision is completely backwards, failing to make a compelling narrative or a game with any merit. As a mixed media production this is probably as bad as I’ve ever seen as even the games of yesteryear, with their cheesey overacting and extraordinarily poor writing, still at the very least had a kind of kitschy appeal to them. The Quiet Man lacks any of this and should serve as a black mark against the companies published it. To those who worked on these titles I’m so sorry this happened to you, I know marketing and publishing are likely the cause for this trainwreck (and not your skill as a developer), but that still doesn’t mean that the sins that The Quiet Man commits can be forgiven.
The Quiet Man is available on PC and PlayStation 4 right now for $17.99. Game was played on the PC with a total of 3 hours play time and 77% of the achievements unlocked.