We often think about games in terms of their verbs – that is, what we do in them. For instance, in an Uncharted game we run, jump, dodge, shoot, take cover, drive, and climb. We’re often led to believe that the more diverse a game’s set of verbs - and therefore the bigger the list of things we can do - the better it is. That somehow the more choice we have, the more meaningful the interactivity of the experience is. In Little Red Lie you only have one verb. All you can do is lie.
It’s the latest from indie developer Will O’Neill, who’s most well-known for his notorious exploration of depression, Actual Sunlight. If you’ve played that game, you’ll know what you’re in for with his newest outing. If you haven’t, here’s a quick heads-up before we get any further: much like its predecessor, this game is profoundly bleak and often very confronting. It will ask you to witness and engage in reprehensible behavior without warning. That’s obviously the whole point, but it still bears noting. If it sounds like it’s going to upset you, it’s probably best to give it a miss.
With that said, if you’re happy to drop a couple of hours into something a bit depressing, you’ll come out on the other side with a fresh perspective and plenty to think about. The game is a visual novel in which you wander around relatively small areas talking to people to advance the story. Occasionally you’ll be presented with three dialogue options which, when read in sequence, reveal your character’s inner monologue.
Regardless of which option you choose, though, the character will lie. They will disregard what they’re actually thinking and feeling, and say something completely unrelated to your prompt. This is made clear by the use of red text. Whenever dialogue is red, it signifies that whichever character happens to be speaking is not telling the truth.
And golly, do these characters lie. They lie through their teeth, all the time, about everything, to everyone. And it’s for this reason that much of the writing rings so true. Because, as much as we’d hate to admit it, we all lie. A lot. And then we lie about how much we lie. And then we lie about how much we lie about that.
But the game isn’t just about indiscriminate lying. Rather, it touches on a very specific thing that we are all guilty of lying about. Money. We lie about how much we have, both to ourselves and others. We buy things we can’t afford. We go to places and events we can’t afford. It all builds up, and then we’re forced to lie more to get out of trouble.
To explore those ideas, the game has you follow two characters of differing financial standing. Sarah Stone has no money, and Arthur Fox has far too much. At the beginning of the game, Sarah is trying to build up the courage to ask her parents, who she’s had to move back in with because of debt, if she can borrow money. Arthur, meanwhile, is being paid gratuitous stacks of cash to present a motivational seminar for a group of people he thinks of as losers and idiots.
To reveal any more about their stories would be a disservice to the fantastic writing. It’s rare that a game's plot is genuinely hard to predict, but with each of its many twists and turns Little Red Lie surprises while also maintaining a sense of logic and truth. Basic pixel art and serviceable music mean it isn’t much to look at or listen to, but the strength of the writing is more than enough to carry the experience.
Little Red Lie is a difficult game to recommend without qualification. It’s uncomfortable, confronting, and just about the furthest thing away from a rollicking good time imaginable. And yet, if you’re willing to go on its journey, sharp writing and a laser thematic focus will force you to re-examine some of the reasons you lie, and some of the things you lie about.