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Immortality Review

It’s cinema, Marty.

It’s difficult to know exactly where to begin with a game like Immortality. This is, in large part, because there’s never really been a game like it. Creator Sam Barlow has utilised this self-made genre before, pitting players against live-action footage with simple search tools to solve a mystery. Telling Lies and Her Story were lauded at the time and rightfully so, but with Immortality, Barlow and the team at Half Mermaid have risen to dizzying new heights. The result is a game that truly lives up to the medium’s promise, a magic trick so compelling and seamless as to make interactive fiction feel new again.

Plucked from small-time commercial modelling by an ageing director, Marissa Marcel is a woman wholly obsessed with the creation of art through film. Her career spans three decades of cinema with a modest but creatively rich body of work. 1968’s Ambrosio, with its shock value titillation, propels her into the spotlight during a short press tour. The film is never released. In 1970, she reunites with Ambrosio’s director of photography, John Durick, to create Minksy, a crime thriller set to shake up the genre. The film is never finished. 1999, twenty years later, she works with Durick once more on Two of Everything, a heady reflection on stardom and identity. Durick dies. The film is abandoned. Marissa Marcel vanishes.

Manon Gage collides with the camera in every scene

Unravelling these events, pulling on any which thread you can possibly grope for in the dark, is the main thrust of Immortality. An archive of old footage has been recovered, including hours of rehearsals, TV interviews, candid conversations, auditions and more. Each glimpse into Marcel’s world is as compelling and strange as the next. It is overwhelming, not just considering the sheer volume of time and events available to you, but as a game also. This isn’t a traditional experience the medium has taught us to navigate. No map, no quest, no space to inhabit. It’s just you and the footage. So you begin to watch.

Immortality equips you with an editing suite of sorts, modelled after the 1920s Moviola technology. With these devices, the first of their kind, directors could assemble, edit and view footage in real-time. You begin the game with a full grid of clips and choose your starting point, after which the footage must be uncovered via the game’s astounding match cut mechanic. Along with basic playback options such as rewind, frame by frame and so on, you’re invited to let instinct guide you to your next clip by spying something in the environment and highlighting it with your cursor. From here the game swiftly zooms in and, performing some magic in the background, zooms back out again, having moved you into a new clip with a related focus point.

Decades of Marissa Marcel’s life are condensed into the grid to be explored

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Via the match cut, you are ripped through years of footage in an instant, with almost no control over where you land or what you may see next. This is disorientating for the first hour or so, compounding that overwhelming feeling as you rapidly attempt to find solid ground in an ever-shifting landscape. The match cut technique gives Immortality a palpable sense of interactivity that is somehow both entirely player-driven and completely out of your hands. You are sent careening into the unknown with a ferociousness fuelled by your own curiosity and the game’s incredible mechanical design.

Given that lack of traditional play space or even contextualised perspective, you’re not playing as anyone other than yourself. With narrative safeguards abandoned, the turn of the screw typically reserved for protagonists is felt personally and directly. There is no layer of separation between you and the world of Immortality, and that intimacy is intoxicating to the point of nausea. The unity of the game’s mechanical aspirations and its thematic work is immaculately well realised, the kind of achievement you almost forget we’re chasing as a medium. The way you nudge through scenes, pausing on frames and scouring it for new jumping-off points, only to have your involvement twisted over time is astounding.

Immortality blurs the lines between fiction and reality with disturbing ease

As Marcel’s life unfolds before you and the rabbit hole gnaws and widens, you lose yourself in this world. You lean in closer to the screen, consuming and discarding theories and threads as your eye is drawn to an infinite number of possibilities in the footage. Immortality is far bigger than you understand at the outset, eagerly rewarding patience and curiosity. Peeling back the layers is immensely satisfying, though what lurks underneath is often disturbing. Marcel becomes less of a person, more of an object to be observed and studied and devoured by that part of your brain that screams to look away from the tragedy but hungrily eyes it all the same. It’s voyeuristic, cruel, and utterly compelling from start to finish.

This delirium is reflected in much of Immortality’s films and characters, a mirroring of player experience that heightens tension and baits curiosity. Marcel is passed between the men of Immortality with impunity, a canvas onto which they project themselves to awful effect. The ways in which the game comments on and condemns the Hollywood machine are myriad and nuanced, ruminating on the commodification of bodies and people in art, both commercial and personal. With little else but barely audible hushed conversations, off-screen glances and body language, Marcel and the people orbiting her during these films are shockingly human. Immortality is infinitely cryptic but understands when, and how, to remind you of this fact.

Immortality presents unflinching adult content, from violence to sex.

This is also achieved by the performances that solidify Immortality’s concepts into gut-wrenching reality. Manon Gage’s work as Marcel headlines the project – a remarkable performance that manages to delicately conceal the character’s truth while letting the mask slip just enough for the player to get lost in her face. Elsewhere, Hans Christopher imbues John Warrick with a strange sadness that paradoxically invokes your sympathy even amid the game’s critical lens on men like him. Jocelin Donahue, who only appears in one of the films, delivers a slow burn that had me involuntarily clench whenever I saw her in a scene. And while there isn’t a single bad performance in the game, a final and special nod to Charlotta Mohlin is deserved, who’s work here can’t possibly be discussed yet, but is something I will be thinking about for years to come.

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Much like Mohlin’s work, there is so much more to say about Immortality that is simply best left unsaid. The joy of exploration and discovery here is unmatched in modern gaming, with its closest possible comparison point being something like Breath of the Wild. But even that feels trivial to both games. All of this to say, Immortality begs to be experienced for yourself. The game gently reminds you at the beginning that this isn’t something you can do wrong, there are no fail states or mistakes. Just sit down, grab a pen and paper, and start sifting through the archive. The game also encourages the use of headphones and a controller–the former I cannot recommend enough, though I personally found the feedback from my keyboard more satisfying as a matter of personal taste. There is also a content warning in the main menu that’s worth a glance before diving in as Immortality is very much an adult game.

The movies within the game are amazingly well-realised in their own right

It’s difficult to say how long it can take to ‘finish’ the game either, but for reference, I hit credits at about the five-hour mark before immediately diving back in and uncovering even more footage and revelations. Mystery aside, combing through this footage is just a deeply rewarding exercise in craftsmanship and aesthetics. Everything from costume design to sets to audio mixing is tuned to perfection, each era of Marcel’s life reflected in the quality of the footage and what you watch unfold. Nainita Desai’s score hums under all of this, a whip-smart collection of sombre piano and surprisingly evocative period pieces. Even now as I write this I realise that Desai was pulling the strings in one of the game’s puzzles, trying to get me to see what was right in front of me.

Final Thoughts 

If I thought it was difficult to know where to begin with a game like Immortality, how to summarise its impact is next to impossible. In the coming months, much will be said of its performances, its commitment to historical tone and aesthetics, its cutting writing and magical mechanics. When we can all talk about Immortality in its totality, even more will be said of its ambitions, its true face and its ability to make the player both complicit and victim. Barlow and Half Mermaid have transcended here, crafting a haunting glimpse at the potential of the medium. Immortality taps into some cosmic force and brings its beautiful, terrifying light to yield.

Reviewed on PC // Review code supplied by publisher

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Immortality Review
Movie Magic
A true achievement in game design and interactive fiction, Immortality is a gorgeous and haunting magic trick that sets a new standard for the medium.
The Good
Immaculate balancing of game design, theme and player interactivity
Gorgeous production values and performances
A moving and thoughtful examination of art and the self
Makes an overwhelming task easy and satisfying to play
The Bad
I can't talk spoilers yet
10
Godlike
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  • Sam Barlow, Half Mermaid
  • Half Mermaid
  • Xbox Series X|S / PC / Mac / iOS / Android
  • August 30, 2022

Immortality Review
Movie Magic
A true achievement in game design and interactive fiction, Immortality is a gorgeous and haunting magic trick that sets a new standard for the medium.
The Good
Immaculate balancing of game design, theme and player interactivity
Gorgeous production values and performances
A moving and thoughtful examination of art and the self
Makes an overwhelming task easy and satisfying to play
The Bad
I can’t talk spoilers yet
10
Godlike
Written By James Wood

One part pretentious academic and one part goofy dickhead, James is often found defending strange games and frowning at the popular ones, but he's happy to play just about everything in between. An unbridled love for FromSoftware's pantheon, a keen eye for vibes first experiences, and an insistence on the Oxford comma have marked his time in the industry.

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