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‘Unlike anything you’ve ever played’: Immortality, the video game that’s actually three movies | Games

Andvery now and then you play a video game that you just cannot stop thinking about. Candy Crush might leave colorful imprints on the back of your eyelids. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild may creep into your dreams. And then, very occasionally, a game comes along that is so entirely unlike anything you’ve ever played that it becomes an obsession. Immortality, the latest from lauded game-maker Sam Barlow and his studio Half Mermaid, is one of those. It is something that has never existed before: a video game that is also three feature-length films, wrapped around a mystery so compelling that I couldn’t concentrate on anything else for days. It is so delicate and complex that it’s difficult to figure out how it even works.

The first thing you see when you load up Immortality is a talkshow clip from the late 1960s, in which a bright-eyed, red-haired young actor is being interviewed about her recent starring role in a film called Ambrosio, an adaptation of a 1796 novel about a devil temptress who draws a monk down the path of sin. This is Marissa Marcel, who was at this point on the brink of stardom – but this film she appears in, with an eminent but slimy director, is never released. Her next picture di lei, an erotic thriller about art and murder, also never makes it into theaters. She retreats into obscurity for a long time, before emerging for a comeback in the 1990s in a Lynchian thriller about artifice and celebrity – but that film, too, is lost, and after that she disappears entirely.

Freeze frame… players use a grid to organize their search.
Freeze frame… players use a grid to organize their search. Photograph: Half Mermaid Productions

The question of what happened to Marissa is an irresistible mystery – and you, the player, now have access to a full archive of clips, rushes and behind-the-scenes footage from her career. Somewhere within these segments, you can find the answer. Freezing the footage and zooming in on any detail – a plant, a mug, a director’s slate – will transport you to another clip in which that same thing appears. You time-travel through the decades, jumping between all three films, following motifs or particular actors, slowly piecing together not just what happens in the movies, but what happens to the people who are making them.

Put together, these three films tell a story about film-making, about the price of art, and about Hollywood’s exploitation of women. But it is in the way that you experience them – recreating them piecemeal by following your intuition, noticing something in an actor’s face or an off-camera comment, diving down rabbit holes and discovering that they are deep and branching – that the true story of Immortality is told. It is a delicate and multilayered mystery that you unravel yourself, scrubbing through these scenes and searching for clues. As a player, you reach a turning point after maybe an hour, maybe two, when you’ll be watching a scene and think, wait – did I just see what I thought I saw? You’ll wind it back. Watch again. Follow the thread. And an extraordinary mystery starts to reveal itself at the center.

Barlow is the director of Immortality – a role that is uncommon in video games, because they are typically such huge-scale, collaborative creative efforts. But this is not a normal video game, and neither are Barlow’s previous projects di lei Her Story and Telling Lies, both smaller-scale mysteries that use live footage of human actors rather than motion capture and computer graphics. “I thought, if people keep calling my games interactive movies, why don’t I actually make an interactive movie?” says Barlow. “Why don’t I express what I think about cinema, and why films are so interesting and special to me? If we deconstruct movies and their creative process, it really always comes back to the actors… and in the history of cinema, the more extreme compromises and indeed restraints would be landed on the women. “

This is a game that reveres and criticises Hollywood and film-making. It is not a discomfiting, upsetting story about an exploited actor, even if it looks like it might be at first. There is empowerment in here; Immortality is thankfully confident and complex enough to hold both these themes (and many more) at once. Early in development, Barlow zoned in on the golden-age cinema of the 1970s, the death of the studio system and the rise of the author director and the European New Wave – along with the explosion of sex and sexuality depicted on screen.

“We spoke to a lot of people who were involved in making movies back then,” says Barlow. “The women playing the femmes fatales are playing a character that has more agency, that is driving the plot, has a level of sexual expression that is denied to most female characters – but, at the same time, the femme fatale was a character trope that was created to titillate men. We followed that thread throughout the 80s and 90s, through the erotic thriller, a lens through which men could deal with their growing panic at what a world in which people were equal looked like. “

Table read for Ambrosio 1968.  Immortality interactive movie and game from Sam Barlow
Looking for clues… behind-the-scenes footage for players to piece together. Photograph: Half Mermaid Productions

Immortality was shot over three months in LA during the summer of 2021 (and was almost scuppered several times by Covid). Manon Gage, the actor who plays Marissa in the game, was instantly drawn to the character – even if it was difficult to envision what Immortality was actually going to be. “When I got the first audition it was just a few scenes,” she says. “Marissa in each of the three movies, and I thought, this scope is incredible – what are we doing here? How is this a video game? The script was 400 pages long, and some of the best writing I’d read in years. You don’t read writing that’s this good, honestly, especially as a relative newcomer… I was enamored from the start. “

The cast tell me that Barlow sat down with each of them and talked for hours, explaining how the game was going to work. “I bought into what he was saying, but I was still struggling to wrap my head around what was going on,” says Hans Christopher, who plays John Durick, the director of photography who is one of the few constants in Marissa’s career. “But I had this sense that he understood it, and that’s all we needed to worry about. “

Because this is a story with many layers, in which each performer is an actor playing an actor playing a role, the performances are crucial: if the player doesn’t believe they’re watching real people, getting a glimpse behind the scenes of real film projects, then the whole conceit at the heart of the game begins to fall apart. “We were always thinking about our relationship to the audience in an interesting way,” says Gage. “If there’s an off-camera glance, you know that the person playing is going to catch that and think, what was that, and follow that lead. That was fun to play with. You’re breaking the fourth wall, but you’re also inviting people in. “

It was nonetheless difficult to visualize how people would experience their work, says Charlotta Mohlin, whose character in Immortality is nameless but vital. “At one point I was wondering, is anyone going to find me in the game? Will players actually see me? ” she laughs. “We all understood it as a story, but understanding it as a concept – how people would find things in scenes, and move between them – was something I couldn’t wrap my head around until I played it.”

Immortality is not just a feat of film-making, encompassing 10 hours of footage and three different films – it’s also a feat of coding. After they’d shot it Barlow and Half Mermaid had to go through frame by frame, picking out doorknobs and plants and different actors and adding them to the game’s database so that the player would be able to click on them and piece the footage together. The disjointed way in which you experience these films is jarring at first, but it’s what makes Immortality special: no two players (or viewers) will take the same route through it. How do you design a story that makes sense no matter what order you see it in?

Barlow’s answer is surprising: you don’t really need to design it that way. “The modern audience member is so much more intelligent when it comes to story than someone from 50 years ago,” he says. “We are so saturated with storytelling that we’ve internalized all the tropes and the structures. So in giving people pieces of story, it is quite easy for them to put those pieces together. But even if we see the same pieces, involving the player’s brain and imagination more is a win-win. It’s inherently more involving. “

You will, eventually, reach an ending after somewhere north of five hours with Immortality. You will find some kind of answer, no matter which footage you’ve found and which remains hidden within the archive. But what it all actually means is open to interpretation: what you bring to the game, and your path through it, will leave you with a different set of answers. Even the actors who star in the game don’t share a fixed interpretation of its themes.

“The concept of film capturing a moment of truth – in a way that is immortal,” says Christopher. “That is something that will live on for ever. The game wants to capture that, bring you in and feel like you are now part of this grand, living moment – that you, too, are immortalized. “

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