Of all the lessons in life that have influenced me as a writer, one of the most memorable came from a theatre workshop I participated in as a teenager. The exercise went something like this: first, write the most boring dialogue you could possibly imagine. “Hi, how was your day?” “Fine, how was yours?” etc. Act out this mind-numbingly mundane scene with a partner. Then, invent a history for your characters that imbues this exchange with subtextual meaning—perhaps, for example, something one of them desperately wants to confess to the other, but can’t quite bring themselves to spit out. Play the scene again, and see how it changes. The memory of that lesson returned to me in vivid detail as I experienced the non-linear FMV game Immortality, with constant surprising discoveries recontextualizing its layers of stories within stories, making each scene I watched mean something a little bit different every time.
Like creator Sam Barlow’s previous works Her Story and Telling Lies, Immortality sets its players to the task of trawling through disjointed clips of archival video, piecing together a story in an unfixed order depending on the approach they take to searching the files. This time around, Barlow’s updated take on the concept includes some quality of life improvements that make navigation smoother, as well as a visual- rather than text-based method of finding links between clips: an “image mode” whereby clicking on objects and people in the scenes bring the players to new videos containing visually similar shots. And especially appealing to my interests, the story of Immortality has a lost media angle to it, centering on the mysterious career of a once-promising actress whose three films were never released. Jumping between videos via “image mode” exploration, players will be treated to a walk through several decades of film production as they unravel the mysteries surrounding a forgotten talent who could have been a star.
The quality of Immortality‘s writing and production is incredibly impressive in that it essentially comprises three unique and distinct movies within the game, as well as corresponding “behind-the-scenes” footage revealing the relationships of their overlapping cast and crew, and more. Ambrosio is an erotic religious epic about the temptations of a once-virtuous monk, while Minsky is a film noir exploring the subculture of New York artists in the 1970s, and Two of Everything—the last film in the story’s timeline, with its lead actress returning from a long hiatus—is a thriller about a pop star and her body double, reminiscent of Satoshi Kon’s classic Perfect Blue. I would watch each of these movies on their own if they existed outside of the fiction of the game, but their nature as interconnected parts of a larger work makes them even more intriguing, with recurring imagery and themes bringing players on a dreamlike journey that jumps around between them all. The actors involved all give excellent performances in the double—or more—roles of film characters and the actors playing them, with some of them even pulling off the feat of playing convincingly bad actors at points. And bringing it all together is Manon Gage as Marissa Marcel, her compelling portrayal of the story’s mysterious star keeping players questioning who she was and what happened to put a premature end to such a promising career.
The non-linear nature of Immortality ensures that every player will have a slightly different experience. My partner introduced me to the game by showing me a few of the first clips he had unlocked—inspiring me to forbid him from spoiling anything else, and change my evening plans to allow for starting it myself immediately. A couple days later, I was a few hours into it and still hadn’t come across some of those “early” scenes he had played for me—while he’d had time to finish it, and was surprised that I had already found some scenes that had come much later for him. As a result, the story unraveled in a different way for me than it did for him, with various hints and reveals hitting differently depending on the seemingly miniscule choices we had made about where to click when. If there’s one criticism I might level at the project, it’s that the element of randomness that allows for this variation in progression also makes it tedious for players who have reached the end credits to go back and unlock the few clips they’re still missing—anyone trying to 100% the steam achievements for this one is in for a bit of a slog. I experienced some frustration myself as well when I got to a point where I realized that I was clearly missing something big, but wasn’t quite sure what, and had to spend a while fiddling around with the various menu options before the nature of one of the game’s secrets finally clicked.
But for anyone considering embarking on this journey, my advice would be that there’s truly no “wrong” way to play Immortality. The game is best enjoyed if you try to let go of those completionist concerns, and just immerse yourself in the narrative, exploring the pieces of the three films that interest you most and interpreting them according to your own instincts. However you come to understand the many mysteries of Marissa Marcel, her story is sure to leave an immortal impact.