What happened to Marissa Marcel? The actress starred in three films and seemed on a sure trajectory to success. But none of these were ever released and, after her final picture, she vanished. Decades later, the footage from these cancelled projects has been handed over to you. Sitting in your editing suite, scrolling through the celluloid, you are tasked with solving a mystery where each answer only brings with it more tantalising questions.
Marcel is the star of Immortality, the latest release by auteur indie developer Sam Barlow, who specialises in cinematic games in which players spool through filmed footage — all with real actors, not CGI avatars — to piece together a story. But Barlow doesn’t like to call his games “interactive movies”. “These are very much about filmed performance,” he tells me, “but they’re not really movies. The magic of movies is in the fact that there’s an edit — you’re being fed images in a very specific sequence.”
In contrast, his games are defined by non-linear storytelling. Players can uncover clips of footage in any order, following their detective’s instinct. In his brilliant breakout game, Her Story, this meant assembling filmed police interviews with a murder suspect. The follow-up, Telling Lies, asked players to watch video calls between characters to untangle a twisty tale of undercover cops and secret identities. Immortality is his most ambitious work to date, a love letter to cinema history which plays like a postmodern detective story — until it lurches boldly into cosmic horror.
Though Immortality is a game, you’ll be doing a lot of watching, sometimes not touching the controls for minutes at a time. This is easy to enjoy because the footage is so compelling. Marcel’s oeuvre includes erotic thriller Ambrosio, detective noir Minsky and identity thriller Two of Everything. Each has a distinct aesthetic, as the game luxuriates in exacting period detail from cinematography to sets, costumes to aspect ratio, while the acting is brilliant — particularly Manon Gage as Marcel, in a layered performance where she plays a troubled actress in and out of various roles. It is a cinephile’s dream, abounding in distinctive imagery and references to Alfred Hitchcock and David Lynch and even featuring a cameo from Andy Warhol.
The game’s interface mimics an old Moviola editing machine, allowing you to scrub back and forth through miles of footage, looking for clues as to what happened to the vanished star. The clips are mostly taken from the films themselves, but there’s also additional material in the archive to help your hunt: behind-the-scenes footage, chemistry tests, location scouting, rehearsals and a few appearances on a late-night talk show.
At the game’s outset, only a handful of clips are available. It is your job to unlock more using the game’s novel “match cut” mechanic. Pause a scene at any moment and click on something — be it an actor’s face, jewellery or some furniture in the background — and the game will teleport you to that same feature in another clip. So click the apple on a table in Ambrosio and you’ll find yourself at a fruit bowl in Two of Everything, 20 years later. You’ll add this new clip to your expanding repertoire of sources and might also wonder why, decades later, Marcel doesn’t appear to have aged a day.
“All of my games have been about encouraging the player to be obsessive, and giving them a conceit and the tools to encourage that,” says Barlow. Immortality beckons you down the rabbit hole to follow the rich visual language of cinema, tracing the story of a single actor, background crew member or symbolic object such as a rose, key or knife. The experience is technically dazzling and frequently inspires giddy moments of discovery, from shocking twists to an entire hidden mechanic which opens up an alternative storyline that veers into supernatural territory.
With almost 10 hours of footage, Immortality is most impressive in its dedication to non-linear narrative. “To me the audience is extremely smart and hyper-educated about storytelling,” says Barlow. It is brave to allow the player to jump through the clips however they like, telling the story in their own fashion.
Yet this approach also comes with pitfalls. The game proves at times frustrating and slow, while some themes are laid on a little thick. But it succeeds far more than it fails. While watching these actors playing actors, you might feel held at a distance, which makes it all the more powerful when you catch flashes of genuine human interaction between the scenes, a stray exchange of words between cast and directors which offer a brief, piercing glimpse into their heart and minds.
‘Immortality’ is out now on Xbox Series X/S, PC, Mac and mobile. It is currently available on Xbox Game Pass and will be out soon on Netflix