The FMV mystery box of Immortality feels masterful
Whatever happened to Marissa Marcel? That’s the question at the core of Immortality, the latest from Sam Barlow’s Half Mermaid. It’s the third mystery from Barlow and co. told in full-motion video, or FMV, but it’s much more than a retread. In some ways, Immortality‘s match-cut deduction feels like it was inevitable.
I recently had a chance to both chat with the crew at Half Mermaid and play a short snippet of Immortality. And what’s striking about Immortality at first is how simply it starts. Much like Her Story and Telling Lies, Barlow’s latest is told through a user interface; rather than a computer text interface though, it’s essentially a recreation of an old Moviola machine.
Reels of film get layered across, as the game allows you to dive deep into the archives of three unreleased films that missing move star Marcel starred in. Barlow’s previous games pulled a similar idea: hand you a database of information, and then set you free to chase whatever catches your interest. Solve the mystery, learn more, or simply get side-tracked.
The segments play out across the ages, showing all the archived footage and takes from Marcel’s movies, along with plenty of behind-the-scenes moments and other bits of film. One major focus is the way movies have evolved over the years. The studio system that created Hollywood stars like Rita Hayworth was a focal point of research for Barlow and the team.
“When we think about films and stars, we think about people who will live forever through their work,” Barlow says about the name Immortality. “And in some cases somebody’s almost, their essence as a star almost, outlives the movies themselves.”
He jokes that whenever he picks a subject for a game, he does so as an “excuse” to do research. But the work has clearly gone in. Different time periods are noticeable, from the dress and behavior to the textural quality of the film.
One major difference is in how these FMV segments are shot. While Her Story and Telling Lies were certainly filmed as proper slices with sets, scripts, and all that entails, Immortality is about film itself—the movies Marissa Marcel made that never came to light. A significant chunk of the footage I saw was from takes of these actual films, like I was in the editing bay for Marcel’s lost pictures.
“A big part of this as well was getting to play around with a kind of richer aesthetic, and kind of have that type of fun,” said Barlow.
The thrill of being in that editor’s chair is getting the freedom to jump and cut your way through the footage. A main appeal of Half Mermaid and Barlow’s games in the past, for me, has been that freedom. They share a lot in common with detective stories, but it’s like you’re given the files and info from an old case and asked to fill in the blanks.
Previous Barlow games involved text database searches; type in the word “murder,” for example, and you’ll pull up every clip with the word “murder” in it. Narrow that down with a date or name, and you might find more specific information.
Immortality uses a visual match-cut system instead, where pausing and clicking on an object will automatically identify a clip with a similar or the same visual presence and cut to it. The trick is, this footage could be anything. In my playtime, I match-cut on a wig and it took me to someone’s bad haircut.
I picked a face in one setting, during the film of Marissa’s first film Ambrosio, and it took me to some behind-the-scenes cast party. A coffee cup in a late-night interview could jump me to a take from her most recent movie, leaping across decades in the process.
Life in technicolor
Immortality is, in a way, inspired by the team’s work on two FMV games and other projects leading up to that point. The scrutiny to pick through footage and analyze frame-by-frame. “There’s something really magical about looking that closely at film,” Barlow says.
And what surprised me was how seamlessly it worked. Immortality‘s magic trick of jumping from one scene to another never got old, and always seemed to surprise me. There were one or two occasions I looped back to an old clip, but for the most part, each new cut was a tug on the unraveling narrative thread.
I personally honed in on faces, trying to establish the group of people involved. I was looking at Marcel’s absence like an investigator at first, trying to figure out details and places. But I quickly got wrapped up in the movies and their process, too. I wound up watching a pretty lengthy scene of one of her early films, just because I wanted to watch the movie.
The mystery and intrigue still layered in through each scene, though. I only found that scene because during a different one, shot at a cast-and-crew party, I noticed a strange glance one person shot in Marcel’s direction. There are always layers of subtext, and Immortality gets you to naturally hone in on them, creating links and interpretations. All the while, the director whisks you along with every cut.
“Even having played this game and watched this footage for, you know, hundreds of hours at this point, it’s always surprising,” said Half Mermaid producer Natalie Watson of Immortality‘s cuts.
Barlow says the team overcame a lot of hurdles in making this technology work. While potential for object tracking exists in the film industry, it needs to function as a video game on a personal computer for Immortality, not a designated workstation.
“We basically have this like, Director AI now, that’s doing some algorithmic fun to really just follow the player,” said Connor Carson, lead programmer at Half Mermaid. “And you know, without giving too much away, based on the things that the player seems to be focusing on, based on a lot of different values and everything that we’re tracking throughout the player’s gameplay session, is attempting to make really smart decisions about where to send the player.”
The difference this made between Immortality and Barlow’s previous games was huge. In Telling Lies, for example, I was mostly paying attention to the script. Words were a key focus, as well as picturing both sides of the webcam footage playing out to create a pseudo-narrative. But in Immortality, I could already feel my focus honing in on the visual aspect. I was watching faces, nuances, and even just the way actors behaved, especially when they thought others weren’t watching.
What it creates is this incredible feeling of a back-and-forth between Immortality and the player. Choosing what objects to chase, whether I’m looking for more background or I just want to see what happens if I click on an apple, is answered with a match-cut teleportation. Sometimes I might stay within the same era and production. Or maybe I’m whisked off to a different time period altogether.
Searching for Marissa Marcel
There are some darker elements to Immortality as well. I’m staying quiet on certain things I discovered while playing, and I even tried to avoid tugging certain threads during my demo time, in order to properly dissect them once Immortality is out. But there are, much like the studio system that “created” Marissa Marcel, shadowy undercurrents to the story.
“The reason that game is called Immortality is because it’s very interested in mortality, and to what extent dying and the threat of or promise of death motivates humans in our creative endeavors,” Barlow teases.
It’s an era of pristine glitz and glamor, manufactured in a studio lot and sold out across the nation. And as the decades stretch on, I’m curious to see what did happen to Marissa Marcel. What happened that these movies never saw the light of day, and why did she star in only three?
These questions have been plaguing me since my demo ended, and thankfully it isn’t too long until Immortality launches on July 26. With Immortality, it feels like Barlow and the team are continuing to dig deeper into the potential of both mystery-solving and FMV as a medium. And if its strengths keep up over the length of the full game, Immortality could be the most fascinating exploration of these ideas yet.