Evoking video games will summon different images with different people. For three quarters of occasional or regular players, specific moments and games will come back to mind. As for non-players, the rather less flattering images portrayed by the media will come to mind.
The video game’s Epinal print remains to this day that of a game in which players run around everywhere and shoot anything and everything that moves. It’s a high-energy and addictive game in which reflexes are often more important than reflection.
However, there are today all sorts of works that have nothing to do with the traditional video game stereotype. Take, for example, the works of creators the likes of Sam Barlow, who defines himself as belonging to a “hybrid space that is between film and television and video games”.
We had the opportunity to have a discussion with him during the last Tomorrow’s Stories Festival in Toulouse, France. He presented his most recent project, Telling Lies, at the venue.
From a major franchise to the indie games
Sam Barlow ended up in the video game world somewhat by chance and learned the ropes as a video game designer before becoming “head designer”, the video gaming equivalent of an audiovisual director. One thing led to another and he ended up working on two opuses of the Silent Hill horror franchise.
“At the time, it was among two or three video games series where you could tell an interesting story that wasn’t space marines shooting aliens.”
There are fewer and fewer venues where narrative freedom remains possible. “As the industry grew, it became harder to tell interesting stories in big-budget video games.” Sam Barlow then made the radical decision to leave the studio world and enter the indie world.
In 2015, he signed a first highly remarked personal work titled Her Story. It’s an experience that gives you the opportunity to view excerpts of the interrogation of a woman suspected of having killed her husband.
In Her Story, you are placed in front of a rather austere computer interface. You can type in keywords that will redirect you to video excerpts. For example, if you type “murder”, excerpts in which a character pronounces the word will appear.
There is no guide to help you out, and you must first get lost in this somewhat of a catch-all index. Little by little, a clearer picture of the reality emerges. You need to demonstrate patience, deduction and imagination, but you’ll end up having the last word.
More than 100,000 copies of Her Story have been sold. Many rewards and four years later, Sam Barlow presents Telling Lies as the worthy successor of his first game.
Telling Lies has nothing to do with murder. The game focuses on the private conversations between four characters whose lives revolve around a secret that is heavy to bear.
Once again, Sam Barlow chose to resort to the computer interface and keyword search. Your virtual computer’s hard drive houses more than ten hours’ worth of these hacked video calls.
You enter their intimacy and more or less secret affairs and, a few hours later, are entitled to the conclusion for which you have been searching for a long time.
The story is the priority
In both Her Story and Telling Lies, it is clear that Sam Barlow’s priority is to take on the role of a storyteller. The story is far from a simple artifice in his games; it is the core focus that the game’s mechanics then transcend.
“I made these games because I felt that the types of stories, types of characters and types of experiences we were telling were very narrow. The larger video games are all power fantasies for teenagers. And that’s a narrow set of stories. We need to increasingly explore stories and characters that are more complicated, interesting and representative. And figure out different ways of interaction that does not only involve action and jumping around, shooting things.”
Such as to feed the narrative universe of Telling Lies, Sam takes his inspiration from two news events. One of these events is global in nature: the revelations in the Snowden Affair and the wire tapping by American secret services. The other event is of a national nature: the British government spied for two years on all of the conversations of its citizens using Yahoo’s Video Chat service.
Gradually, the game’s story and device are refined in that sense: Telling Lies proposes that you intrude into the characters’ intimacy and spy on them to get to understand them.
To make his visual universe realistic, Sam Barlow decides to create what he calls an “anti-movie”. The conversations are punctuated by hellos and goodbyes, moments of silence, hesitations, the unexpected appearance of a cat that disrupts the discussion… and everything that gives our video exchanges their specificity. Where a traditional film would limit a conversation to its essential moments, Barlow wanted “to give these sequences a texture that was very human and very natural. We were trying to do as many things as possible that you wouldn’t see in a movie.”
Each video–the longest of which lasts 14 minutes–is therefore filmed in a single take. No cuts, no artifices. When the character is not talking, you are looking at him or her react to his or her interlocutor’s words… Like in real life!
Making an intimate object out of an austere interface
But why does Sam Barlow get so much enjoyment out of incorporating false computer interfaces in his games? The question conjures up old memories for him: “I did it as well in a sequence in Silent Hill, where you’re in an abandoned high school looking for the character’s daughter. And you log in the principal’s computer to try and find information. You’d have to guess the password of the principal from items in his office.
There was something really nice in taking something as boring and devoid of emotions as a computer desktop and using that to tell a human story.”
OK, it’s nice but it’s also intuitive seeing as interfaces have become extremely familiar to us. They accompany us in our daily work and private lives. “Whatever traumatic or wonderful thing happened in my life, there is probably a record of it on my phone.” It is therefore perfectly realistic to see the four characters exchange personal and secret words as they converse online…
There is something exhilarating—that, however, comes with its share of guilt—about being able to explore their intimacy that way, all the more so given the initial mystery is dense and difficult to decipher. However, little by little, the contours of the story and the characters take shape.
The game is demanding yet rewards your self-sacrifice. “The theory that Her Story and Telling Lies are putting out is that the audience is very, very clever.” Sam Barlow refuses to do the work for you in advance or to guide you exaggeratedly through the game. You must track your own course and find your way in this haphazard repertoire of private videos.
“I spent a lot of time in video games where people think the audience is stupid. People like to be challenged. The brain releases pleasure hormones when it learns something. If you give them a story experience that tells them ‘you’re going to have to try a little harder here, to try and figure out yourself’, I think that people respond to it.”
From concept to materialization
“I don’t miss the way large video games are made. It’s very chaotic, they’re made in the wrong order. The last big game I worked on [before going indie], people were already designing levels, animating characters whilst the writers and I were still writing the story..!”
Since then, Sam Barlow offers himself a luxury that gives him full satisfaction: he spends a lot of time researching and laying his story down on paper. With the help of an investigator, a co-author and a larger technical and production team, Sam is able to push his concept even further.
The four protagonists’ narrative arks and their interactions took six months of intensive research to develop. And the script must take into account a significant constraint: each scene must take on the form of a video conversation between the characters.
“Since the player can jump into this story at any point, you have to make sure that each little moment is interesting in itself. It’s just good writing anyway. Is everything that we’re writing in some way speaking to the bigger question. Or is it interesting texture?”
Until now, there is not much different from the film scriptwriting process… Then comes the first testing phase where the script is entered into a program that will analyze the words used in each reply.
“The words are essentially the map of our game.” Indeed, seeing as the final navigation will be done on a keyword basis, they need to be properly used in the script.
The keywords must appear at the right moments and be repeated just enough but not too much. The program developed by Sam makes it possible to strike the right semantic balance for his script.
After a few adjustments, an initial light shooting is organized and the testers are invited to play a summary yet functional version of the game. The game’s level of difficulty is adjusted according to their feedback.
Follows a full-blown shooting over the space of five weeks to produce over one hundred hours of content. Whereas a traditional film shoot would generate approximately three minutes per day, the Telling Lies team produced twenty minutes per day!
To achieve that, all of the scenery was built on a single vast compound. Three apartments, two detached homes and a store. “We would have a small crew over here in a family home and the actor there would be speaking to another in an apartment over there.”
In front of them, the actors have a device that allows them to see the characters they are conversing with and truly play the scene as if it was a discussion. To preserve the realism of these video discussions, each scene is shot in a single sequence.
An additional complication is that no improvising is allowed when it comes to the script. Adding unplanned words can totally disrupt the semantic balance that Sam was speaking of previously. Under such conditions, producing 100 minutes of content in so little time is quite an accomplishment! In the end, you’ll find approximately ten hours of this content in the game Telling Lies.
To be or not to be a game?
Most video games that do not meet the genre’s main criteria are often accused of not being “real” video games. It’s a debate that Sam Barlow is not really interested in, but just the fact that it exists is proof that opuses like Telling Lies disrupt expectations and force us to reflect on the place of interaction and storytelling in the gaming world.
Were he to reply to the so-called video game purists, Sam would insist on the very interactive nature of his creations. “You can play a very video-gamy game like Call of Duty in which the game is designed as essentially a corridor. The bad guys will jump out at the right time, and then they’ll help shoot the bad guy because they want you to have an enjoyable experience.
And everyone that plays Call of Duty has pretty much the same experience. However, Telling Lies is intensely interactive. You always have your fingers on the keyboard, you’re always doing something. There is a challenge in playing these games because you have to pay attention, you have to understand characters and figure things out. For me, it’s more involving than some of the more traditional video games.”