By: Leila Pulaski
Sam Barlow’s “Telling Lies” (2019) is a gripping piece of interactive fiction anchored by moving, artful acting performances. In shedding light on the practices and history of David Smith, an undercover FBI agent, the work brings to mind questions of authority, discretion, and manipulation in law enforcement while promoting an often ignored storytelling format.
Consequences of database-as-database
On a user interface designed to look much like a Mac desktop, “Telling Lies” (2019) allows players to search for keywords or phrases in a bank of webcam footage in order to piece together a story. What story might that be exactly? The answers vary. At its simplest level, “Telling Lies” (2019) follows two years of webcam footage from the devices of four different people. These characters are connected in initially unclear ways. Players eventually realize that they are witnessing the narratives of undercover FBI agent David Smith and three women he’s involved with. Personal curiosities and biases will determine how exactly you categorize these entanglements and the story at large; is it a love triangle, a horror, a classic detective story, perhaps even a tragedy? By choosing to search for certain terms rather than others, you unknowingly ignore a wealth of other footage. Given that you don’t need to watch every clip in the database in order to finish the game, it’s possible for players to come away from it with vastly differing opinions on its leading man. Herein lies one of the principal dangers and benefits of the database-as-database method in this piece: you are free to sort through the information yourself and come away with an experience that is entirely your own. You’re given free rein to determine what story you are witnessing, with the result that you may miss incredibly grievous criminal behavior, threats against women, and serious anger issues from the main character. In my gameplay, the story was a horrifying and cautionary tale about the abuses of undercover policing operations, but yours may be a somber tale about a man whose demanding job keeps him away from his wife and child who he would do anything to protect. While the structural openness of “Telling Lies” (2019) makes it a particularly intriguing game, it also leaves open the possibility to miss the critical social commentary which Barlow is attempting to make.
Social commentary and Barlow’s history
Barlow has focused his gaming narratives on social commentary in the past, with “Telling Lies” (2019) following in the footsteps of its predecessor, “Her Story” (2015). “Her Story” (2015) also conquered a law enforcement theme and revolved around a database of clips from police interviews with one woman. Set two decades before its release, the game asked users to search through a similar database of video footage in order to uncover what the story of the game was. Both games feature a very straightforward database system and don’t allow the user’s actions to change the source material. Your search terms, exploration of the desktop interface, and fervent note-taking whilst going through the story don’t have any bearing on what may happen; there is only one ending to the game. Everything you witness as a player has already come to pass, and you’re only an observer attempting to work out an understanding of the sequence of events for yourself. This strategy, fun and unique as it is, does allow for players who approach the game with a low level of critical thinking and a taste for meeting all the Steam accomplishments to sort through only the most necessary of clips and miss the allegorical heart of the story. Though I acknowledge that to say this is to think very lowly of the average person, it’s worth mentioning that Barlow’s game structure– at least in his two most recent and critically acclaimed games– leaves room for players to ignore his intended messaging.
With respect to “Her Story” (2015), Barlow aimed to critique the viewer themself, commenting that the game drew heavily from “the modern phenomena of the Youtube Jury, in which police forces distribute the footage of intimate suspect interviews for armchair detectives to dissect [and] the suspects’ stories themselves get lost amongst the torrent of cliches and prejudices” (The Guardian). Looking forward to “Telling Lies” (2019), we see that the subject of scrutiny has changed. While “Her Story” (2015) challenged its users to think about their own uninformed or premature judgements on a suspect, its successor reveals the gross violations of law enforcement officers themselves.
Undercover policing and the terrifying true stories behind “Telling Lies” (2019)
In “Telling Lies” (2019), we witness David Smith receive and carry out a deeply sinister mission: to lie to a young woman and con her into a relationship for the sake of infiltrating her environmental activism group. David’s target, Ava, is not a high ranking activist, a militant individual, or even a member of what he deems the most crucial group. She is, however, young, kind, and trusting. The pair meet in late 2017 and quickly begin their romantic relationship. David convinces Ava to move in with him, meets her parents, and even gets her pregnant. When it comes out that David has a child, he tells Ava that he is a single father to her. All the while, David’s wife is struggling to take care of their daughter Alba on her own while dealing with a full time nursing job and a dying mother. David continually lies to his wife Emma about his mission and becomes infuriated when she admits to having a brief affair with a doctor, at which point Emma brings up that she has been terrified of David for a long time. In the course of elaborating on this fear, Emma reveals to the players that David murdered her abusive ex-boyfriend in front of her and was celebrated for it by his law enforcement colleagues. Though there is no confirmation that he physically abused Emma, there are multiple hints towards the possibility (aside from Emma’s own admission that she was scared of him for many years). Losing his position within the family he has abandoned for over a year, David refocuses on his mission by abandoning a pregnant Ava and doubling down on his attempted entry into a more militant activist group. By the end of 2018 he has alienated himself from both Ava and Emma and commits suicide by bomb. Though he states his intentions for the explosion were to stop a pipeline, we never see the results of that action. The phenomenon at present here– domestic abuse in police relationships, celebration of violence within law enforcement communities, and infiltration of activist groups by manipulative undercover police– are all tragically grounded in reality.
Donna McClean and the Metro PD
There are women all over the world whose stories mirror Ava’s in harrowing detail. Take for example Donna McClean, whose experience with the Metropolitan London Police Department follows Ava’s in almost all respects. Donna, though not herself a socialist or labor unionist, was friends with many members of labor unions and socialist party figures in the early 2000s. An undercover member of the London Metro PD named Carlo infiltrated her life starting at an Iraq war protest where he posed as an event facilitator. The couple were together for two years and followed a relationship timeline largely similar to David and Ava. They got together quickly after meeting and moved in with each other rapidly. She introduced him to her parents, brought him to her little brother’s graduation, and got engaged to him. When it came out that he had a child, he (like David) told her he was a single father. All the while, he was going by a fake name and had a wife and child just down the road. Donna is not alone in this experience, as countless numbers of women have been tricked into sexual relationships with undercover police officers. In 2015 alone, 8 women held a press conference about their experiences with manipulative, violatory undercover officers from the London Metro PD. In one case, the officer even fathered a child under his false identity before finishing his mission and disappearing. As a result, the London Metropolitan Police have given out millions of dollars to these women who were duped into relationships with men that never existed. In almost every case, the women targeted were not members of terrorist organizations or dangerous hate groups, but political or environmental actors. The previously mentioned child was the product of a relationship between the officer and an animal rights activist. These women– targeted for their kindness, young age, and good connections– nearly always stood for causes rooted in hope, healing, and generosity. By making very dubious the nature of consent through constant lies and manipulation, these officers commit grievous violations against the women that the target. Somehow, those violations are made even worse by means of the fact that most of the women are sought after for non harmful activity. In some cases, it is not the activists but the police themselves who encourage an escalation to harm. Northern Irish Police, for example, recently published a report admitting that the gun used in a 1992 massacre which killed 5 people was provided to the known terrorist loyalist shooter by a police officer (Irish Times). How this action and many others are not clear examples of entrapment I could not say, but Barlow also puts a spotlight on this behavior. David pushes the members of Ava’s Organizing Group to blow up a bridge in order to stop a pipeline project. Ava quickly rejects the idea, informs David that she’s pregnant, and decides that she wants to leave behind her active role in the group to lead a normal life; “ordinary can be magical”, she says. It’s challenging to follow up this clip by watching David stalk Ava for months before meeting her while commenting on how the 19 year old will be very trusting of an older man. That is the power of the non-linear structure of “Telling Lies” (2019). The tragedy, violation, and abuse of David’s actions are made most clear by the sharp discontinuity between the footage of David Jones, the man he pretends to be, and David Smith, the man he really is.
Sam Barlow has created a truly fantastic game with “Telling Lies” (2019). His interface allows a thoughtful, curious viewer to find the story for themselves and his deeply talented cast moves you to seriously reconsider your notion of undercover policing. From its structure to its cast to its script, “Telling Lies” aptly points out the abuses of undercover policing, puts a face to the devastation caused by it, and facilitates a unique gameplay experience.
Hutton, Brian. “Police ‘handed’ gun used in 1992 Sean Graham massacre to loyalist terrorist”. The Irish Times, 8 February 2022, https://www.irishtimes.com/news/crime-and-law/police-handed-gun-used-in-1992-sean-graham-massacre-to-loyalist-terrorist-1.4796117.
“‘I was duped by an undercover policeman’ – BBC Newsnight”. BBC Newsnight, YouTube, 18 January 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=540XUH-OSsM&ab_channel=BBCNewsnight.
“Son grew up not knowing his father was an undercover police officer”. Channel 4 News, Youtube, 7 October 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TCPCMW5ruN0&ab_channel=Channel4News.
Stuart, Keith. “Her Story: The computer game where True Detective meets Google”. The Guardian, 27 February 2015, https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2015/feb/27/her-story-computer-game-true-detective-meets-google.