What happened to Marissa Marcel? That, on the surface, is the question posed by Immortality (Half Mermaid, 2022). Marcel acted in three films – none of which were released – and then vanished. To find out what happened, Immortality puts all the original footage from those films and some related interviews at your disposal.
But there’s so much more going on here both in terms of the story it is telling and what creator Sam Barlow wants to talk about. Immortality is a love letter to cinema. But it is also angry. And hypnotic. And incredible.
Don’t worry, no spoilers here. I’m going to talk about why I have been fascinated – nay, obsessed – with Immortality for the last couple of weeks, except when new flooring was being installed in our house. Fuck that flooring for getting in the way of my unhealthy late night obsessions.
The conceit of the clip database game is simple and you might argue it’s a cheat. Write a story, cut it up into pieces and throw it at the player like confetti. Framing the process of piecing it back together as a game means the confusion casts it as a problem to be solved.
Nonlinear consumption of a story is not unusual. Scrambling a story is often used as a device to generate mystery and maybe give it a more intellectual sheen: after all, the audience must reconstruct a timeline in their head instead of following a chronologically-ordered script. Consider everything from Asimov’s The Gods Themselves to Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. Detective stories are also exercises in fragmented narratives, where the protagonist re-assembles the truth from the shattered glass of what-happened.
But these stories are still scripted and structured, leading you forwards to choreographed moments of epiphany. In contrast, Her Story hands complete control of the order over to the player and so everyone’s experience is different. Is Immortality the same? I suspect not.
In Her Story, you listened out for crucial new keywords that might unlock new interview clips and thus I scribbled out a page of notes. In Immortality, you click on something in the scene and the database will “match cut” to another scene featuring whatever you selected. I was surprised to learn this was a conceptual match rather than visual: if you match cut a window, you’ll be sent to any window somewhere else in the footage which could look entirely different. In this way, the clips are structured like a road network and you can only find a clip if you’re able to find a route of concepts – say, window to phone to cat – that will take you there.
Further, where you wind up after match cutting seems random; you can click on the same object multiple times and travel to different footage each time. This is why I suspect that Immortality can control what the player sees – when it randomly selects a clip, is it truly random? There are other aspects that more clearly suggest authorial control, but that would get us into spoilers.
The match cut mechanism is also an issue with Immortality as it can feel aimless at times. You just don’t have as much agency building out the footage database. Under the Her Story model, you might hear about something that happened “in Kensington” and immediately jot that down for text search. Outside of a few special exceptions, you’re just rolling the dice in Immortality and trying to flush out all of the entries that match a concept. This is why I took no notes at all during Immortality.
But it didn’t really bother me. When the final credits rolled, I understood most of the plot. Not everything and an important and seemingly obvious revelation hit me hard after that point. Immortality weaves together four or potentially five different stories; you cannot play Immortality casually.
I do have some gripes about the UI. It doesn’t feel as fluid as I’d like and I felt that the mouse and keyboard were at odds rather than complementary; everything from navigating the clip list to controlling clip playback. And it would be lovely to have a back button when you make a match cut mistake – but no, you have to quit back to the clip list and dig out where you were.
Still, everything that doesn’t work about Immortality was countered by its power. Many clips end on a frame which seems poignant in some inscrutable way but I realised it was just the beauty of the game itself: freezing the frame almost anywhere conjured a screenshot I was happy to share. Although not every screenshot was suitable for sharing as Immortality is unquestionably an adult game and the featured films are spattered with sex and violence.
While Immortality has a myriad of revelations that recontextualise clips you’ve already seen, I would discourage players from expecting M. Night Shyamalan twists. There is much more going on within Immortality and to reduce it to mere plot thrills does it a disservice. I know it is being tagged as a horror game but if that’s what you’re expecting, you’re going to taste disappointment. It’s as much a meditation on the power of art and the power of the artist as it is a mystery to be unravelled. I spent as much time thinking about what Immortality meant as I did thinking about the story.
Perhaps Immortality’s biggest flaw is that I was never convinced these films were high art. There’s an assertion that they were lost classics but what did I expect? That Sam Barlow’s team of writers were going to create three amazing lost epics within one game? However, the three films have important, thematic resonance for the story and that’s why it doesn’t matter as much as you might expect.
But it’s also fascinating to watch the process of filmmaking as you get to see everything from table readings to rehearsals to costume tests in addition to real filming. While some will quibble about the length of certain dry scenes, this is, without a doubt, an incredibly expensive production. The credit sequence is monstrously long.
Most of my favourite moments are when the actors perform multiple takes in a single clip as they try to find what works best. One of the most affecting moments is towards the end where Marcel, played by Manon Gage, does a second take on the spur of the moment for some seemingly ordinary lines after she opens a door. Chills.
But for two weeks, I could not stop thinking about Immortality. And when I had extracted every drop of footage trapped in its archive, I felt something akin to grief. There was no more Marissa Marcel, no more Carl Goodman, no more John Durick, no more [REDACTED].
And when a game lives on inside you, long after the credits have faded to black, you know that you’ve experienced something special.