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SWEET LITTLE LIES: GENDER, POWER, AND MEDIATED RELATIONSHIPS IN TELLING LIES

[Cross-posted to the Serious Play Blog]

No more broken hearts / We’re better off apart / Let’s give it a try / Tell me, tell me, tell me lies
-Fleetwood Mac (“Little Lies”)

For the month of April, I’ve been playing through Sam Barlow’s Telling Lies, the ambitious follow-up to (and magnification of) Her Story. In the game, players take on the role of a woman (seen mostly through her reflection in the game’s interface) as she scrubs through hours of footage to reconstruct the story of undercover FBI agent David and his tumultuous relationships with three women: his wife Emma, his undercover girlfriend Ava, and the cam-girl he regularly patronizes, “Max” (or Michelle, depending on when you ask her). Like Her Story, the game’s interface is that of a computer screen in which players are tasked with uncovering the narrative by searching for keywords to unlock new footage. Through a small “Read Me” file, a bit of explication tells players that what they’re looking at is quite hot and law enforcement will come looking for it.

So, players have a limited time to uncover what they can about David’s time undercover to bring down an environmentalist group called Green Storm. What they learn is that David is a Grade-A asshole who killed his wife’s ex-boyfriend and that “Max” is blackmailing him with that information. David has also knocked-up Ava – the girlfriend he is pretending to love to get closer to the operation he’s trying to bring down – despite actively working towards her arrest. By the end, David has been ostracized by his family and Ava and, rather than facing the consequences of the leaked confession, blows himself up in the environmentalists’ plot to destroy a bridge. Or, at least, that’s the story that I uncovered. The report at the end told me I had only seen about half of the total footage (and I played for about 6 hours, just to hint at the amount of footage to see).

What’s really interesting to me about this game is what it seems to say about gender, interpersonal relationships, and technology. We rarely get to see the “real” David, but when we do it’s through flashes of anger or frustration that shine through the façade of caring father/husband, committed activist, or doting boyfriend. Those brief instances give us an idea as to what he’s like when no one’s watching (or, at least, when no one’s recording), and they add up to the picture of a controlling, abusive man. Interactions between he and Emma (his wife) seem to support this; although she is clearly frustrated by being left alone with their young daughter and her mother (who may/may not have dementia), she continues to play the role of the supportive, loving wife. Even in videos in which they argue, her demeanor is cheerful until David picks a fight. Perhaps the clearest example of this dynamic is when she, in describing her day to David, jokes with him about how a new co-worker mistook her for single and asked her out. David flies off the wall with jealousy while, mind you, engaging in a sexual relationship with another woman and paying a cam girl on the side. We can only assume what their relationship is like in person.

But this game is about mediated relationships and how they differ from face to face ones. In a conversation between David and “Max” late in the story, David attempts to control her by paying for extra time. “Max” smirks and says, “You see this thing here,” tapping the glass of the camera. “That thing protects me. It doesn’t protect you. So… with one click, I can ban you from my channel and you’re out of my life. Click.” And the video ends. “Max” is always in control of the relationship regardless of whether David knows it or not and, in fact, we learn soon enough that she is simply playing him to get information with which to blackmail him. It’s a really interesting choice to use a character in such a seemingly precarious situation, i.e. a sex worker, to exemplify this shifting of power dynamics.

And “Max” isn’t the only one to feel this protection from the screen. As her time away from David increases, Emma, too, begins to act as though empowered by the screen. She confronts David (for what she says is the first time) about the murder of Paul, her ex-boyfriend. In an attempt to scare Paul off, Emma invites him over with David waiting nearby. David waits in the car while the situation inside worsens before bursting in with weapon drawn and shooting Paul in the lung. Paul bleeds out for 10 minutes as David keeps Emma, a nurse, from trying to save him. “You waited because you wanted to save me. You wanted to be a fucking knight in shining armor,” she tells him. Emma admits, “After watching a guy bleed out together, they get married. That helps make things make sense. Even so, Emma is sure that she’ll be scared of David forever and ever.” The story is told in the third person and with the use of her daughter’s dolls. At the end, Emma holds up the policeman doll that has represented David: “You look so small on the screen. I love you, David, but I’m not scared of you anymore.” The ability to communicate “face to face” and yet remain physically separate allows Emma to confront this truth that she’s been carrying for years and empowers her to speak her truth directly to David. Like “Max,” Emma gains power in the relationship because the distance between them negates the physical threat of harm she admits to feeling in person.

However, these technologies are not always a means of empowerment for all women. Ava, for instance, is repeatedly filmed without her knowledge both by David and another man, Peter who she says drugged her, raped her, and filmed it before the events of this story. The first time David sees Ava, he is recording the entrance to a meeting place used by the group he’s infiltrating. During this video, he marks her as a target while the camera’s view acts as the scope on a gun; she is in his cross-hairs. Of the three women, Ava is certainly the most precarious (she’s also the only woman of color), but she’s also the closest in proximity to David. She isn’t afforded the physical distance that the other two women leverage for power. In her ending segment though, she tells the player that she never watched David’s suicide-note video nor attended the inquiry about his deeds. Instead, she “like[s] to pretend that the bomb erased him in the past and in the present.” So, in the end at least, Ava has agency over whether to receive the message that David sends her, and she’s finally able to deny him that power over her.

Playing this game in the midst of the global pandemic and wide-spread (though perhaps not widely enough) social distancing measures adds a new layer of authenticity to the videos that might have been missing had I played it a year ago. I can completely empathize with people attempting to maintain relationships via telecommunication technologies that aren’t always completely analogous to actual, co-situated interaction. But now I’m wondering how my own relationships may be shifting because of the hypermediated processes employed to sustain them. Are they changing for better or for worse? Do these technologies really let us “reach out and touch someone,” or is that just another lie we tell ourselves?

You can check out my playthough of the game starting with the first part here.

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