Interview: Sam Barlow Talks TELLING LIES and the Future of Interactive Movies
Sam Barlow is a writer and game designer perhaps best known for his interactive movie Her Story, a murder mystery told entirely through police interrogation clips that was released in 2015. In it, viewers investigate a crime by searching and sorting through a database of videos, trying to piece together what happened and why.
Her Story's dark, fragmented narrative proved to be an instant success for Barlow, receiving rave reviews and selling hundreds of thousands of copies almost overnight. Four years later, Barlow is set to release his next interactive opus, Telling Lies, a far more expansive movie game produced in partnership with Annapurna Interactive, the games imprint of Annapurna Films, known for producing some of Hollywood's biggest indies.
And like Her Story, Telling Lies once again straddles the line between film and video game with an A-list cast including Logan Marshall-Green (Prometheus), Alexandra Shipp (X-Men: Apocalypse), Kerry Bishé (The Romanoffs), and Angela Sarafyan (Westworld).
Once you download Telling Lies (available soon on Steam) onto your device of choice, you become the owner of a stolen National Security Agency hard drive. From there, a search engine becomes your controller and you surf through more than nine hours of footage and clues.
To get to the bottom of what Telling Lies is all about and what the future of interactive movies looks like, I got Sam Barlow on the phone as he walked through the streets of Brooklyn to pick up his kids one afternoon last week.
ScreenAnarchy: How did you come to work with Annapurna Interactive?
Sam Barlow: After Her Story came out, I did a lot of water bottle tours in Hollywood, general meeting where you just basically chat. This is what happens when you make something that has a degree of notoriety. I remember speaking with Annapurna then, but it was early days. They had only starting to consider setting up a games studio of some kind and I remember filing it away as something cool that happened, but not so much an opportunity.
It was later, when I started putting together the idea of what Telling Lies became, that my agent suggested reaching back out to them because by then they had started working on a host of cool projects with some great people and it made more sense because I was looking to expand on what Her Story did in terms of bridging the two worlds - film and games.
They're most known for producing Hollywood movies.
That's right. And you know, the thing with Annapurna is they're are not as mercenary as other studios. They are not looking to exploit new voices. They genuinely want to find people who are doing something new and bring them on to make their next thing with them in a way that helps the project shine.
Their experience with movies also meant that they helped with development a lot. It was the first time I got notes that were helpful where you go, "Oh I really want to dig into this aspect of the story. Go deeper." We had researchers, and brought in writers to help. They had resources. It was all very useful and made the project better.
And, of course, Annapurna has access to high profile talent like Logan Marshall-Green and the rest of your cast. Was it challenging to get actors to commit to a unique project like this? Usually actors want to read a script. Without a traditional screenplay, how did you explain what TELLING LIES was?
Well we did have a script, but the main problem was it was way longer than a traditional movie script. And it got to the point where I was advised that no matter how much the project was sold to agents, they just wouldn't accept a script that was like 300 pages long. They're not going to read it and they're not going to pass it along to an actor.
Generally when you speak to an actor's agent and ask for their talent to work on your video game you get one of two answers: they're not interested in doing video game work, or "Happy to do that if there's five million dollars for a day's work."
But with Annapurna's reputation, we were able to pass it on and get actors to look at the script. And actually, once the script was in front of people it was pretty straightforward in that when they started to read it they would stay up all night. And even if they weren't entirely sure how it was all going to work, they responded to the story.
Did anyone have any concerns about who was "the lead", or anything like that?
That's interesting, because one of the things about Telling Lies that make it so interesting is that we have four characters and depending on how you play it, so to speak, each can feel like the lead. So you really don't have the sense that, "this is the lead role, and these are the B characters who support them."
So each actor got to read what was essentially a feature length script for their own character which meant everyone had an interesting character with lots of stuff to dig into.
What about filming? Was anyone worried about what production would be like?
Once we started discussing how we were actually going to film this thing, then the actors became doubly interested. Actors are always looking for roles and productions that are going to give them interesting challenges.
Once they realized we would be shooting every scene as a single take, I think they were intrigued by that. Because all the scenes are conversations are over the internet we actually shot each one in two locations simultaneously so the actors would actually be able to react to each other and develop rapport in a natural way. So, for them, it was like doing theatre without having to pack up their whole lives and move to New York for six months for a stage production.
Her Story was a murder mystery, but you've been pretty mum on the story of TELLING LIES. What can you tell us about the narrative thrust of your new project?
It's hard! Thinking back on Her Story, you're right, I didn't need to tell people much about it because it had a clear true crime hook and a central mystery: You're the detective. But the thing that was most interesting about it was that once people played it, they solved it fairly quickly. They knew who did what to whom, but then the central concern became why did they do it. From there it became very much a character study.
In that sense Telling Lies is the same. It's a political thriller. I like to say it's Francis Ford Copolla's The Conversation meets Stephen Sodoberg's Sex, Lies and Videotape. The scope is bigger, very much an intersection between government, law enforcement, politics and the erosion of privacy in the digital age. And amidst all that there are these relationships between four characters.
Netlifx, YouTube, Amazon, Eko and more have announced interactive programming to come. What could hold interactive fiction back from going mainstream at this point?
There are going to be two or three big challenges. First, writing these things is a hell of a task. There's been 20 or 30 years of non-video interactive fiction where talented people have solved some big challenges, but there are still many that go unsolved for video. What is the point of view of the player? Who is the protagonist and what is the relationship between the player and the protagonist?
We have some decent answers to some of the questions but others persist like, How much agency can you have? Does the story truly change?
How we pitch interactive fiction is a huge problem. It's usually: anything can happen! You control the story! And then you have people like Roger Ebert saying, "Well that doesn't sound like art to me."
Everyone who works in this field knows the truth, which is that most of these stories do not massively branch. And those that do massively branch do not feel satisfying because they feel like some weird form of improve. Our world, and stories are more constrained. We know that, but that isn't always a good pitch.
And they demand work on the part of the viewer.
Especially if your IF story involves any kind of skill, many people are put off. They hate feeling like they did something wrong, could do something wrong, messed up in some way. Some people suffer from choice paralysis.
Her Story overcame this because the idea of work was baked into the premise. People understand the idea of a cold case. Going through a police database, you get that there is some legwork involved. So it didn't put off mainstream audiences in a way that a different concept might.
In a way, for interactive fiction to succeed there needs to be some education about what it is.
Educate the audience, or the creators?
Well, look, I've just been playing Heaven's Vault. It's ridiculously ambitious and clever in how it molds the story around your choices. But many reviewers and players have been struggling because they've been playing it like a traditional game. They want to second guess the choices, exhaust all the choices, but what's beautiful about it is you can relax. You're not going to see everything. The choices are not rigidly defined, which makes it a much more organic experience. And so Inkle (the developers) has this task now to educate their audience about how it works.
Even with Telling Lies and Her Story, they're often referred to as choose your own adventures. They're not choose your own adventures. But whenever you have a story that is interactive, that's always the go-to. Interactive fiction doesn't have to be high pressure like a video game.
Now, in terms of educating creators, what I see happening right now is traditional screenwriters will bring in video game writers to do a polish on a concept or story that isn't inherently interactive. You can't force one into the other.
That's going to be a cultural shift: Finding the right people to write interactive programming.
So, why make your life so complicated? Why not just make a linear, narrative feature film?
Good question. When Her Story became successful, I had opportunities to go and do more conventional things. And every crew I've worked with has said, "This is so much fun, but it's so hard! Let's just go an do a feature."
So I've been in that position, but this is the thing I want to do. And part of that is driven by a business sense. Many people working in film know what their biggest competitor is Fortnite. Everything's changed for film and TV. People are spending hours and hours on social media, not in front of programming. So there is this panic that I see.
People see there is a demand for something that's more interactive. I mean, even if you look at the conversation around traditional media, the extent to which reddit and recap culture has fundamentally changed the way we interact with TV shows. They want to shape it for themselves. I
It's almost like Reddit detectives have gamified weekly TV.
I remember True Detective came out around the same time as Her Story. And it really took on a life of its own on Reddit. The buzz one hundred percent came from the people who were digging into all the details. And this was great. What wasn't great, was as the show went on, those people got further and further away where the show was going. The same thing happened with LOST where it embraced an interactive component. If you think about it, in some fundamental way, these shows were unable to live up to their promise.
Perhaps that comes from a limitation of the medium. When you come from the games world, you're always thinking about the motivation of the person sitting in front of the screen, how they will interact with it.
Your audience will inevitably feel ownership. How can we give it to them? If they dig, shouldn't there be something there for them to find? So, going back to your question about why make interactive films, they seems particularly relevant to where we are.
Do you like the found footage genre? Whenever I watch one I wonder who the editor is. Who found this footage and had to edit it all into a story? That's kind of the position you're putting your viewers in. Having to sit down with all this footage and piece it together.
Found footage is interesting for coming out the horror genre. In video games, horror is the only genre where you are not beholden to the idea of the player having fun. Horror is the only game genre where you are allowed to make the player uncomfortable.
But found footage films still resolve, don't they? I think true crime is a better comparison, where there is ambiguity. Serial didn't really have an ending, Making a Murderer ended up in a place that wasn't resolved emotionally.
We are in a unique age where we have audiences who are so experienced. We are all very story literate. If you're writing, you are working harder to find that angle, that twist that's fresh.
Telling Lies will be available to download later in 2019 on Steam.
Check out the trailer below: