How much can you really know someone through their art? That question is among the more trenchant posed by “Immortality,” a new video game by acclaimed art-game designer Sam Barlow. In “Immortality,” players navigate a piece of software that acts as a repository for the work of Marissa Marcel, a would-be movie star whose non-career and eventual disappearance from the art world makes up the game’s central mystery. By scrubbing through interviews, filmed rehearsals, chemistry tests between actors, behind-the-scenes footage and unreleased cuts from the three movies in which Marcel starred — none of which were ever released — players are told they can resolve the mystery of the actress’s disappearance.
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Across these three movies, “Immortality’s” thematic preoccupations become apparent, identity and gendered violence chief among them. Each is turned over every which way, interrogated, reformatted into symbols and recurring motifs that are placed under harsher lighting and sharper cameras. But Marcel is, of course, not the characters she plays in her movies, and what’s captured on film is burdened with layers of performance and artificiality — complicating the core conceit of the software you’re operating. By the game’s midpoint, the morass of meaning exposes “Immortality’s” mystery as a mere on-ramp to more probing, existential questions.
But narratives need endings. As “Immortality” approaches its own, its desire to conclude with something resembling clarity — an answer — dulls its impact.
Ambrosio, Marcel’s first film, is an adaptation of a novel about the seduction of the holiest man in Madrid by the devil, and the sins and foibles that enable his downfall. The titular character’s eloquence and good standing mask his licentiousness. A servant of the devil, manifest as a woman made to resemble the Virgin Mary, disguises herself as a young boy to enter the church and tempt Ambrosio. Behind the scenes, an otherwise good-natured director, round and jolly, demeans his actresses during table reads and on-set. The actors, in the spirit of the New Wave, touch and kiss with abandon on set; Marcel boldly proclaims her comfort with and artistic interest in performing nude. Whether you believe her or not is another story. Can we know Marcel from how she behaves — let alone what she says — at work?
People are not quite who they appear to be, Ambrosio tells us. With the footage, too, all is not as it seems. Early on, ominous sound cues over certain clips beckon players to rewind the reels to find their source; doing so reveals ghastly alternate footage with different characters present: In the place of Marcel and her cast mates, two ethereal figures (Witches? Vampires? Angels? All of the above?) conduct a dialogue — about art, death, the resurrection of Christ, etc. — from a thousand year vantage.
This supernatural element is a compelling addition, until it isn’t. The two androgynous beings, credited as The One and The Other One, say things that frame and complicate certain characters, their behaviors and their arcs; the former is meant as a representation of creation, healing, love and Art, the latter a stand-in for control, destruction, fear and The Law. But while for much of the game, the conversation between The One and The Other One runs parallel to the central narrative, eventually “Immortality” attempts to draw explicit connections between the characters on-screen and the spirits haunting the footage. As the game approaches an “explanation” to its central questions, the frame provided by these beings transforms into a vise.
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Take Minsky, Marcel’s second film, a sleazy detective movie about a murdered artist who lends the film its name. Minsky’s muse, played by Marcel, is suspect number one. The gumshoe assigned to the case falls for her, and his desire pulls him into a more sexually liberated underground culture. During production, Marcel accidentally kills Carl Goodman, the actor playing the detective, with a prop gun. The film is never released.
After discovering what happened to Carl, I became preoccupied with the question of why. At one point, I uncovered a clip in which Marcel, in hushed tones, confided to the director that Carl was concealing something: “He’s not who you think he is,” she says. At this stage, when the possibility space was wide open, I was all in on “Immortality.” I pored over clips, looking for errant glances or chilliness in Marcel’s approach to Carl on set.
But after a fruitless search, I was shocked to learn that the game’s actual answer was supernatural: “Carl was possessed by The Other One, which put him in conflict with Marcel, who was possessed by The One,” the game insists. There may be rich symbolic meaning there; I would challenge anyone to explain it in non-illusory terms. Put plainly, it was a disappointing resolution to a conflict that was more poignant in its real-life implications than in the realm of symbols. “Nothing interests me less than explanations,” The One intones in a hidden scene. I just wish “Immortality” committed to that idea.
Even when the mainline narrative flails, though, the moment-to-moment gameplay is vertiginous in all the best ways. In my journey through the Minsky footage, I found clips that gave the impression of Carl as a libertine — the good kind: rakish, fun and sex-positive. Much later, though, in an unguarded backstage clip, we see that he’s a chauvinist; he refers to Marcel as the director’s property, for example. Not only are the on-set sex-positive clips misleading, but the scripted film cuts, which make up the bulk of the Minsky footage, are too. Carl, playing a character who was progressively liberalizing, had convinced me somehow that Carl himself was an open-minded social liberal. This sleight of hand when it comes to characterization is “Immortality’s” most compelling feature. How much can you really know someone through their art?
The final film, Two of Everything, is a princess and the pauper tale mixed with a #MeToo revenge thriller; the footage from the project’s production caps a limited body of work that nonetheless has clear thematic priorities: Violence against women; how the notion of bad behavior by powerful men changes over the decades; cases of mistaken or assumed identity, and how those identities interact with one’s supposed “real” identity; public perception; rebirth. These are all great subjects for interrogation.
But eventually, I ran into the problem of having to play “Immortality.” Play is fun when the game is a mystery; much less so when it is a puzzle. In “Immortality” clips aren’t available by default, which brings players to the “match cut” mechanic. Clips can be paused at any point and scoured for points of interest: a face, a prop, a backdrop, etc. Click through, and you’re whisked to a different clip in the library with a similar element in it. (Selecting an actor will take you to a different clip with that actor in it; clicking on a flower in one movie might take you to a bouquet in the background of another). This mechanic is meant to draw attention to the game’s recurring motifs, but by the time I had seen around 95% of the library’s material, I was at a loss for where to go next. After clicking around for nearly an hour, I resorted to Reddit to find that I was missing one crucial snippet of footage right before the penultimate clip, which I had already unlocked.
Some writers have described “Immortality” as being about burnout or auteurism (the final few scenes can be read as evidence for that theory). But that’s not quite right, akin to saying Star Wars is about space. Artistry does not grant privileged access to decency or good nature. That is what the game is, not what it is about. It’s text, not subtext. For so long as “Immortality” uses that as a starting point to probe further, it is a high water mark for gaming in 2022. When the characters are allowed to be people — not vampires nor aliens nor angels but people who are tired, embarrassed, horny, funny, naive, voyeuristic, creepy and more — each frame’s richness is its own reward.