Review for IMMORTALITY
Adventure games by Sam Barlow
It took a good few decades after the inception of filmmaking for the industry to hit its artistic stride. Many would argue that video games have arrived at that point much more quickly, especially considering they had many narrative and visual techniques to work from, thanks to film. Things have come full circle with IMMORTALITY, Sam Barlow’s new FMV investigation game. In IMMORTALITY, you will peruse hours of behind-the-scenes footage of Marissa Marcel’s career in movies. “What happened to Marissa Marcel?” is the question and the game’s tagline, but you’ll find that there’s far more to the issue than you could expect. It’s a compelling and mysterious experience and the new best argument for games as art. After all, what is art if not layered, thematic, and packed with nudity?
Over a span of three decades, Marissa Marcel starred in three films, none of which ever made it to post-production. IMMORTALITY presents you with all of the recovered behind-the-scenes footage from these films. The database contains table-reads, interviews, rehearsals, and actual takes from the production of each film. When put together, you can extrapolate the whole plot of each film, along with the overarching story involving the cast and crew. These clips are presented on a grid where you can sort them by the order that they were filmed or in the order that the scenes would appear in the final film. You can speed up, reverse, and scrub through playback when viewing footage by holding left-click and gesturing left or right with the mouse. The UI is appropriate to the era and makes you feel like you are using a projector to review everything; clicks and whirrs accompany gestures and selections, along with the rubbery sounds that come with scrubbing through footage slowly.
As with Her Story, not all footage is available to you from the get-go. The system is similar, though. Instead of picking up on keywords and then searching the database for them, you utilise the “concordance feature”. At any time during playback, you can hit right-click, pausing the film and allowing you to click on any face and almost any object or prop. Doing so will immediately take you to a different scene that features the same actor or roughly the same object you had just clicked on. The cursor will turn into an eye when you hover over something that can be selected. This is how you unlock and discover new footage, and doing so will permanently add these clips to your footage grid. I say that you will end up somewhere with ‘roughly’ the same object you clicked on as it is not always precise. Clicking on a watering can may send you to a scene with a jug for instance, and clicking on the same thing or person twice doesn’t always take you to the same destination. This haphazardness can lead to you finding climactic scenes too early, or other essential scenes too late. It makes for a somewhat untailored experience, but it is perhaps a worthy sacrifice for the satisfaction of sleuthing your way at your own pace. I imagine different players will use their own system for investigation. I, for one, did my best to go through things chronologically. It’s undoubtedly messier than Her Story, you can go on a spree of clicking objects and people as you see them, and you’ll find yourself with a massive collection of footage before you have even properly started watching through it.
It is through the footage itself that IMMORTALITY shines. The plot is multilayered, with the storylines of the three films, then the cast and crew involved, and finally, a higher level (that’s best kept secret). There is plenty of content, as the game took me a whopping 12 hours to finish, and I hadn't even uncovered all of the footage.
The performances are surprisingly good, and nothing ever snapped me out of the illusion, as you’d usually expect from an FMV game. What really shines is the production quality. The sets look fantastic, and although some objects may feel out of place, it's clearly by design in order to draw you to try the concordance feature on them. Cinematography is also very era-appropriate, and its commitment to the style is particularly important due to the cinematographer/director being the one link between all three films besides Marissa.
All three layers of the plot follow a similar set of themes, explored in different ways: such as the perceived decadence of an artist's lifestyle, or art and its relationship with other aspects of life such as religion and the law. Barlow deftly weaves an interesting web of themes and narrative, taking inspiration from the world of movies but less so from video games. The content is appropriately gritty, sometimes violent, and often contains nudity, reflecting the industry’s desire to push the envelope during that era. I almost feel like I'm writing a review for a movie website rather than Adventure Gamers, because there is little to do other than uncover footage and watch it. It's hard to say whether the format allows for it, but I'm sure many gamers would prefer more interaction and less spectating. I found the content compelling, even if I wasn't able to binge through the whole thing without taking breaks.
None of the footage contains any music, as that would have been a post-production step that the movies never reached. There is, however, music for the player’s benefit. Intense and mysterious musical stings and drones will sometimes play after you watch certain scenes that persist as you go on to the next one, perhaps to denote an important discovery. Some scenes are accompanied by creepy rumbling sounds, indicating that they need further attention or that there may be a secret to be uncovered. This relates to the third layer of the story that I have refrained from talking about. I will say that it’s worth paying extra attention to the rumbles, though that doesn’t mean those are the only scenes with a secret.
FMV games are always going to be a niche genre, partly due to the reputations of some less-than-stellar entries into the genre and the usual lack of human agency in their experiences. IMMORTALITY may be the best of them yet, and it is a dizzying precedent they have set, especially regarding the production value. You can tell this game is a labour of love for many involved, evident in both the quality and the quantity of what is contained within. Puzzle enthusiasts should avoid this game, but for movie fans and gamers who love a good meta-narrative, IMMORTALITY is absolutely essential.