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.
Long time readers will know that horror and I don’t really get along. As a genre I don’t find it particularly engaging although there have been several examples which have managed to break through my disdain. Still even those few examples haven’t been enough to change my base dislike of nearly everything that bears the horror tag. Indeed that’s the reason why I deliberately avoided Until Dawn for as long as I did and it was only after thumbing through numerous reviews of it did I change my mind. Whilst Until Dawn might not be the title that finally gets me to see the merits of the horror genre it is an exquisitely built game in its own right, one deserving of all the attention it has received.
It was just like any other winter getaway when eight close friends went to one of their parent’s mountain lodges for a weekend of partying. They were to spend the week revelling like all teenagers do, indulging in things that their parents would likely disapprove of. However their night quickly turns sinister as they are reminded of the tragic past that brought them here that seems to haunt them at every corner. Your decisions will guide them through this night and determine who makes it to the end and who meets their untimely demise at the horrors of the mountain.
Until Dawn makes good use of the grunt of the PlayStation4, bringing graphics that are far beyond anything that the previous generation of consoles was capable of. Whilst most of the time the graphics are hidden behind the dark horror movie aesthetic There are still numerous moments that allow you to appreciate the level of work that’s gone into crafting the visual aspects of the game. There are a few rough edges though with performance taking a dive regularly, especially in outdoor scenes or action heavy sequences. The game isn’t unplayable because of it however you can definitely tell that the priority was aesthetic over optimization, meaning a constant 30fps experience isn’t guaranteed. Considering this is Supermassive Game’s first PlayStation4 title I’m willing to give them a little leeway however I’d expect future titles to not make the same mistake.
In terms of game play Until Dawn is in the same league as other interactive fiction titles like Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls. For the most part you’ll be wandering around the mostly linear environment, looking at various objects and interacting with other characters to further the story. Until Dawn’s flagship feature is the “Butterfly Effect” system which chronicles most of your decisions which will have an impact on the story down the line. There’s also collectibles called Totems which when found show you a glimpse of a possible future event, allowing you to get some insight into how they might unfold. Finally for all the action parts of Until Dawn you’ll be using a pretty standard quick time events system. All in all at a mechanical level Until Dawn is pretty much what you’d expect when it comes to an interactive fiction game.
The walking around and looking at things part is mostly well done (with some issues I’ll discuss later) with interactive objects that are in your character’s field of view being highlighted by a small white glowing orb. This typically means that as long as you do a full 360 of a room you’re likely to find everything in it which is good as I can’t tell you how frustrating it is to try and figure out sometimes in games like this. Until Dawn does reward exploration, meaning that if you think you’re going down a non-obvious section chances are you’ll find something juicy at the end of it. Thankfully the walking speed can be sped up some as well, meaning you’re not going to double your play time just because you wanted to explore a little bit.
Whenever you perform an action or make a certain dialogue choice the screen will explode in a cascade of butterflies, indicating that your choice will impact on future events. This is a more extravagant version Telltale’s “X will remember that” feature with the added benefit that you can go back and review your choices at any point. Unlike most other games though, where decisions that will have major impacts on the story will usually be showcased as such, Until Dawn rarely makes such a distinction. If I’m honest I found that to be a little frustrating as it was hard to tell when what seemed like a minor decision actually had major consequences. In reality though that’s much closer to a real world experience so I can definitely appreciate it for that reason.
The quick time event system works as you’d expect it to, giving you a limited amount of time to respond by pressing the right button or moving the control stick in the right way. It’s broken up every so often by having you make decisions, like taking a safe route vs a quicker one or hiding vs running, which can have similar butterfly effect impacts as dialogue choices do. The one interesting differentiator that Until Dawn has is the “DON’T MOVE” sections which can actually be something of a challenge when your heart is racing and your hands are shaking the controls. So nothing revolutionary here, not that you’d really be expecting that from games in this genre.
Whilst Until Dawn does show an incredible amount of polish in most regards there’s still some rough edges in a few key areas. The collision detection is a bit iffy, being a little too wide at the character’s feet which makes you get stuck on objects that you’d think you could just walk past. This also extends to things your character holds like a burning torch which seem to lack collision detection, allowing you to put your character’s hand through walls. There’s also the performance issues which I noted previously which, whilst not degrading the game into a slideshow, are definitely noticeable. Still for a first crack at a game of this calibre it’s commendable that Supermassive Games was able to put out something with this level of polish, especially on a new platform for them.
Now being someone who’s avoided the horror genre it almost all its incarnations I don’t feel entirely qualified to give an objective view on how good the story is. Certainly it seems to share many of the tropes that you’d associate with a teen horror movie but whether they’re well executed or not is something I’ll have to leave up to the reader. To me it was a predictable narrative, one that attempted to use jump scares and triggered music to try and build tension. Whilst it didn’t bore me to sleep like so many horror movies have done I still wouldn’t recommend it on story alone.
Until Dawn is a great debut title for Supermassive Games on the PlayStation4 showing that Quantic Games isn’t the only developer who can create great interactive fiction. The graphics are what I’ve come to expect from current generation titles, making full use of the grunt available on the platform. Mechanically it plays as you’d expect with only a few rough edges in need of additional polish. The writer’s aversion to horror though means that the story didn’t strike much of a chord although it’s likely to delight horror fans the world over. In summation Until Dawn is a superbly executed game one that both horror fans and interactive fiction junkies can enjoy.
Until Dawn is available on PlayStation4 right now for $78. Total play time was approximately 7 hours.