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Sam Barlow Developing Next Video Game, ‘Telling Lies,’ With Annapurna (EXCLUSIVE)

Variety logo Variety 7/14/2017 Todd Spangler
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Sam Barlow, the acclaimed British indie video-game director behind 2015’s “Her Story,” has set his next project with Annapurna Pictures’ recently formed games division.

Barlow’s forthcoming project: “Telling Lies,” which will follow the same interactive-movie format as “Her Story” — but will have a much bigger canvas and higher production values with Annapurna’s support, he said. Barlow and Annapurna Interactive, the game’s publisher, hope to cast Hollywood talent in the new game, which he’s currently in the process of scripting.

“When I started speaking with Annapurna, they had plans to move into the video game space in a similar way they’ve done with film – to empower creatives with a unique voice,” Barlow said.

Traditional video-game publishers, he said, are just not very focused on stories outside the scope of heroic and aspirational narratives. “The way budgets [in the video game industry] are allocated, it’s like you focus just on the blockbusters,” Barlow said.

“Telling Lies” is a “spiritual follow-up” to “Her Story,” he said, but will have a completely new story with more characters and locations. Shooting will likely begin at the end of 2017 or early 2018.

Barlow is tight-lipped on what, exactly, “Telling Lies” is about but said it’s in the vein of a political thriller with 3-4 key characters. A movie he’s watched extensively for reference is Francis Ford Coppola’s 1974 mystery thriller “The Conversation,” starring Gene Hackman.

“Imagine Steve McQueen’s ‘Shame’ mashed up with ‘The Conversation,'” Barlow said. For movies, he said, the 1970s “were such a golden age exploring the intersection of government, society and individuals.”

Barlow is currently fleshing out the story for “Telling Lies,” which he said is complicated by the interconnected nature of the characters and all the various entry points. “I’m viewing it in a sculptural way,” he said. “I’m looking at what happens when you throw a player at it, who can attack it from any number of angles.”

“Her Story,” which Barlow developed with support from the Indie Fund, broke new ground in the games industry with its unconventional storytelling techniques. The game was a hit by indie standards, selling more than 100,000 copies, and won several awards including Mobile Game of the Year at the SXSW Gaming Awards and best narrative at The Game Awards.

In “Her Story,” players access a police database of archived video footage covering seven interviews from 1994 in which a British woman (played by actress-musician Viva Seifert) is interviewed by detectives about her missing husband. Players type search queries and the database returns clips with the woman’s answers. The game is available on PC, Mac, iPhone, iPad and Android devices.

“‘Her Story’ was me doing everything I wanted to do the last 10 years in one shot,” Barlow said.

He added, “We have an audience for crime fiction, super-intelligent, [that] by the time they hit adolescence have been exposed to so much storytelling. We have incredibly story-literate audiences… People playing ‘Her Story’ were not necessarily people who play video games.”

To Barlow, interactive gameplay allows a totally different kind of storytelling than conventional movies. “It’s the opposite of traditional cinema,” he said. “Everything in TV and film is driven by the camera. In this, the audience is in control – we have space where the player can jump around. We can let scenes run and unspool. Some scenes have very little spoken dialogue. It will create a very different experience than 60-minute TV show.”

Annapurna Interactive will directly handle and oversee all production tasks for the live-action video component of “Telling Lies,” including the shoot, post-production and final delivery of video assets to plug into the game.

Formed in late 2016, Annapurna Interactive released its first title, Giant Sparrow’s “What Remains of Edith Finch” — billed as a playable collection of short stories — in April.

Barlow is repped by UTA. He has been creating video games for nearly two decades, starting with his 1999 interactive-fiction title “Aisle.” He worked as a game director at the U.K.’s Climax Studios for 12 years, where his titles included “Silent Hill: Origins” and “Silent Hill: Shattered Memories,” before leaving in 2014 to become an independent developer.

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