Immortality review – Reeling in the years

Immortality is the latest full-motion video (FMV) mystery by developer Sam Barlow, and his team at Half Mermaid Productions. The premise is unapologetically high-concept: actress Marissa Marcel starred in three unreleased movies, each in a different genre, in 1968, 1970, and 1999. Nobody has seen her since her last film was made. The player’s task is to watch clips from her movies to piece together what really happened to her. Aside from the unedited production footage, the game includes (fictional) behind-the-scenes clips, rehearsals, table reads, and screen tests.

Content advisory: Immortality features potentially upsetting subject matter. The game launches with a content warning that may not fully prepare audiences for more intense parts of the experience. No spoilers are provided in this review, but we felt it was necessary to highlight this.

All this archival sleuthing happens on a grid interface that simulates a vintage Moviola editing machine. However, unlike their analog counterparts, these virtual film strips can be easily reorganized by production date or the order that the scenes appear in each movie.

Immortality - exploring footage via the game's expansive video grid

To unlock new film clips, you’re challenged to search for visual elements that are shared with other reels: cast members, production crew, props, and even lighting styles. This uses a standard point-and-click mechanic, familiar to graphic adventures and hidden object games, using a cursor to find “hot spots” in a static frame.

In that sense, Immortality clearly builds on many of the investigative gameplay elements from Barlow’s previous releases. Her Story (2015) had single-use keywords as a way to search for new footage. Meanwhile, Telling Lies (2020) used an in-game timer to ramp up the tension. That makes it easy to recommend Immortality for anyone who’s already a fan of his work. However, the shared aspects with Barlow’s earlier titles mean that Immortality is unlikely to win over cynics towards FMV narrative games.

With stylized aesthetics matching each genre, Immortality seems like an ideal gateway title for middlebrow film enthusiasts who don’t ordinarily play video games.

Then who else will Immortality appeal to? Well, for one thing, the three movies have major arthouse cineaste vibes. With stylized aesthetics matching each genre, Immortality seems like an ideal gateway title for middlebrow film enthusiasts who don’t ordinarily play video games.

Ambrosio (1968)—Marcel’s screen acting debut—is a Gothic tragedy set in a repressive Spanish monastery that gradually explores more overtly paranormal elements. The film draws on giallo (Italian pulp cinema) tropes and the blasphemous surrealism of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain. Minsky (1970) is a noir detective procedural against the backdrop of New York’s decadent art scene, co-written by Marcel. The cinematography and production design are a heady mix of post-hippie excess and vintage cop show gravitas. Two of Everything (1999) marks the end of Marcel’s long hiatus, and takes its cues from psychological suspense thrillers like Christopher Nolan’s Memento and Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream.

As a reviewer in my early 40s, who first rented these films in college, I hadn’t even considered that they had a distinct period-specific look, until I played through these segments. Granted, some of the visual symbolism feels a bit obvious: crosses, snakes, and forbidden fruits. But these on-the-nose elements also serve the gameplay, making the subtler clues more accessible and recognizable for less genre-savvy players.

Immortality - Marissa Marcel costume test from Ambrosio (1968)

All three segments of the game are held together by the performances of the uncredited actress who plays Marissa Marcel. Throughout frequent changes of wardrobe and hairstyle, Marcel is shown to be gifted at internalizing the nuances of her roles. There’s a veritable thrill in figuring out when Marcel has stopped being in character after a take ends, and how she puts elements of her off-camera personality into each part.

Barlow’s team does not shy away from presenting the uglier, retrogressive elements of the Hollywood studio system, as disclosed in the game’s extensive content warning. A slimy producer gets handsy with actresses. A director openly treats his crew with casual lewdness. The cast are encouraged to flirt with each other inappropriately, in the interest of screen chemistry. On-set safety appears woefully lax.

It can get especially difficult in scenes featuring carnal acts by the fictional cast. Without the help of modern intimacy coordinators, there’s an uncomfortable ambiguity between in-character ravishing and the cast members’ personal intentions. This applies to consensual love-making scenes as much as fictionalized sexual assault.

“It’s clear that Half Mermaid designed these moments to be thought-provoking, but the possible end result is that Immortality can be a fraught, unsettling play experience and it’s an unfortunate crease on what would otherwise be a superior example of the game’s intended genre and style.”

Immortality - Table read for Ambrosio (1968)

But on the whole, Immortality is a great example of how to push the boundaries of an FMV narrative game. The match cut feature and Moviola interface are the perfect mechanics to address the persistent critique that FMV games are ‘just’ a collection of non-linear cut scenes. Moreover, they work in the service of the larger investigative meta-arc about Marissa Marcel’s disappearance.

Immortality pushes the boundaries of the FMV narrative game. Its mechanics address the persistent critique that FMV games are ‘just’ a collection of non-linear cut scenes and work in the service of the larger investigative meta-arc.

It’s almost impossible to discuss exactly how that mystery unfolds without spoiling crucial plot details. However, if you’re familiar with non-interactive research-based mysteries—like Archive 81 on Netflix or Elizabeth Kostova’s novel The Historian—you’ll probably guess that things eventually get spooky for the player-as-archivist. There may be sinister forces in play that are considerably more powerful than a smarmy Italian studio executive.

After logging nearly 18 hours of play, with 70% of achievements unlocked, there were still a handful of lingering uncertainties. Sure, I had answered the key question: what happened to Marissa Marcel? But the crux of Immortality is really figuring out how and why it happened. That’s an experience I would handily recommend for anyone who enjoys narrative games.

This game was reviewed on PC using a pre-launch review code provided by developer and publisher Half Mermaid.

Immortality review
An impressive accomplishment. This amazing game will likely endure as a classic of its genre and easily a highlight of the year.
Ideal for art film enthusiasts who don't ordinarily play video games
Impressive performances by actress who plays Marissa Marcel
The retro-styled films are fine pastiches of the genres they emulate
Raw depiction of the historical sexism in the film industry can get uncomfortable
Unlikely to appeal to gamers who aren't already fans of FMV adventures