Developer: Sam Barlow
Publisher: Half Mermaid Productions
Platform: Xbox Series X
Marissa Marcel is missing. The actress appeared in three movies in 1968, 1970 and 1999, none of which were ever released. As the player, you have access to footage from each of the films, as well some supplementary archival footage of Marcel appearing on late night talk shows etc. to try and solve the mystery of who she was and what happened to her.
Immortality is the latest game from Sam Barlow, the acclaimed British developer who had previously worked on two Silent Hill games (Origins and Shattered Memories) before turning his hand to FMV mystery titles with Her Story and Telling Lies. There are few developers I can think of in the modern landscape that so prominently stand out in the interactive media genre. His name sits right alongside David Cage of Quantic Dreams and I’d argue Barlow’s work is generally far better received critically and much less divisive.
There’s a clear through line that runs from Her Story to Telling Lies to Immortality with how they task the player with examining full motion video clips to unravel a mystery. Something I find noteworthy is that Barlow seems settled in his niche that he’s carved out for himself with FMV mysteries but he also seems set on reinventing the tools at the players disposal from game to game for searching the video clips themselves. In Her Story, the game simulated a computer desktop from the mid Nineties and after playing a clip the player would need to search for keywords or phrases to unlock more content. In Telling Lies (my least favourite of Barlow’s games), you could jump to new videos using highlighted keywords but the navigation was made frustratingly cumbersome as you would be taken to the mention of the keyword mid video and the rewind function was extremely slow.
Immortality has a new approach entirely as you can now use a cursor to select objects or people in the videos to find the next breadcrumb in the trail. There seems an element of randomness to this where I assume an AI algorithm decides that if you click on a particular actor or object (e.g. a gun) and there are several corresponding videos, it will take you to one of them with no predetermined order of unlocking. This means that each person who plays Immortality will have their own unique experience which I think is an exciting new wrinkle to the gameplay, particularly if you know a friend who is also playing the game at the same time as you.
One of the highlights that sets Barlow’s FMV games apart from his peers like David Cage is that the standard of writing and acting is, to be frank, of a much higher calibre. All three films that you scrub through – Ambrosio, Minksy and Two of Everything all have fine production values with costumes, set design and even the video format itself convincingly replicating the era that they’re based in. The actors are shown both performing on-set and also unwinding during rehearsals. They all have an eminently watchable quality about them with lead actress Marissa Marcel (played by Manon Gage) and director John Durick (Hans Christopher) as stand outs. The nature of what you see in the films also explores uncommon territory for video games – a seductress tempting an 18th century monk into committing carnal sin, an erotic thriller set against the backdrop of an arts community in the Seventies and a late Nineties Lynchian thriller that explores the nature of fame. The wildly disparate and dynamic nature of each movie production asks a lot of the role of Marissa Marcel and this really allows Manon Gage to shine.
Mechanically, I think this is Barlow’s most satisfying game to date and his writing has never been better. On paper these qualities alone would make Immortality an easy recommendation. What elevates the game further is the secrets you begin to uncover when you scrub through the clips one by one until eventually you find a particular revelation that really turns the narrative on its head. Immortality is a game that absolutely goes for it and it was a wild ride once the pieces of the mystery began to fall into place. I genuinely lost sense of time one night and put in several hours watching the underlying story unfold before me.
This is a game that is best experienced knowing as little as possible going in and is arguably Barlow’s finest work to date. Its an impressive feat and one of the most fascinating games of 2022.