In 2015, Sam Barlow’s Her Story pushed the boundaries of what an indie game could be. It turned the mystery genre into a transformative experience that allowed players to solve the crime on their own terms. Players were tasked to unravel a haunting crime story using police interviews, a search engine, and their own intuition. The result was an astounding reconstruction of a rambling crime story that redefined the idea of how cinematic stories could be told through audience interactivity. With Barlow’s latest work, Immortality, that idea continues to be pushed further in fascinating ways.
Immortality examines the life of one Marissa Marcel, an actress who in a span of three decades made only three unreleased films and vanished without a trace. Through clips of the unreleased films, players are to reconstruct a mysterious portrait of what happened to the actress and those who knew her. And as players make their way through decades of footage, it becomes clear that Marissa’s Tinseltown story is more sinister than people imagined it to be.
Ambrosio, a 1968 giallo-inspired fantasy horror film, serves as the stage for Marissa’s onscreen debut. In that production, she meets enigmatic director John Durick, who becomes her constant collaborator on all her projects. In the 1970s, Marissa is cast in Minsky, a crime thriller about the death of a prolific painter. It is in that film where she meets Carl Greenwood, a co-star whose life will be forever changed by Marissa. In the 1999 film Two of Everything, Marissa plays a pop star struggling through the industry. It is her last film before her disappearance. In all of these films, Marissa remains the same age.
Immortality posits itself as a restoration project to shed light on the mysterious circumstances of Marissa’s life. The restoration begins with the grid where the surviving footage is presented. Players will have to scrub through the footage in order to find particular details in them. Be it a random object in the foreground, a character, or an action, clicking on them will unlock new footage containing the very same things. For example, if you freeze-frame on director John Durick’s face and click it, it will match-cut into footage with a similar image of Durick in it. Gameplay-wise, it’s a trial-and-error process to fall deeper into the rabbit hole of the narrative, allowing players to unveil secrets in various ways. Some might discover the game’s biggest twist within the first hour. Some might uncover the truth but never reach the credits. No playthrough will be the same.
Gamers looking for a more comprehensive button-mashing experience may lose sight of what Immortality sets out to do. Like Her Story before it, Immortality is less about the skill than it is about the mystique of the narrative, where obsession rewards players more than agency. Barlow paints a very eerie, haunting, and ambiguous portrait of Marissa Marcel’s life. The more of Marissa’s life and relationships are examined, the more evil and unsure things seem. A web of corruption and tragedy begins to take its hold over the narrative as more footage is unearthed. While things may seem fine on the set of Minsky, the behind-the-scenes tell a different story. Barlow imbues a creeping uncertainty into the abstraction of his storytelling. Just when you think have the story in place, something unexpected happens. It’s a slow burn to get the full picture of Immortality but once its fragmented pieces fall into place, the obsession pays off. The narrative is beautifully explored through incredible film footage and performances that feel ripped straight out of their decades. Barlow’s vision toes the line between intentional schlock and gripping character study.
However, there’s a clumsiness to Immortality that makes it a more unwieldy game to play than Her Story. Whereas the scope of Her Story was condensed into an interface and experience recognizable to anyone with access to a computer, Immortality feels formless and less immersive. It lacks the diegetic interface that made Her Story intuitive to play making its restoration concept feel strange and unwelcoming. The game’s commitment to immersion is easily challenged by its wildly unrealistic match-cut feature. The experience is meant to be voyeuristic and personal yet the way the game is played feels distant. Barlow may have intended Her Story to feel tangible as possible but Immortality feels anything but.
Nonetheless, Immortality remains a formidable follow-up to Barlow’s 2015 masterpiece. Its commitment to giving players an unlikely experience is admirable even as it gives pause to the immersion. It may not recapture the monumental success of its predecessor but it will likely go down as one of the most ambitious indie games yet.