What happened to Marissa Marcel? It's the question posed at the very beginning of Sam Barlow's latest intricately woven interactive experience and, in order to discover the answer, you're gonna need to embark on a journey that takes you to some seriously unexpected places.
Marissa Marcel starred in three movies during the 60s, 70s and 90s before vanishing into thin air. None of these movies were ever released. Immortality sets you the task of finding out why, figuring out where she went and how on earth she managed to remain so youthful over the course of thirty years.
Yes, the game's title may perhaps hint at some of what transpires here, but rest assured that anything you think you know is just the tip of the iceberg. Immortality hands you a cache of lost footage from Marcel's unreleased flicks and charges you with sifting through it all, spooling backwards and forwards, pausing and examining, fast-forwarding, rewinding and zooming in on every aspect of any frame that takes your fancy, all the while spiralling downwards into a mystery that grows darker and stranger with each new fragment of cursed information you manage you retrieve from these cinematic archives.
In order to play detective, you're introduced to a piece of software designed to ape the workings of a Moviola, a device that allows a film's editor to view footage as they snip, clip and rearrange it. You're shown a film board that includes every piece of restored footage from all three of Marcel's lost movies and, after a very brief run-through of the controls, you simply pick any one of these clips at random and dive in. The setup of Immortality, from a mechanical point of view, is an absolute masterstroke, your Xbox controller's thumbsticks perfectly aping how you might scrub forwards and backwards at various speeds on a real-life Moviola. The further you tilt a thumbstick the faster you scrub, with quick flicks spooling the footage at speed in your chosen direction. It feels immediately intuitive and does so much to immerse you in your role here, the eagle-eyed private dick poring over never-before-seen footage, searching for answers.
But there's more to this setup. The real ace up Immortality's sleeve, the instantly magical aspect of the game that makes it such a delight to toy with endlessly, is the ability to pause a piece of footage and switch to image mode where you can cursor around freely, clicking on any part of a scene that takes your fancy; an actor's face, a clock, a crucifix, a painting, anything that strikes you in the moment, and simply pressing the "A" button to have the software transport you to another shot that features the same element that you first clicked on. Hit that button whilst hovering over Marcel's face and you'll find yourself staring at her in an entirely different scene, focus on a vase full of flowers, a light, a knife, a bloodied mouth, and the game will do its best to match cut to another scene. Every single one of these decisions that you make is then catalogued in the game's image grid so you can go back and study, follow your own thought process and review how your suspicions developed over time.
From a gameplay perspective it's wonderfully addicting stuff, but beyond this it's also terrifically absorbing and surprising in how it reveals your own innate knowledge of cinematic genre tropes. As you pick and choose clips to build your film board and dig ever deeper into the mystery, you'll find yourself almost subconsciously analysing scenes for certain visual clues, recognisable objects and behaviours that you'd expect to find in a horror movie, for example. Combined with the game's control scheme, which does so much to draw you into the illusion, it really does make you feel oh-so-clever in a way that only the most exquisitely well-designed games can. It leads you on, leaves a trail of breadcrumbs, whether they be visual hints, rumbles on your controller or slight changes in the game's magnificent score, but it does all of this so masterfully, so gently, that you'll feel as though you really are uncovering fresh leads and new avenues of investigation through your own brilliance. It's one of the most spell-binding and completely immersive gameplay experiences we've had in a very long time.
On top of all of this gameplay goodness, you've then got Immortality's movies themselves; 1968's Ambrosio, 1970's Minsky and 1999's Two of Everything, three brilliantly acted, wonderfully knowing and meticulously crafted homages to distinct stylistic periods in cinema. The quality of the acting on show is a new watermark for gaming, believe it, and Manon Gage especially provides a core performance that marks her out as an absolute superstar in the making. Across the board, every single actor and actress involved sells the whole thing superbly well and their performances are backed up by camera work and framing that draws you in, subtly directing you towards aspects within every scene. It's dizzying to consider just how much planning and thought was put into this game, setting up shots that entertain and engage the viewer whilst also leaving this trail of interactive aspects that drag you down into the dark heart of it all.
Then, just as you're relaxing into the whole thing, getting a feel for the flow, flicking and jumping between movies and settling into the rhythm of the mystery at hand, things start to shift, an entirely new set of possibilities begin to rear their head, something else begins to permeate every scene and the act of scrubbing back and forth through these movies becomes a much more intense prospect. It's not easy to write anything about this one without spoiling, we have to refrain and restrain ourselves from talking about the stuff that's excited us the most whilst playing, but we must. Whatever you do, please make sure to go in as blind and unspoiled as possible to this game, as once things begin to shift, once the truth - or at least fragments of the truth - begin to reveal themselves, well, if you're anything like us, you'll be utterly drawn in and compelled to keep digging until you've drained every last drop of juice out of this puzzlebox.
Sam Barlow has already served us up some top-notch treats with the likes of Telling Lies and Her Story. However, Immortality really does feel like a big step up, a full realisation of what he's been toying with in previous efforts. This is easily his best game to date, quite the statement when you consider the quality of what's gone before it. Try not to read too much, dive into this one unspoiled and enjoy the ride.
Immortality is easily Sam Barlow's best game to date and, when you consider the delights he's served up previously, well, you get an idea of just how good this one really is. It's a dazzling display from any angle you to choose to admire it; top-notch acting, brilliant writing, a core mechanic that's complex but carried off with style and grace, intuitive controls that draw you into your role...just remember to avoid spoilers, dive into the mystery of Marissa Marcel completely unsullied, and you're in for one of the most exquisite gaming experiences of this year, or any other, by quite some distance.