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Immortality (PS5)

By Lee Mehr 23rd Feb 2024 | 4,185 views 

While Immortality can't consistently maintain its tempo, Sam Barlow & Co.'s avant-garde approach to FMV game design & storytelling remains a genuine achievement.

Lights, Camera, Action!  While the concept is challenged within Immortality, Writer/Director Sam Barlow has built up an auteur image with a particular FMV template.  They're not simply about indulging in a cache of video clips with some binary choices, but rather in tinkering with an interface, unearthing secrets nested within limited gameplay mechanics, and connecting disparate story threads all the while.  And now the ante has increased in both volume and production value; instead of Her Story's or Telling Lies' desktop video files, now there's genuinely professional film clips during production and rehearsal that emulate their appropriate eras.  While such cinematic appeals will cause some to recoil over its game credentials, the core mystery remains an enticing specifically for balancing on that tightrope.
That main mystery is seen in Immortality's advertising: "what happened to Marissa Marcel?"  This model-turned-actress wound up starring in three unreleased movies: 1968's Ambrosio, 1970's Minsky, & 1999's Two of Everything (2OE for short).  Why did these films never release to theaters and what caused that near-30 year career gap?  You'll uncover this and more through editing software with a simple premise: hitting pause and clicking on any valid intractable – be it person, prop, and so on – within said scene will teleport you to the closest-available match cut across any of the film trio.  What begins as one singular cutscene to watch quickly blossoms into a vast web of footage.

What sounds a bit unintuitive on paper actually makes for an enticing hook.  Not only does it provide a consistent amount of small dopamine hits via investigation, there's this unknown wonder in seeing what's on the other side: selecting a standard crucifix in one freeze frame can transport you to an ornate one covered in blood; further, a still painting in 2OE could lead to a new rehearsal scene in Minsky.  The ways it can zig and zag between eras, visual tones, and story beats with such fluidity feels mind-boggling upon first glance.  Discoveries aren't just made through scene-hopping either.  Like the old 'subliminal messages' trope when playing tapes in reverse, rewinding certain scenes at the right spot will reveal enigmatic superimposed images or sometimes lead to different clips within this film reel.  

This mastery of time and space that lends Half Mermaid's work so much initial inertia.  Like Barlow's previous titles, if you're willing to dedicate the time with a notepad, you'll naturally assume the role of an investigator feverishly cross-referencing leads, character revelations, and filling in the gaps.  Because of these interconnected timelines, the various dramas on- and off-set, and the material itself, my initial notes had so many potential ideas to piece through.  There's this Pavlovian conditioning to acquiring new material and rewinding all the way to the clapperboard (usually) to ensure nothing goes unnoticed.

Once that wave of genuine excitement subsides, the work of collecting later scenes blunted my interest for total completion several hours in – despite piecing everything together before that.  Granted, ennui for any game will eventually develop when you're processing familiar information; that said, Immortality's little annoying things can feel like sizable papercuts for late-game work in a different way.  I have a strong hunch certain scenes are relegated behind invisible walls, despite having familiar match cuts to pluck from, which made finding some integral scenes (like of a killing, for instance) too much of a chore.  Sometimes what seem like valid interactables are just phony – they merely zoom in and then out.  These qualms are exacerbated when you get in the mood to intentionally learn more; the tendency to hop back to previously-viewed reels while you're hungry for clearer answers gets increasingly tedious as time goes on and the rewards feel less consistent.

At least the mere pleasure of watching clips never goes out of style.  Like the elaborate item-matching sequences themselves, Immortality's stars shine by inhabiting roles across different timelines and tones.  From Manon Gage's Marissa to Hans Christopher's John Durick, there are so many minute authentic moments captured between every individual that wouldn't feel as comfortable in another medium.  And, granted, while still meant to be a game primarily, so much of the story leans into the authenticity of scriptwriting, rehearsing dialogue, set design, and all the other qualities in filmmaking for a specific point.  To see every actor act out so many roles – the difference between awkward rehearsal phase, pre-rolling temperament, and standard acting – never stops being entertaining, especially when they ham it up. 

That's what Sam Barlow & co. excel at here: the artistic process itself.  Sure, there’s an understated possession narrative that acts as the glue and genuinely good horror, but the way Immortality interrogates the nature of art, and the potential naked abuses in pursuing it, has the most meat to dissect and appreciate.  I'm keeping details close to the chest and I know these obscure praises would tempt anyone into thinking it's utterly pretentious, but there's more than meets the eye.  The brief windows into these characters off-screen, intermingled with their roles during production, makes for some of the most layered character drama seen in recent games.  Even if the main plot doesn't quite stick the landing (best to ignore the Wikipedia page altogether), those greater qualities surpass its unfortunate flubs.  The added bonus of the three unreleased films, like 2OE's Britney Spears pop era attitude or Ambrosio's salacious religious-themed sex thriller, having schlocky enjoyment in their own right is icing on the cake. 

While Half Mermaid's avant-garde FMV game isn't immortalized in my list of art games, it still earns great respect.  The vigilant dedication to its hidden-object/editing shtick along with an intricate narrative makes for a unique fusion on the art of filmmaking that could only be told in game form.  Granted, betting all the chips leads to a suspicious amount of tedium once you're intentionally scouring for new footage; that said, it's impossible to overstate how enticing everything initially feels when breezing from scene to scene with total disregard.  Similarly, peeling back the layers of this onion deserves more praise than the narrative proper, but the thematic ambitions and avenues it's willing to explore capture something truly special.

Contractor by trade and writer by hobby, Lee's obnoxious criticisms have found a way to be featured across several gaming sites: N4G, VGChartz, Gaming Nexus, DarkStation, and TechRaptor! He started gaming in the mid-90s and has had the privilege in playing many games across a plethora of platforms. Reader warning: each click given to his articles only helps to inflate his Texas-sized ego. Proceed with caution.

VGChartz Verdict


This review is based on a digital copy of Immortality for the PS5, provided by the publisher.

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