Immortality is Sam Barlow’s first interactive movie. After years of work in the FMV genre, Immortality is a game about the making of movies, equal parts demystifying and magical. Rather than sifting through police interrogation videos or secret recordings from intimate conversations, the latest from Barlow’s studio Half Mermaid Productions concerns itself with cinema.
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We’re treated to not one but three movies, the first a late 60s Gothic erotic thriller that feels reminiscent of Ken Russell’s controversial masterpiece The Devils, the second a seedy 70s crime noir, while the third is a late 90s drama and thriller exploring fame, artifice, and duality in the pop music business.
These are the only movies to feature legendary actress Marissa Marcel (Manon Gage), but none were actually ever released, while she has since disappeared. But just how will watching these old films tell us about the kind of person she was and what happened to her, let alone what had happened in the more than two decades difference between shooting two of those films?
Similarly to Barlow’s past games, the footage is presented to you in fragments before you gradually unlock more clips. This isn’t just footage intended for the films, but also from behind the scenes, from screen tests to table reads, rehearsals to making of interviews, and even someone’s personal 8mm video diary.
Just like Her Story and Telling Lies, you’ll tumble through the clips in a non-linear fashion, as well as flitting between films, so there’s no telling what context you’ll have of a scene, added to the fact you’re taking a moment to adjust to whether what you’re seeing is real or performance (obviously, it’s all acting, but you get the idea).
While the above games had you typing in words much like a search engine to find new footage, Immortality grants players with their own piece of movie magic: the match cut. You may not be creating something as iconic as the bone-to-orbital satellite in 2001: A Space Odyssey, but the same principle applies, as you freeze the frame to enter Image Mode and then select a person or object that catches your eye, which then zooms in then back out into another scene.
Select Marcel’s face from her first scene in Ambrosio and you may be transported to seeing her as a blonde in Two of Everything. Focus on a cigarette in Minsky and you’ll perhaps find yourself in another scene in that film, since everyone can’t get enough of puffing away in that era. Then there are times that it makes more audacious leaps, such as clicking a polaroid camera that takes us to a mo-cap studio with dozens of cameras on the wall.
There’s an unpredictability to this mechanic since you don’t know where it will take you, although you’re always free to go back out to look over all your unlocked footage anyway. For the first hours, the best way to experience Immortality is just letting your eyes and instincts lead you as you poke around and effectively teleport through space and time on celluloid. Before you know it, recurring characters, imagery, and narrative threads quietly lodge into your brain, and by the second half, you’ll be more determined to actively consider how to fill in the other missing pieces. It may not look like an open world game, but the sense of traversal and discovery as you point to a landmark that catches your fancy and just explore isn’t at all far off as a comparison.
It’s easy to sort through the footage, clearly dated and categorised, with optional filters available. More importantly, you’re free to scrub the footage at different speeds, backwards or forwards, while using the sticks and clicks of a controller give a tactile feel of almost manually operating a Moviola editing machine.
Yet as convenient as the tools are and how you’re free to make just instantly cut to another shot, such as a supercut of kisses, it wouldn’t matter if there wasn’t an engaging story here, some which gleefully play up their arthouse exploitation vibe while also illuminating the chemistry and conflicts happening at the camera’s fringes.
Given the first two films’ era of new-wave where underground filmmakers want to push boundaries, they capture the aesthetic and mood of the times – which is to say, expect a fair amount of sex and nudity – but being privy to ancillary footage, we’re also exposed to the uncomfortable casual sexism of the time, whether that’s a talk show host’s lecherous remarks, a male director swearing at one actress while ignoring another’s suggestions, or a veteran actor casually stealing a kiss from an actress not in the position to say no.
That’s not to say that Marcel is a mere object of the male gaze. As a newcomer, Gage is utterly magnetic in the leading role, convincing as a ravishing temptress and femme fatale on screen while fearlessly speaking her mind to her male auteurs and pushing the buttons of her male co-stars.
The only thing that might detract from the experience is that it eventually becomes more difficult to unlock new clips, with some visuals merely leading back you to an existing clip. Sometimes it’s just random luck as a visual you’ve used before may spring you over to somewhere new this time. Along with this is the use of a non-diegetic score that plays over footage quite frequently, which may evoke the mood of mystery, but often feels more of a distraction, especially if it’s not there to serve as a cue in your narrative progression.
Take care however not to overlook the audio, or haptics, as they become vital to solving Immortality’s grand mystery, though to elaborate any further would be to spoil things. The most we’ll say is that once the penny drops, it’s like discovering Castlevania: Symphony Of The Night’s inverted castle for the first time. Making a comparison with another video game classic isn’t coincidental, because underneath the excellent script, remarkable performances, and attentive set design, Immortality succeeds first and foremost as a video game.
By uncovering the mystery of Marissa Marcel through the very visual language of cinema with both intuitive and tactile controls, Immortality raises a new high bar on what’s possible with video and game mechanics. Anchored by its cast’s stellar performances, a script and production that perfectly captures the film genres and eras depicted, this is an arthouse masterpiece destined for, well, immortality.
- Selecting persons or objects to match-cut into another scene is intuitive and magical
- Superb performances, especially Manon Gage in the starring role
- Snappy UI, easy-to-navigate clips, a tactile pleasure to play with a controller
- Non-diegetic music sometimes an unnecessary distraction
- Finding new clips towards the end gets trickier