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People of the Year 2019: Sam Barlow

We speak to the Telling Lies director about showcasing the true potential of interactive narrative in video games

Following the seminal Her Story was never going to be an easy task, yet Sam Barlow undeniably rose to that challenge this year with Telling Lies.

Barlow expanded his scope from one character to four (plus the various people they interact with), from a single location to multiple, improved on the search mechanics, and delivered something that aims -- and succeeds -- at being more than just Her Story 2.

While not one of 2019's biggest sellers -- "It hasn't sold 400 million copies, but that was never our [expectation]," Barlow tells us -- it garnered the same critical acclaim as its forebear, earning a Metacritic of 87 on iOS, 84 on PC (not far short of Her Story's 91 on iOS, 86 on PC).

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Sam Barlow

The reception was certainly a relief for the director. "My biggest fear with Telling Lies was that people would be super upset by the differences that, on paper, look quite small but are pretty big. That was the biggest question: will people embrace this? I think we did a pretty good job there."

He continues: "I wasn't sure if the extent to which the game tackles themes that touch on politics would be a huge deal or not, but that seems to not have been the thing that people pick up on the most. It's probably more of a big deal to say a game doesn't have politics in it.

"The most controversial aspect of the game was the fact that the conversations are split so you only see one side of the conversation. I was still getting questions about that quite late in the process. But it's been very gratifying to see people respond to that and call out that it worked for them and drew them in."

Therein lies the appeal: it unleashes the player's inner detective by challenging them to work out the connections between characters. Of the four people that appear after the player-character's first search -- the only moment the game guides you -- one, a sex worker, seems out of place in the early hours (at least, following the threads that I did). But eventually, you stumble upon her again and realise who she was talking to in that initial conversation, opening a whole new relationship for you to explore.

With such a complex story, and such a disconnect between the two halves of each conversation (they rarely appear in the same search results), Barlow recognises that Telling Lies is "forcing the audience to work harder" than in Her Story, but the counteraction to this is "there is no gating in the game."

"People call these things interactive movies and we can't really avoid that tag, but a movie is very carefully controlled and everything is spelled out for you. This is in many ways the opposite"

"The game goes out of its way to give you an abundance of content, and if you're following down one thread and that's not going somewhere, you can jump into something else," he says.

It's hard to explain the full scope of the story without spoilers. The events appear to centre around one man and his struggle to balance the job he has to do and the various relationships around it. While the job is arguably the core of the story, the relationships can take you on such tangents that side plots and other threats soon emerge from them.

In this way, Barlow proves with Telling Lies -- even more than with Her Story -- how truly interactive video game narratives can be.

In most other games, this typically equates to branching narrative; players can choose a variety of paths, but the events they experience still occur in a linear order -- beginning, middle and end. With Telling Lies, you can discover the end before you've seen the crux of the middle or even fully understood the beginning. And the order in which you learn about these events is unique to the player, based on their self-directed searches.

It's a form of storytelling that cannot be replicated by any other medium than video games. Film, TV and books can use flashbacks (or flashforwards) to add context at appropriate points, but this is still directed by the creator. Even choose-your-own adventure books only allow readers to veer off down the branches the author has set for them.

So while some may describe Telling Lies, Bandersnatch and other (seemingly) similar outings as 'interactive movies,' Barlow is very clear on the distinction -- going as far as to describe his games as "anti-movies."

For Telling Lies, Barlow added more interactivity for the videos so players can scrub back and forth - and even search by highlighting words in the captions

For Telling Lies, Barlow added more interactivity for the videos so players can scrub back and forth - and even search by highlighting words in the captions

"People call these things interactive movies and we can't really avoid that tag, but a movie is... very carefully controlled and everything is spelled out for you," he says. "This is in many ways the opposite. As much as it uses film footage, you are the one that is making those jumps, you're making the connections. The nearest thing is it has a novelistic feel -- as much as a book is linear, the way you read it and pace it yourself, and the extent to which you're thinking outside of the page... it's kind of closer to that."

He adds that the structure of his games also works well for audiences at this time because we're "so used to thinking in such a hypertextual way." Who hasn't checked a detail via Wikipedia or watched something pertinent on YouTube, but then become lost in a never-ending maze of related links that take you far beyond the original subject matter?

"When you need to feel emotion, there'll be a CGI tear on a beautifully photoscanned 3D face. They shouldn't have to put the tear there to tell me I should be feeling something"

"We know that impulse is being used in a very negative way," Barlow notes. "The ability to take people's curiosity and take them down these ever-scrolling funnels of content and jump them around the internet is super compelling and addictive. For me, when you can take that impulse and contain it within a single story, within this big fictional construct, that's very exciting."

Not only is Barlow pushing the boundaries of storytelling in video games, he's also one of the few further exploring how live-action footage can be used. All three of his most recent projects -- Telling Lies, Her Story and interactive web series #WarGames -- use real actors, but is this vital to his unique game structure? Or could we perhaps see him attempt a Telling Lies-scale story with Death Stranding-style digital celebrities?

Barlow reminds us that the reason Her Story even used live-action is because the idea stemmed from police interview tapes he watched for research. He had been working on four or five horror ideas for a walking simulator-style game, but struggled to come up with a justification for the lack of other characters. Her Story's single-character story solved that, and now he's past the point of no return.

"At this point, I've really gotten into working with actors," he says. "Telling a character-driven story needs characters, and actors bring those characters to life in ways that you can't otherwise [achieve]."

He continues: "I feel spoilt now, having done a few things in live action, and I've thought about doing a few real-time CGI type things, but it feels like it would be a struggle to go back to that. Having one foot in the film world and one foot in the game world, I'm not playing games as intensely as I was. Every now and then, I'll pull up the latest AAA game, whether that's Death Stranding or whatever, and I always struggle with the CGI characters now.

One character may seem out of place to players at first, but by digging deeper they can find new connections between her and the rest of the story

One character may seem out of place to players at first, but by digging deeper they can find new connections between her and the rest of the story

"There have been a few games I've played this year where there will be important cutscenes with a close-up on the character's face, and it will be a beautifully photoscanned 3D face, and at the point when you need to feel emotion, there'll be a CGI tear. I always feel like it would be nice if they didn't have to put the CGI tear in there to tell me I should be feeling something."

He also points to his position as an indie developer, where taking the time to shoot something (his team actually rented out a small compound of houses and other buildings that could serve as several locations) is "far more sensible a proposition than CGI-ing it or mocapping Norman Reedus."

"The most interesting thing that it makes you think about is where the important interactivity is happening," Barlow continues. "The reason games use CGI cutscenes is because they want to flow seamlessly between the cutscene and the gameplay, but there's probably no better example of the inelegance of that than perhaps Death Stranding, where you sit through two hours of cutscenes and then it cuts to gameplay -- which is my physics-modelled character wobbling around a giant landscape doing very pure gameplay stuff."

With Telling Lies finally released, Barlow is now focusing on his next project -- expected to be along the same lines as this year's title and Her Story. Hopefully, the acclaim that both games received encourage more developers to explore the true potential of interactive storytelling, breaking away from branches and giving players full control over how the story emerges.

In the meantime, Barlow is coming to terms with how working on such an ambitiously interactive project may have ruined his ability to enjoy linear entertainment.

"It's funny because, having worked on it for a couple of years, I'm slightly broken now," he says. "I will find myself watching a show and I'll want to dig into something that's just happened, or I'll want to jump around to other events."

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