There are many different kinds of games, and there are more kinds of games now than there ever have been. Independent video game development has made it so that people with the most eclectic of ideas have an avenue to deliver their stories and play experiences to many people. A game like Undertale or Celeste would have way less luck getting released by a publisher. Another similarly eclectic game is Her Story, an FMV (Full-Motion Video) detective game, where you watch interviews and look for keywords to find more information.
Her Story was directed by Sam Barlow in 2015, and received rave reviews for its unique method of nonlinear storytelling and detective gameplay. Since then, Barlow has released multiple spiritual successors, including the subject of today’s review, Immortality. But this game has people asking more than just “is it good?” Indeed, people are wondering: “is it even a game to begin with?”
Immortality presents itself as a piece of software that is meant to allow the user to learn more information about an actress named Marissa Marcel, who had long since disappeared. Barlow made another mystery-based FMV, and where Her Story focused on searching for keywords, this game has you daisy chaining from one video to the next by clicking on different people and objects in the video. When you click on these elements, you will be shown more video clips that are relevant to what you clicked on.
An unconventional storytelling method is what sets this game apart
Much like most FMV games out there, Immortality is definitely not going to light the world on fire with its ‘gameplay’. However, much like many other FMV games, its focus is deeply rooted in having both an interesting story, as well as an interesting way to tell that story.
In Immortality, you start off with a late-night talk show interview between two fictional characters, both of whom are framed as though they exist in our world. This footage, much like all other footage in the game, is designed to feel ‘of the time’ (for instance, this is clearly in reference to 60s-70s talk show, resembling Johnny Carson).
You can choose to speed up or slow down this clip, as well as rewind it (which can also be done faster or slower). The interviewee is named Marissa Marcel, who would go on to appear in three films that never reach the light of day (which you are tasked with perusing). The objective is to figure out what happened to her, and the mystery behind these happenings.
Once the first clip is finished, or after having paused the clip, you can click on one of the figures in the clip to see other clips they may have appeared in. The same mechanics apply in these clips, and the experience of Immortality reminds me a lot of the film Inception. Except instead of a dream inside of a dream, you have a clip inside of a clip.
You can find more clips to explore by clicking on people in the clips, though this mechanic is not limited to just people. Objects in the video can also be used as a frame of reference, allowing you to see a clip that not only may contain said item, but may instead contain an item of the same type as it.
The story is told in a non-chronological manner, encouraging you to not only explore these clips, but also find ways to reveal clips by modifying the clips in some ways. I won’t spoil the story, so don’t worry about reading this review if you don’t want to have the experience ruined for you. All I’ll say is that it was quite an interesting story to follow from beginning to end, with a lot of unexpected twists along the way.
The actors do a great job as their characters’ characters
There is a lot of depth that goes into all the acting in this game, and you can tell that the actors are giving it their all. Each real-world actor is essentially playing multiple characters. These actors have to play the in-universe actors, as well as everyone the fictional actors portray in the game. These characters, no matter how good or rotten they may be, are fascinating to watch, and Barlow clearly did an excellent job directing his actors.
Nevertheless, we should be cautious not to give Barlow outsized credit for the successes of others involved in the production. Credit where credit is due, of course, but a good actor brings a lot to the table, rather than being something for Barlow to mold. There is far more to a production than just the person in charge of things.
What does Immortality have to say about filmmaking?
Despite being a video game, the game does a lot of legwork to talk about the filmmaking industry. The story focuses on actors reading their lines and generally having camaraderie with one another. However, in spite of this camaraderie, there is also plenty of tension to go along with it. We see how trying to make a quality film can be mentally and physically draining, as well as the more toxic side of the industry.
The story itself, more than anything, centers around the idea of making movies, showing us actors portraying characters across various in-universe films. It’s interesting to watch the dynamics play out between these characters, particularly because it does a good job from the very beginning to make apparent how subtly tense things can be. It made me wonder if my read of a situation as tense or uncomfortable was just my imagination, or if there was something more to it.
Hollywood is no stranger to disregarding the value of actors and other people involved in a film’s production, and Immortality tells a story about such abuse. This abuse goes even further than simply disregarding workers, however, and touches upon misogyny as well.
The misogyny is by no means subtle or casual, however, as the story tells of just how dangerous misogyny in the industry can be.to virulent misogyny, and Immortality seeks to take aim at those who perpetuate it. It should come as no surprise that this game gets into heavy topics, especially due to the fact that the game opens with content warnings about abuse and sexual assault.
Can Immortality be used as an example of games as art?
‘Games as art’ is a rather contentious topic for a variety of reasons. On one hand, you have people who want video games to be treated as art, just as movies, books, and television often are. On the other hand, there are people who not only don’t care about whether games are art, but wish people would stop talking about it.
Immortality is in a bit of an awkward niche. Not to suggest that it is not art, nor that a game like that can be art, but there’s something to be said about what makes a game art. After all, games are different media than a movie or show, and there are many who believe that what defines games as art should not be the same methodology for other media. I definitely understand where that perspective comes from, though I’m not personally not in agreement with the idea of being too strict with respect to what can and cannot be art.
While some have criticized the game for attempting to adopt other media in order to portray its art, I think that’s not really the whole picture (no pun intended). While there’s a lot of artistry when it comes to the depiction of old Hollywood, I think that the way you navigate these clips, and how they show giving us a look into the lives of various fictional celebrities, is really clever, and I always find myself finding more threads to unravel. If an art game is defined as delivering a unique gaming experience, then Immortality definitely fits that definition.
But in the end, does it even matter whether there is some valuable arbiter of what is art? Does it mean that a game you like being art is important? Art is entirely subjective, and you will also find plenty of examples where something you might consider art is not thought that way by others. Honestly, just enjoy what you want to enjoy, and appreciate what you want to appreciate. So what if someone disagrees?
When all is said and done, if you don’t like this kind of game, nothing I can say will convince you. Heck, you may even feel that calling it a game is not even accurate, which I will agree to disagree on this matter. To me, what defines a game is entirely subjective, often arbitrary, and for me, pretty broad. Even back in the DS days, I was arguing on GameFAQs about how games like Brain Age, Nintendogs, and even English Training qualified as games, and I think that a game with limited interactivity like Immortality still qualifies.
For what it’s worth, I felt that my time through Immortality was enjoyable and interesting, which honestly, that’s all I could ask for. I can safely say that I’ve never played anything like it before, and that includes anything Barlow’s made previously. I don’t think I’ll be doing much in the way of replaying this game in the future, but for what I did play, because it was a pretty fascinating experience. I look forward to seeing what Barlow can do with this format in the future. Will he make a more traditional title? Or will he go even deeper into games as art?
- A unique storytelling method
- Navigating through clips to discover new ones is fun
- The actors did a really good job, both as their characters and the roles their characters play
- The story goes to some very interesting places
- There’s nothing like it out there
- The premise of looking at old Hollywood has a lot of meat to it and has depth
- It can be a little aimless at first