Immortality is the latest interactive fiction project from Sam Barlow of Her Story and Telling Lies fame, a creator with a penchant for combining interactivity and film in ways that allow the player to experience a degree of discovery while simultaneously telling an intriguing story.

Immortality is easily the most ambitious of the three, a decades-spanning story featuring three entire films with one (immediate) link — the presence of the enigmatic and alluring Marissa Marcel. It’s a grand tale of deception and power, it’s an exploration of late 60s cinema trends, it’s a showcase of some of the worst wigs ever put on film and it is perhaps the least successful of Barlow’s modern trilogy of games.

The elevator pitch is simple enough. You have a database of scenes from the lost films featuring Marissa Marcel. It begins as an incomplete database, and you must attempt to complete it by searching through the scenes you have to find links to missing ones. Through them, you will uncover the mystery at the heart of the game — what’s the deal with Marissa Marcel?

In practice, this involves an innovative film scrubbing system wherein the player can move forward and backwards through scenes, pause at any point and then select an object to investigate. If you see a cool yellow vase, you can click on it and find yourself taken to a yellow vase in a different scene. It might be the same vase, but it might not be. It might not even be a scene from the same film.

Carl stands naked in a loft apartment in the film Minsky

Immortality contains within it three films. The first is Ambrosio, a nunspoitation/sexploitation film about a Monk who experiences temptation. The second is Minsky, a New York underground thriller about a murdered artist.  And the third is Two of Everything, a film about a popstar who pays a heavy price for fame.

And so the yellow vase might be a completely different flower receptacle in a completely different film — but if the link exists, Immortality will make it, and it will take you there.

The most obvious connection between these three films is Marissa Marcel, a young woman who appears in all three films looking the same age the entire time — despite the first and last of the three being filmed 30 years apart. And there lies the central mystery at the heart of Immortality.

It’s a game that is deliberately vague in teaching the player, because discovery is at the core of the game loop itself — telling you anything feels like it might rob you, so the game shies away. And so it begins with a very simplistic, very basic tutorial — just enough to cover the mechanical elements of the scrubbing system without explaining them — and then it thrusts you into the deep end with no regard as to whether or not you can swim. That’s a reference you’ll get once you play Immortality, but I won’t describe it here.

Except that telling you there’s a reference you’ll only get later is, in fact, a rather large piece of information because Immortality outwardly tells you nothing at all. It expects you to retain information as you see it, and then later it changes contexts and alters everything you thought you knew. And later, it will do it again.

A scene from Two of Everything featuring Andrew and Maria on stage

It makes it difficult to grasp any information at all, because you can’t ever be sure of the context. You feel as though you only ever have a percentage of the story, you’re working from incomplete information.

In Her Story, this was used to great effect as players slowly but surely followed the threads to unravel the entire mystery behind it. Telling Lies was more ambitious but less successful due to the expanded nature of the narrative. And Immortality, which is more ambitious again, finds itself not really working at all sometimes.

Her Story was like putting a jigsaw puzzle together, but the pieces were all blank — all you had to go on was the shapes. When you finished the puzzle it magically transformed into a complete picture, and you felt a sense of achievement for your effort.

Telling Lies followed the same structure, except now you had three jigsaw puzzles all in the same box. Frustration came when pieces that should have fit together didn’t, because the only reason you knew they didn’t fit was the failure itself. The upside was that when you finally succeeded, you felt smarter still.

But the scrub system in Immortality lacks the precision of Her Story or even Telling Lies. If a yellow vase only appears twice throughout the three Marcel films, then clicking on that jar will take you between the two repeatedly. But Marissa appears in thousands of frames in these three films, and clicking on her face can take you almost anywhere between them.

Say you are watching a rehearsal scene from Two of Everything. They are rehearsing a phone call between Marissa’s character and her agent. You select Marissa’s face, and it takes you to a table read for Ambrosio, where Marissa sits with the rest of the cast and talks through a sermon.

So far, so good.

If you click on Marissa’s face again, it might take you to another scene in Ambrosio — this time she prays while knelt beside the film’s testitular character. But maybe it doesn’t. Maybe it takes you to a video where Marissa helps the director of Minsky scout locations, instead. Fair enough, right? There are hundreds of scenes, all of them theoretically containing the star of the films.

Marissa (left) and John (right) sit side by side as John tells the camera he will audition for the role of Minsky in the film of the same name

The problem arises when you go back to that original scene, the phone call in Two of Everything. Because when you click on Marissa again, you have no idea where it will take you. It might take you straight back to the Ambrosio table read, but it might take you somewhere else entirely.

And that is the problem at the heart of Immortality. Because if Her Story and Telling Lies are about piecing together puzzles using the barest elements of context, then Immortality is the same — except you don’t get to choose the puzzle pieces you use.

When it works, you’ll wind up going down rabbit holes into scenes you didn’t know existed, didn’t know could exist. But when you feel you have a grasp on the central narrative of the game, and you want to make meaningful progress, you realise that decision isn’t actually in your hands. You lack the agency to make that happen.

And it might not be random. I’m actually fairly certain it is not. I think perhaps it’s related to timestamps, or frame counts. But that information isn’t available to the player, so it can’t be used as context in your efforts. 

It turns the final 10% of Immortality into a frustrating crap shoot, as you swing wildly in the dark trying to make anything at all work. I reached a logical conclusion for the game and continued playing for another half an hour before the credits rolled. I don’t know why the game didn’t finish earlier, when I reached the end of its story, and I don’t know why it finished when it did, when I watched a seemingly random scene.

Marissa Marcel as Maria stares out of frame with a single tear on her cheek

I could tell you what I think happens in Immortality based on my incomplete picture of it, but I couldn’t tell you how to finish it yourself. And I think that’s a mistake, because people don’t want to discuss theories about stories if they can’t also tell people how to acquire the same information that allowed them to come to their conclusions.

If we return to the puzzle analogy, the joy of the jigsaw isn’t in having a complete picture — it’s in the act of putting it together. But Immortality doesn’t really allow you to put it together — you are a step removed from that, instead rolling dice to select a piece to try at random and witnessing the results.

Still, I think Immortality is worth playing. Or experiencing, anyway. Ambrosio, Minksy and Two of Everything are three films I wouldn’t typically watch, but the performances contained within each are fantastic. And the meta-narrative, the mystery of Marissa Marcel, is spectacularly put together. I just wish I was more involved in the uncovering.

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