The content warnings for Immortality are plenty. It includes everything from swearing and blasphemy to incest and murder. No content warnings would scare me off this game, let alone ones that basically contain the features of any V.C. Andrews novel. Immortality may have only been announced last year, but it feels like I’ve been waiting for it far longer. I was itching with anticipation while it downloaded and installed. I had a lot of faith in the game, as Sam Barlow’s other titles have deeply impacted me in terms of narrative. Surely, Immortality would do the same. Expectations often end with disappointment, but Immortality wouldn’t be like that. Would it?
To best understand Immortality, I feel that it’s helpful to know studio head Barlow’s background. I’ve reviewed his last two games for DDNet, Her Story and Telling Lies. Her Story was my first foray into the world of FMV video games (yes, I know it’s late, but better late than never right?) and I was enthralled at how an entire story could be told without actually holding the player’s hand. It’s about someone (the player) reviewing old video footage while trying to solve a murder. Telling Lies was Barlow’s second FMV game, and the first with his studio, Half Mermaid Productions. It was also an investigative thriller, but in more of an espionage kind of way. There is something about Barlow and Half Mermaid’s non-linear storytelling that I can’t quite put my finger on, but it is an X-factor that makes the narratives so special and secretive. So, when the time arrived that I first sat at the computer to play the game, I actually took a brief moment to marvel at feeling nothing but pure excitement. Considering how cranky I am on the regular, that’s actually a bit surprising.
Marissa Marcel – a real person (this game is a kind of docudrama/historical record, but with a Barlow twist) – was a budding movie star in the late 1960s when she stars in her first film, Ambrosio. The film is about a horny priest and Marcel is an equally horny nun (wait, and I passed on the opportunity to review this? – ed). In 1970 she stars in Minsky, about an artist who has been murdered – presumably by his muse (Marcel); regardless of the suspicion upon her, the lead detective falls in love. Minsky never gets completed or released, as an upsetting accident on set led to the death of one of the actors. But then Marcel isn’t seen again until 1999, when she stars in Two of Everything as a famous singer with a secret double who does her gigs for her. Sex is definitely a common thread amongst the films, which feature a good amount of nudity but never without purpose. On their own, the movies are actually quite intriguing and more than once, I forgot I was supposed to be investigating instead of just enjoying. Sure, bits and pieces are missing, but generally, you can figure out more than the basic plot of each.
In Barlow’s past FMV games, you type or click on terms to search for videos that involve them. Immortality takes this a step further, and the search feature is purely visual. Say you begin in a clip with a man and a woman and a phone (I’m just making this up). Pausing the video, you can then click on the man to find another clip with the same man, or the woman to find a clip with the woman, or the phone to find a clip with a phone. What you find won’t always be super related, or from the same film or time frame, but all the clips add up to make sense. I promise. Just click on everything and you’ll be good to go. When it comes to scrubbing through the videos, I can remember enough to get by but I’m 100 per cent sure I’ve forgotten some shortcuts; luckily, these can be accessed via the menu.
So for me, the best part of Barlow’s games is the intrigue. Unfortunately, that often leads to utter confusion on my part. Immortality is no different. Every time a question gets answered, three more questions pop up. I discovered what happened to Marcel after a few hours, but all that ultimately did was make me question the events unfolding before me. Like there’s a clip missing that I just can’t find. I assume it exists, but after hours of playtime I’m yet to find the missing link. I don’t take issue with this. I’m sure the answers are there, I just need to look even harder (or perhaps bring in a friend who may see things a different approach and might spot things I don’t).
And as a quick side-note: if confusion itself can be confusing, that’s how I feel about Marcel’s age by the time she stars in Two of Everything. Assume she was 20 when she filmed Ambrosio in 1968. She would be 51 by 1999, yet her character is clearly in her 20s. In what world would a woman in Hollywood be hired for the part of a woman half her age? It’s odd, because the director appears to age but Marcel… she legitimately seems immortal. My outlandish theories includes “she’s a ghost” and “she’s a vampire.” I watch too much TV.
Confession time: I rarely talk about music in video games when reviewing them. I’m not a very auditory person, and generally feel like I can’t do the subject justice. Immortality is a bit different though. The music seems ingrained in what’s going on, with the score playing behind everything. The haunting melodies are perfectly curious for the situation at hand. Shoutout to Nainita Desai; I’m familiar with her work from Telling Lies, but also from television including American Murder: The Family Next Door and Sophie: A Murder in West Cork (yes, I’m a true crime fan, shocking). Her work always feels intimate, like she’s taking the viewer by the hand and guiding them through the narrative.
When I began this review, I wondered if Immortality would live up to the hype I had created in my mind. Luckily, it did. The characters, the narrative, and the completely unique experience that it odders… this game is special. Visual. Intuitive. Genius. Half Mermaid (and Barlow in particular) has upped its own ante, and I legitimately have no idea what the studio could do next. This studio is one of the rare true artists in our little industry.