I find that there’s quite the divide between video games and cinema, and that isn’t necessarily a problem for either industry, but Sam Barlow’s latest game – Immortality – shows just how powerful intertwining the two can be, when done effectively.
Jean-Luc Godard, a renowned French-Swiss film director and critic, once said “a story should have a beginning, middle, and an end… but not necessarily in that order.” Immortality is perhaps one of the most ideal examples of Godard’s words in practice. As you try to unravel the mystery of Marissa Marcel (Manon Gage), you find yourself using a Moviola, threading together random clips from the three movies that she starred in.
Marcel’s first film, Ambrosio, borrows its plot from the Gothic novel, The Monk. It’s equal parts sexy and unnerving, and the temptress character that Marcel plays seems to flow into her next film, too. Minsky followed a year later with a new director, John Durick, and saw Marcel play an artist’s muse in a murder-mystery. Finally, 20 years later, Marcel worked on Two of Everything – once again with John Durick, and after a period of inactivity from the actress. In this one, the tone is even darker than before; Marcel plays a successful pop-star with a body double, but everything goes awry.
Some of these films don’t sound half-bad on paper, although, not a single one of them ever released. Your role is to filter through footage that spans Marcel’s career – and this doesn’t just consist of film clips, either. You must piece together scenes from her first ever stint as an actor in a soap commercial, live interviews, behind-the-scenes footage, and more. Even the few seconds before the film slate snaps, or after the director says ‘Cut!’, a secret can be unravelled. And this is just the beginning of the magic of Marissa Marcel’s illusive tale.
Immortality dazzles you from the very beginning, and admittedly, trying to write a review without spoiling it has proven to be difficult. As you sit there, match-cutting clips together, playing the detective in what I imagined being a dimly-lit room, it’s hard not to feel as though you’re on the edge of an important discovery. At all times. And technically, you are… When that discovery happens, you soon realise that not a single clip could be as it seems, and there’s certainly something more malevolent – immortal, perhaps – trying to reach out to you through the assorted media. These moments can be fleeting, but when you encounter them, your breath is taken away.
I approached Immortality with high expectations: that’s what we’ve all come to expect from Sam Barlow and the writers on the team (Allan Scott, Amelia Gray, and Barry Gifford). Their expansive knowledge of television and cinema shines throughout the game. Whether its subtle imagery, costumes, or even a fleeting piece of dialogue, the story of Immortality will haunt you.
But what has been keeping me up at night is just how detailed it is; while I was left confused at the games’ conclusion, there’s one thing for certain with Immortality, and that’s that the developer knew what it was doing. There was simply no way that I could be frustrated by not having all the answers, because that’s exactly what this game intended to do. It wraps you around its finger and invites you in, before trapping you inside the very mystery you were set to solve; it’s not often a game evokes such a feeling in me, but Immortality is the type of game that you won’t forget about easily.
Immortality makes you believe that you’re in control, before robbing you of autonomy once you realise something is afoot. It’s not something we’re massively used to in video games – feeling powerless and out of control – and that’s what makes Immortality so strong as an experience. It flips our traditional experience of games on its head, and it intentionally has you plummet into the mind of Marissa Marcel. It wields your agency, and does it with aplomb. All the confusion and powerlessness she is experiencing throughout her career… you feel it too. By the end, it almost feels as though you are Marissa, and the ‘real’ Marissa – whoever that may be – is trying to teach you something.
When you come to the game’s ending, I think the first thing to remind yourself of, when you’re no doubt confused, is its title: Immortality. That, as well as the concept of identity, are what this game is about. There’s a lot that is left unanswered, and I can accept that there may be some threads of Marissa’s story that’ll remain unknown. What I do know is that the realm of cinema is quite clearly harsh, and long after you’re ‘gone’ so to speak, you’re never truly absent. Cinema immortalises its subjects, as do most forms of art, and this ultimately ends up being a lot more of a horror-tragedy than you may first think. The only reason Immortality isn’t scoring a 5/5 in this review is solely because that as time goes on, encountering the same clips time and time again makes you grow weary; this almost feels intentional, but it did snap me out of the magical entrancement I was in.
With Jean-Luc Godard’s quote in mind again, the nonlinear narrative of Immortality means that the game’s ending doesn’t have the same level of closure that we’re used to – or that we’d expect. There isn’t a happy ending, nor is there a sad ending. You’re simply left wondering. It’s an incredibly strange feeling, but the lack of closure here plays a very important part in why Immortality is so haunting.
I’m not sure I’ll ever stop wondering about the snakes, the apples, and every other prop laced with subtext. I think that’s what Immortality set out to do; transform how many of us think about, and approach, all forms of media – as well as the people who play a part in shaping it, and shaping our lives in the process.