It's rare to see a magic trick pulled off in a video game the way Immortality does it.
By the time I knew something was up with Sam Barlow and Half Mermaid's latest FMV mystery, I had already ripped open Pandora's Box. I just didn't know it yet. Little hints and bread crumbs were laying there. Percolating theories were just waiting to be blown open to something big. And I just kept tugging at the threads.
Immortality is the latest game from Barlow and co., and it sees Barlow returning to full-motion video similar to Her Story and Telling Lies. The most obvious difference is how the experience itself handles; rather than typing queries into a database, you have a reel setup similar to a classic Moviola machine and a crosshair.
Point that crosshair at something that catches your eye, and Immortality match cuts to another scene with a similar or same object. Then scrub through the footage, turning dials and knobs to your heart's content. Find information. Learn. It's the mechanical feeling of Immortality that absolutely floored me already, and kept this experience feeling so different even when some moments of Immortality felt a bit more shaky.
Immortality (PC [reviewed], Xbox Series X|S, Android, iOS, Mac) Developer: Sam Barlow, Half Mermaid Publisher: Half Mermaid Released: August 30, 2022 MSRP: $19.99
The actual framing of Immortality surrounds a found-film archive of Marissa Marcel, an up-and-coming actress who starred in just three movies. They were never released, and Marcel hasn't been heard from since. Presented as an interactive slice of history, Immortality lets you jump through time between her roles: 1968's Ambrosio, 1970's Minsky, and 1999's Two of Everything.
A mechanical feeling of locking in reels of film and rolling through them is at the heart of Immortality. The best way to play it is in a darkened room, poring over the moving lights and sounds, headphones isolating you from anything else. Clips are fairly easy to navigate and sort, which is good because you'll uncover dozens upon dozens of them. There is a lot of footage to comb over. Some you'll even want to revisit over and over. Marcel's movies, as well as behind-the-scenes footage, rehearsals, promos and interviews, and more are all available.
But rather than just looking at a box of old labels, you're given the choice to thread your own journey through match cuts. Much like Her Story asked you to type in a word and follow your curiosity, Immortality asks the same: what interests you?
The reel life of film stars
It's that involved notion of discovery that really captivated me in Immortality. Your own curiosity is your guide. But by removing the text-based search and focusing on the visual, Immortality feels less like a keyword hunt than other games. Every scene has a visual makeup that can be pored over. Maybe a portrait catches my eye, and I want to find it elsewhere. I could chase jewelry, or a microphone, or an expression. Following a star through different scenes could be as easy as match-cutting their face. I even used the clapboard a few times just to fill in gaps for a particular movie.
The match-cut system is really impressive, as it covers a huge breadth of film. Not everything can be match-cut, but a pretty sizeable amount of items in frame can. It's not without the occasional hitch, though. Sometimes clips might bounce back and forth between a single match, or certain visuals would 'rebound' to the same clip. This could lead to moments of frustration, though they just as often served as checks for me to drop one lead and chase another.
Special attention needs to be called to the actual films as well. All three movies and their ancillary footage serve as the basis, and a lot of care has gone into them. Everything is period appropriate, and even has the right look and feel of when they were filmed. I loved diving into the American New Wave of Minsky, the gorgeous art of Ambrosio, and the extremely late '90s vibe of Two of Everything. Each one feels like a window into a point in time, and it's (mostly) easy to mark when and where clips happen as you zip between them.
Ready for my close-up
The live-action cast does a fantastic job as well. Manon Gage (Marissa Marcel) shows an incredible range across all the movies, deftly portraying Marcel's shifting persona over the years. The actors who play characters like director John Durick, actor Carl Greenwood, and others play up their own moments really well. Little glances, smirks, or expressions don't just add to the mystery, but build these characters up and inform the years of film we're scrubbing through.
Immortality is a game about movies, and it goes to some incredible lengths to marry the two. It's keenly interested in the relationship of the audience to motion pictures, as much as it is player to game, and viewer to creator. Like its name suggests, Immortality dives into questions of life and death, performance, and who mandates how those stories are told. At one point, a director remarks that ownership of some of his films will go to the studios once he's dead. His legacy becomes their property, to manage as they wish.
It's moments like these that keep me going in Immortality. But this FMV mystery can pull a trick on you too. They're subtle, and I was impressed by how quietly they snuck up on me.
I do want to note that while Immortality is a mystery game, it is also a horror game. To what end, and how any of that manifests, I'll leave it to prospective players to discover. I wouldn't want it laid out for me, after all.
But Immortality does shift directions in a noticeable way. And while it's still good, that feeling does get a bit more complicated.
Ghost in the machine
While Immortality is about the mystery of Marissa Marcel, that cold case becomes much larger the further you dig. Ultimately, I think it serves the themes Immortalityis trying to convey well. And the manner in which some big bits of information is doled out is amazing; I literally gasped out loud at one discovery, and more still caught me by surprise several more times afterwards. Half Mermaid pulls some really clever tricks with the set-up they've created.
Some of this discovery can cause repetition and frustration though. Certain bits of info may repeat. This can compound when you're looking for a specific bit of info, a scene with Marissa for example, and keep matching and returning to the same clips.
It's hard to talk in too great a detail about Immortality, because it's a story-driven game where discovery and the interaction between player and game are so crucial. There's a minefield of spoilers and secrets to dance around, and even after spending over eight hours rolling credits and searching out some additional context, I still have theories and ideas I'm excited to discuss.
Immortality is the kind of game that shifts the way you're going to think about the genre moving forward. It's got some incredible tech in its match-cut system, and it puts its themes out there in a headstrong manner that really works. Barlow got genuine gasps, and one literal shout, from me in the course of its runtime. Even for moments when I was frustrated, skimming back and forth, searching for some way to learn more, that same system made those surprises feel genuine and involved in a way most games don't.
Immortality is another great entry to the collection of FMV puzzle-boxes that Barlow and co. have been producing for years now. I don't quite know that I've played anything like it. From big revelations to little moments that just build on the life and times of Marissa Marcel, these scenes are going to stick with me for a while, living on. Immortalized.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]