PC, Xbox Series X
August 30, 2022
Sam Barlow, Half Mermaid
The words Full Motion Video (or FMV for short) cannot even be uttered without discussion quickly turning to developer Sam Barlow. Serving as the creative director and writer on 2015’s Her Story, this venture arguably brought the resurgence of the live-action video game genre. It was absolutely showstopping, bringing investigative mechanics into games in an entirely new way. Following that came the successor Telling Lies, featuring more of the same kind of work, only with a higher budget. Now we arrive at Immortality. The latest effort is finally here, proving to be a broader spectacle of technology, acting and writing. However, most crucially, it’s a masterpiece in storytelling that serves as a simultaneous love letter and eulogy to Hollywood.
There are stars in those eyes
Immortality tasks players with uncovering a deep, dark mystery that befell a cult actress. Marissa Marcell, a young woman jumping onto the film industry scene in the late 60s, seemed destined for stardom. Oozing with a captivating presence and real ‘character actor’ attitude, it seemed there was nowhere to go but up. She starred in but three films entirely lost to time and oddly unreleased. 1968’s Ambrosio, 1970’s Minsky and 1999’s Two of Everything. Each film was either never released or even finished due to circumstances.
The other common thread remains in John Durick, Marcell’s collaborator who went from a Director of Photography in Ambrosio to Director extraordinaire from Minsky onwards. Questions will begin arising throughout. Why were all of these films shuttered or unreleased? Where was Marissa all those twenty-something years? Ever so gradually and satisfyingly, those answers become clear, unveiled in shocking and grisly means.
Immortality’s production value is tenfold over all of Sam Barlow’s prior titles. That echoes through the stacked and talented cast, the variety of types of scenes you’ll get, and the writing chops shining brightly through the narrative. The story covers the production of all three of the aforementioned movies, exploring auditions, table readings, rehearsals, TV interviews, video diaries recorded on an 8mm camera and more. This allows for the modest roots of Barlow to shine through in low-quality found footage capturing intimate but important information (not dissimilar to Her Story), and also the expensive on-set test recordings which allow for experimentality and a galore of captivating cinematography.
In all of these moments, you’ll pick up on dynamics. You’ll see how Marissa, played by the electric Manon Gage, affects and enchants everyone around her. In the early casting calls for Minsky for instance, you’ll witness a chemistry test where she and her co-lead Carl Greenwood are to practice kissing. Here, Carl too is an up-and-coming actor, though accustomed to being the seducer type. As Minsky follows a detective (Greenwood) falling for a murder suspect (Marcell), the test and the subsequent recordings will see Marissa in control. Quickly, a little dance between the two occurs. Carl will attempt dominance all the while his co-lead will fight back, remaining coy, playful and entirely wrapping Greenwood around her finger with her touch, kiss and femininity. This scene is just one of many examples of palpable power play relationships, professional or personal.
These are far from the only engaging actors and performances to find in Immortality. John Durick, while the figure remains often behind the camera, capturing a lot of scenes, is an eerie presence with systemic control but also another person wrapped up in Marissa Marcell. His commands from behind the camera, and his quickly revealed off-screen relationship with Marissa become more and more foreboding throughout the game, leaving more implications and questions about his films’ and his muse’s fate.
Similarly, an intriguing conflict appears in Amy, an actor that pops up in the last Durick and Marcell film, starring opposite her and now instead being the one with a complex affair with her Director. Extras on set, film executives and characters I can’t in good conscience even detail or spoil… the list goes on. Every figure plays a crucial role and helps remind the player that Immortality is a creative, experimental labour of love with many moving parts.
All three of Immortality’s films, no matter how small or large a taste you get, are films many would want to watch. Ambrosio follows a convent in Spain that sees a monk get tangled up with a temptress and the occult. Minsky, as described earlier, is a pulpy 70’s flick about a detective falling for a mesmerising female suspect in a murder case. Two of Everything depicts the dog-eat-dog world of both Hollywood and the music industry, featuring body doubles and deeper mysteries. Each of these feels like natural progressions of work for Durick as a director to explore and evolve into. Each feels like a graduation of prior old ideas and experimentalism, bringing in that which is entirely new.
Sam Barlow frequently cites cinematic mastermind David Lynch as an inspiration for his work. It’s only natural then, that this is Barlow’s most Lynchian piece yet. Among the writing crew is Barry Gifford, a co-writer on Lynch’s 1997 film Lost Highway. The devotion and dedication, peppered with Barlow’s own flair don’t stop there. Mise-en-scène throughout Immortality is entirely curious and creative, with new visual motifs and themes at every turn. Immortality is also largely a horror, his first foray into the genre since 2009’s Silent Hill: Shattered Memories. It is more mature than ever, featuring plenty of sex, nudity, unadulterated violence and tragedy throughout.
This is the most ambitious FMV ever, with a good length (I wrapped up the main story in seven hours with many scenes to still uncover), high-quality production value and a tragedy well worth seeing through to its end. Plenty of surprises I haven’t even alluded to let alone touched on await, begging for your uncovering. Immortality is weird, delightful and goes to bone-chilling places you wouldn’t expect.
Being your best detective
Immortality is explicitly the best use of technology in the full-motion video genre. As Sam Barlow games go, you’re never getting the entire story’s picture from the get-go, with only a select few scenes available for initial view. From here, your story is told to you in fragmented pieces (a la Christopher Nolan’s Memento), asking the audience to create a timeline and a bigger picture from there. It’s the technology that allows this. Her Story had players searching keywords or phrases to uncover new clips, and Telling Lies had players seeing both sides of long-distance video calls. Here, you’re using props, cast and the environment to uncover new pieces of the story.
This technique, described as a ‘match-cut’ can transport you to any moment from another clip. All players must do is pause, rewind or fast forward to a person or object of interest, enter the ‘Image Mode’ to inspect and click on the said element, and then you’re off. This transition is also quick and seamless, which is another admirable thing about the technology. One moment you could be exploring a character using a pen on paper, the next you’re in a scene from an entirely different movie. A similar pen or pencil appears but maybe even in the most minor way such as resting above one’s ear.
“…a masterpiece that serves as a simultaneous love letter and eulogy to Hollywood.”
This does exceptionally well in making you feel like an archivist, discovering and rifling through previously believed to be lost footage creating visual links and connections wherever you go. It also allows for those specific nerds, like me, who go on late-night Wikipedia dives, moving deep down the rabbit hole, investigating every little minute detail of a scene or story, only in-game. I would highly encourage going to varying depths. Players may think the most obvious course of action will be to observe the finer details to find routes and scenes unexpected. This can absolutely occur but the obscurer details will more quickly lead to (brief and easy to overcome) roadblocks.
What I recommend is to always mix it up, as often as possible. Let some scenes play out. Jump away from others quickly. Notice a tension between two actors? See if you can perform a series of cuts to other scenes they’re in and maybe then will you learn the source of that conflict. Every individual plays a vital role in uncovering facts and scenes, whether that’s the lead or a clapper loader.
This is once more where Barlow’s hard work of detailed cinematography and mise-en-scène pays off. Provide enough visual motifs, weird oddities and objects to bounce off of, and you’re never without content to discover. You’re never truly stuck when playing Immortality. Instead, dozens upon dozens of interesting moments await around every corner, begging for you to unearth them.
Various speeds of scrubbing through clips are available, and this is the first in Barlow’s recent catalogue where I’d actually emphasise that a controller is the best means of play. A click of the left or right analog stick brings you to the beginning or end of a clip. Scenes can be explored at varying speeds, depending on how quickly you flick a stick left or right. D-pad controls meanwhile let you explore frame by frame, aiding in finding those smaller details. This can very occasionally be fiddly in itself, but never an annoyance or game-ruining experience.
“Immortality is explicitly the best use of technology in the full-motion video genre.”
Throughout your exploring, you will notice instances that catch your attention outside of the videos themselves. I won’t spoil specifics but I implore you to investigate these scenes frame by frame, backward or forwards. Secrets and revelations to the deeper narrative at hand are found here and will help you further realise that in Immortality not everything is as it seems. These reels are haunted and secrets lie within.
In between scenes you can go out to the main screen where a film reel will depict a timeline of all the clips you’ve gathered. You’ll see this grow over time. Of course, it is deeply rewarding to witness this growth. At any time you’ll be able to revisit scenes of interest, marking or highlighting key spots. You’ll see the non-linear become linear, perfectly fitting into place and telling a harrowing story.
Technologically, this is the direction I want the FMV genre to gravitate more towards. I think about other great genre forays, including this year’s The Centennial Case: A Shijima Story. These experiences are well worth checking out in their own right but don’t hold a candle to the pizazz and interactivity on offer with Immortality. Full-Motion Video as a genre has existed for almost forty years now. It’s now that true mastery feels like it has been reached.
The powers that be
It is clear in all of Sam Barlow’s work that the man has an obsession and love for cinema. What may surprise you in Immortality, is that in all this devotion, whispers and echoes of hatred for Hollywood and the film industry ring through. Those emotive themes and ideas can only come from someone as knowledgeable about the industry (see: this LudoNarraCon interview, talking about being thrust into Hollywood meetings following Her Story’s success), but also from a time that came after the eruption of the historic #MeToo Movement.
Marissa and director John Durick’s relationship is not only an exercise in blurring the line between personal and professional boundaries but a battle for power. Their work is subsequently affected as you witness behind-the-scenes tensions arise. Sometimes Durick has complete control but other times it is Marissa, using her femininity and body to get ahead. A grim but true reality of Hollywood. This also appears in Marissa’s casting calls, table reads and rehearsals with other Hollywood figures.
It’s a tough, gruelling road to stardom where so many stars burn out too soon and it’s often because of the figureheads in control. Those that continue adapt. This is what we see Marissa attempt to do over several years, always struggling to maintain this desired divine youthfulness and feminity. I can’t help but be reminded of Nicholas Winding Refn’s brutalist film The Neon Demon in this regard. Another piece that follows women fighting for control, only instead in the fashion industry.
You may think this simultaneous dedication and hatred to Hollywood is jarring, but I say it is deliberate and powerfully effective. In the critique of an industry so rife with problems, Barlow uses film-making techniques so avant-garde they feel like a rejection of the norms and practices. A blatant and artful disregard. Immortality isn’t a cautionary tale of the powers that be rising and rising. That dynamic has already occurred for the better part of a century. Immortality is a piece about wanting to tear all the systems down, setting them ablaze with a matchstick until nothing’s left.
So many years of fine-tuning, along with genre and theme experimentation have led to this moment. After all that iteration, what has come out of it is Immortality, a totally uncompromised piece of art that feels like an event, needing your exploration. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime game, and a genuine masterpiece.
- Some of the finest acting you'll see in games
- FMV technology has reached new heights with responsive match-cut feature
- Clever and memorable framing, along with unique use of mise-en-scène
- Critiques of Hollywood and other similar themes are raw and unmatched
- Rewarding means of making a game out of rabbit hole diving
- Instances that require miniscule and specific frame rewinding can be fiddly
Immortality is Sam Barlow’s magnum opus and the best FMV game ever made. Manon Gage is a riotous force of an actor, accompanied by just as capable a cast, all capable of blowing up. Deep and rewarding investigation mechanics mean you too are rewarded by more of these very performances. Forty years ago at the genre’s start, ideas this broad, sweeping and memorable were inconceivable. Now they’ve arrived, serving as the mastering of technology, writing and acting, all wrapped up in a momentous and moving package. Immortality is a game-changer, utterly needing to forever be immortalised in gaming and art history.