After playing this Xbox Game Pass game, I hope no one reads my notebook

I hope no one reads my notebook. Words like ‘bleed out’, ‘kinky’, and ‘meemaw’ litter its pages, with devil-scratched dates and times alongside them: I wouldn’t want anyone to take me for a serial killer.

I’ve not been plotting anything sinister, honest. I’ve simply been playing one of the best games to hit Xbox Game Pass: Telling Lies.

I’m ashamed to admit that when Sam Barlow’s Telling Lies was released back in 2019, I slept on it, despite the fantastic reviews it received. I’ve always had an aversion to FMVs, thinking them outdated and as something that should remain firmly in the ‘80s. But Telling Lies has converted me. 

Gripping from start to finish, Barlow’s detective thriller taps into our natural curiosity and is a must-play for anyone with (or without) an Xbox Game Pass subscription ahead of the developer’s new game, Immortality, later this year.

Tapping into our curiosity

Telling Lies pits you as an investigator watching through archived video calls between four people to get to the bottom of a plot. You use a database to search through the footage by entering keywords – if a word appears in any of the archived footage it appears as a short clip for you to watch. You use what you see and hear in the conversations between these characters to guess at keywords to enter into the archive. As you watch more videos and enter more words, the story begins to unfold  –  as do its many twists and turns.

Watching the videos feels intrusive, you’re a stranger invading private moments between couples, friends, and families. It’s even more uncomfortable having spent two years relying on the likes of Zoom and Skype to keep in touch with my own inner circle. I don’t want to spoil any story beats for those who haven’t played Telling Lies, but as you go you’ll find that while most of the videos push the narrative forward, several don’t add anything to the plot and those are the moments that are the most uncomfortable: should I be watching a child sleep while her father tells her a story? Probably not. But I am. 

It reminded me of scenes in the Snowden movie depicting the NSA’s counter-terrorism monitoring: a screen full of private moments. It made me think about how I would feel if someone was watching back my many Google Meet and Zoom calls, they’d likely be bored but I would definitely feel invaded (and embarrassed). 

But while Telling Lies is uncomfortable, it’s not real, so you can make peace with peering into these people’s lives like they’re a tiger in a zoo. We're all nosey, at least to some degree, even if we don’t like to admit it. Maybe you want to know what your neighbors are arguing about, or you’ve looked up your friend’s new partner on Facebook – we're curious and we can't help that. Telling Lies taps into that curiosity, that need to know, and encourages it. After all, what you’re doing is for the greater good, right?

Freedom to snoop

Telling Lies desktop showing a database of videos

(Image credit: Annapurna Interactive)

What’s most gripping about Telling Lies is the freedom it gives you. The non-linear narrative means that it’s up to you to make the connections. As a journalist, I’m wired to note pretty much everything I can, which quickly became an issue as I noted down every word, date, and time I thought had relevance  –  the legibility of the notes becoming more questionable as evening turned into night.

Ultimately, it meant that when I reached a dead-end in my investigation, I had hundreds of words noted down to look up. Yet, still, there were connections I couldn’t make, videos I couldn’t find. I felt like a detective in an HBO series, draining a glass of wine as I flicked back and forth between pages and videos, trying to find the word I must have missed. And I never did find all the videos, despite picking through as much as I could, something that eats at me days later.

I’ve finished Telling Lies at the perfect time, as Sam Barlow recently revealed his next game, Immortality. Rather than searching with words, in Immortality, you use items within its video clips to jump between scenes, almost like a reinvented hidden object game. Perhaps, before taking a chance on Telling Lies, I would simply have ignored Barlow’s next foray next FMV project. Instead, I’m preparing a new notebook to be soiled.

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