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.

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12 thoughts on “The Shattered Glass

  1. Wow, I’ve gotta take a look at this game! I just got around to playing Telling Lies a few weeks ago and I wished Barlow had experimented a bit more – it felt pretty similar to Her Story but not as satisfying or coherent. Keen to see the results of his newest experiment!

  2. I think the impression I got fits with your ideas here, which is: I liked the *vibes* of the various pieces better than the thing they assemble themselves into.

  3. Zara, not sure how to respond on this without murdering this thread with spoilers. I suppose I will just say that story revelations didn’t have the same impact on me but I had a bit of a wobble about “the trajectory” very early on, but that passed. Man, this is a crappy comment with no nutrition.

  4. Hello, my good lads! I still have to catch up to Electron Dance’s content. Last time I saw, King Charles III was still a prince. Great work on the site, it got an amazing look, I don’t remember if I already said anything about it.

    Didn’t know this game, seems interesting, I will try to play before reading your next article on this. Last week, I was thinking about a certain poem by Emily Dickinson, Distance – is not the Realm of Fox, because of an open course online about American Modern Poetry I’m just starting to follow. And found similar considerations and had an obsession to figure out the poem. It seemed to me like a non linear, poetic game, a kind of detective work and hidden storytelling. I wonder if game design can benefit from poetic thinking. I find interesting the difference you make between the form you played Her Story and this Immortality, how you had or wanted to take notes on the first and in the second you get driven through the experience. So I’m thinking about how our cognitive abilities can also be a part of the gaming experience, if you catch my drift, in this case especially, our memories. Somehow this feels more immersive, using a piece of paper or whatever in real life to take notes or using your brain to store information because of your play. Don’t know, thinking out loud here.

  5. Excellent and entirely spoiler-free reactions! I’m quite interested in this game, though I haven’t picked it up yet. Sam Barlow seems to take a few steps further with each game he makes–technologically, thematically, etc-ly–and the worthless film degree embedded in me is excited by the idea that the interface mimics a Moviola NLE. I’m told (by Edge magazine) that this game is best suited for a controller, which fits the Moviola concept.

    Two things.

    First: Your point about lost classics conjured an idea in me. It seems that in some ways, anything that’s lost gets Special Classic Status; like if you don’t know, and can’t know, then it must perforce be awesome. We can be confident in the conviction because there’s no way to prove it wrong. Marcel’s films, all rather pulpy, would probably have been enjoyed but forgotten if they were ever actually released. Since they weren’t, they’re classics. Enjoying House of the Dragon? FOOL, The Long Night would’ve been WORLD-CHANGING if only HBO hadn’t cancelled it! A true classic, like Batgirl! Never mind that people who know what they’re doing shut it down; we’ll pretend that part away. I’m curious if we find out during the course of Immortality why these three films didn’t make it to cinemas.

    Second: What did the flooring do? What was its crime? Was it making noise late at night when you were trying to play your game? Was there no floor at all for a period of time, thus preventing you from sitting in a chair (which needs a floor or else it just falls into the void) which in turn prevented you from playing? I can understand how flooring installation would be loud and chaotic during the day, when flooring and flooring installers are typically active, but at night both return to their burrows. And–critically–do you still resent this flooring now that it’s in and life has returned to normal? That would be sad. Hate the floor, not the flooring. As they say.

    Great piece, Joel!

  6. Right, now that the evil and negative newsletter has made it to people’s inboxes, I can concentrate on some comment responses.

    Pedro

    Hello Pedro! Thanks for the kind comments about the theme. It has a few rough edges in places but hopefully I’ll get them fixed sometime in the next ten years.

    I quite like the act of writing notes but nowadays I find my desk is covered with the detritus of unfiled documents and charging devices, and I can lose my notes between games these days 🙂 So I don’t necessarily miss writing notes but I think they definitely enhance the sense that I’m “solving” something or actively “working”. It confers the feel of intellectual engagement even if it just writing a sequence of words.

    Steerpike

    Once again, the good ship Steerpike sails quietly into the harbour of Electron Dance. I didn’t try using the controller although it was plugged in and vibrated throughout play. I was tempted to unplug it.

    Talking of lost classics, it happens with people too: I hear JFK was the ultimate president, the distillation of an Angel on Earth. He got shot so we will never know. On “why these three films didn’t make it to cinemas” that’s certainly one of things you want to know when you get playing – but you soon get wrapped up in the characters and their trajectories rather than what happened to the films themselves?

    I can confirm that the flooring is loved now that it is in place. I just hate disruption. Where is the flooring genie when you need him? He can conjure hard wood without breaking a sweat.

  7. Pedro: “I wonder if game design can benefit from poetic thinking.” yes, absolutely it can.

    part of my ambivalence towards Immortality is that it feels anti-poetic. it explains itself too much; the thrust of the writing felt like it was trying to be _about_ something, rather than just to _be_ something.

    that said, i did get a glimmer of poetic feeling from one particular clip: which—perhaps not coincidentally—was built mostly from words written by someone outwith the game, that were performed by someone outwith the game… (to describe the clip in more detail would be to risk spoilers). and it might be that i am drawing from these elements of the clip more than the writers and actors of Immortality put into it. its hard to say for sure.

  8. I just want to echo the idea that the game works best with a controller. It definitely does, for multiple reasons. Sitting back on the couch is one of them, but I found those vibrations you mentioned Joel to be quite immersive and useful. The Moviola interface has some haptics to it, you feel the bump and shudder of hitting the end of the reel for example, and those who’ve played the whole thing with a mouse can imagine what that might feel like to scrub around with.

    Joel, I recommend Telling Lies. It’s the mechanics of Her Story with the polish and artistry of Immortality, if not quite as grand or well funded.

    I didn’t feel like the 3 films were high art either, but I didn’t feel like I was meant to. That said, I would probably watch them all.

    In this house we really appreciated the content warnings. They were accurate and useful for the mental wellbeing of us playing the game. Forewarned is forearmed, and there is material in there that is likely to be triggering for folks who have been through stuff. It was nice to have those warnings up-front, and then for the material to be mostly very mature and sensitive. It *is* a very adult game – I honestly think this might be the first game I’ve ever played that contained sex and nudity that felt in any way mature. I have a lot more I could add about this, but I’ll save it.

  9. I really need to work on the SPOILER version of this post, don’t I???

    I didn’t want to talk too much about the vibrations too much but, yes, they were helpful even though I wasn’t using the controller 🙂

    “this might be the first game I’ve ever played that contained sex and nudity that felt in any way mature” — yeah, I also want to add a lot more to this.

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