Composing a soundtrack to match the intimate game design of Telling Lies

Accompanying the intimate game design of Sam Barlow's Telling Lies is the striking score by Nainita Desai. Here she explains in detail how she composed music that complements the game's characters, their personalities, and their situations.

Telling Lies, the latest game from Sam Barlow of Her Story fame, invites players to pore over video conversations between four main characters, peering into their lives in an attempt to unravel the truth about a mysterious incident. The player is always somewhere they don’t belong, seeing jumbled fragments of things they’re not supposed to see about characters with very complicated lives.

Nainita Desai, the award-winning composer on Telling Lies, had the complex job of taking into account all these narrative and mechanical aspects when creating the game's score. She has credits on both interactive and non-interactive projects and was named a BAFTA Breakthrough Brit.

Telling Lies is a very intimate experience,” she told Gamasutra in an interview. “The intention was to connect the player directly to the emotional core of the story, and that’s a common element on every project I score." But unlike composing for film, television, or even most video games, the non-linear nature of the player’s experience means the music isn’t designed to directly reflect what’s happening on screen.

Instead, each main character has their own theme, given a code name to avoid spoiling their identities. For the central male character, it’s Order. His theme is predominantly made up of “interlacing lines of strings, and string slides which represent this slippery, dark, mysterious side to him,” Desai said.

But keep digging into his story and the music will shift along with you. “As you go down the rabbit hole, you unveil a different side to [his] character, and that unravels a hidden loop in the music," she said. "When the music subtly shifts tone emotionally…it hopefully has a subconscious effect on the player.”

Desai composed each of these tracks before seeing any of the footage in the game -- because it simply hadn’t been recorded yet. Instead, lead developer Barlow provided her with detailed notes about the characters, their backstories, and what he wanted the music to evoke. In one, Control, “tenderness and fragility” is portrayed by a gentle flute. Another, Intimacy, aims for a “dark, slightly twisted waltz.”

“She and [the main character] are dancing with one another with words…she’s playing rings around him,” Desai said. A piano and violin melody circle one another. But stumble onto the hidden loop and her web begins to unravel. “You come out of this magical world and you get into reality, and it’s a slightly clumsier version of the main section…The slightly downward spiral of the piano still feels elegant, but with a hint of wonkiness to it.”

“I remember there’s this brief that [Barlow] gave me,” Desai recalls. “He was wonderful at giving me really in depth analyses of the characters, and he said, ‘think of it like joyless sex.’ I thought, ‘Yeah, okay, I know what to write.’” 

With such detailed notes, it was difficult to condense them down into a track just a minute or two long. “I have to be that character in my mind,” Desai says. “If you go to a funeral and someone gives a two minute speech about someone that’s died, you think, ‘gosh, they’re summarizing a whole person’s life in just a few words, their 60-70 years of living.’ And in a way I have to do the same thing, where I’m representing a whole person’s personality…with one single piece of music.”

But each piece also has variations, to reflect the player’s changing understanding of each character’s duplicitous nature. “The score is modular, built from blocks that need to flow in any order,” she said. Each also has three layers. “The base foundation is usually the piano and harp on their own, and when we want to ramp up the intensity we have all three layers playing together.”

“There is also so much dialogue in the game that you have to be careful not to overload the player with too much music,” Desai said. With the player only hearing one side of the conversation, silence is often important. “We didn’t want to detract from the detailed nuances of the performances…by having wall-to-wall music.”

When it does play, the game’s soundtrack is acoustic. Though Desai usually works with a combination of electronic and acoustic scores, in Telling Lies it was important “to get that intimate atmosphere across with only the purity and rawness of organic sounds.”

Those sounds were recorded by the London Contemporary Orchestra. During later recordings, Desai asked players to experiment with different techniques, to introduce a little “chaos.” For example, “spectral scrubbing, where you scrub the bow against the bridge of the instrument, and it gives it a very airy, floating but gritty feel as well.”

You can hear that spectral scrubbing in the game’s title track, which was the last piece to be composed. “I was involved for well over 18 months, on and off,” says Desai. “After having lived with the game [for so long], I was able to do it justice.”

“We wanted to make people sit up,” she says. “So because of my background learning Indian classical music as a child, I’m really interested in unconventional rhythms and time signatures.” The title track begins in 7/4, which Desai called “a little bit unusual,” along with including some of the spectral scrubbing. “It’s slightly unsettling and chaotic in a mysterious way,” Desai said. “Aggressive staccato string lines interweave and bounce off each other to illustrate them fighting for their places within the game and the piece. 

“As soon as I had the 7/4 rhythm and this very sharp, angular approach with the strings, the hair on the back of my neck stood up. [That’s when I] get really excited.”

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