Saturday, October 8, 2022

Tagged: reviews, ruminations, immortality, sam barlow, her story, database if, telling lies

Marissa Marcel, the hottest young Hollywood star of 1969, made just three cursed movies -- and then disappeared. None of the movies were ever released. But you've found the raw footage... as a disorganized pile of clips. Crank up your old Moviola and get browsing.

Immortality is by Sam Barlow, which means database IF, right in line with Her Story and Telling Lies. You view a movie clip and then go searching for related clips. Repeat until you've discovered all the secrets. Just one new trick: instead of selecting a word as your search term, you select an image in a freeze-frame. The engine picks out another clip that shows the same thing -- or the "same thing" -- and jumps there. (A match cut, in film parlance.)

Words and images aren't as different as you might think. Just like in the earlier games, clips unlock clips and you don't get much control over the order. The story is the main thing; and the story is about movies. Everything you see is people making film. They speak Hollywood and live Hollywood lives, or at least the Hollywood lives of the pre-digital era. And everything you see is on film. This matters.

What I love about Sam Barlow games is all the fiddly detail in the interface. And I do mean fiddly -- as in fiddling around. Her Story wasn't just a videotape browser; it was a faux-80s desktop with broken solitaire. Telling Lies put you in a basement with flickering fluorescent lights that sometimes reflected your face in the screen. And Immortality is a janky old film viewer. The machine is a character in its own right! Sometimes it buzzes or wobbles or (if you've got a game controller) judders in your hand. The controls like to stick. You can fast-forward, but not by pushing one button; you have to jiggle the buttons just so. And then -- well, no spoilers, but babying the controls along turns out to be a significant part of the game.

(Some of this may be my real game controller being genuinely janky. My left stick doesn't center well. But I'm pretty sure Immortality's controls are deliberately temperamental, regardless.)

Okay, images as a search item are a bit different. You can't write down a word for future searching. You have to play (or reverse) to your moment -- remember that fast-forwarding is a pain! -- and then click.

This creates what I'm sure is a deliberately awkward tension: you can either watch a clip straight through or pick an interesting object. Clicking interrupts what you're watching and jumps to a different clip! You may want to save that for later, but there's no simple way to jump back. You have to browse through the gallery and remember where you were.

Why do I say deliberately awkward? Well, the rest of the UI is already janky, so it's a theme. But also: you can't passively watch clips. You have to pay attention! You need to remember where you were in the gallery. You need to leave clips paused on recognizable frames. You need to be able to spot new material when it pops. You need to, in some sense, construct a movie in your head out of raw material -- which must be the point.

I admit I had trouble getting used to it. When I started playing, I wanted to lawnmower images; that is, ignore the movie and click on every object in sight. Then I got interested in the movie and stopped clicking on images. Then I wanted more clips, of course, so I had to go back and click thing in clips I'd already watched. Then I had so many clips that I started to get tired of the movie! But I wanted to know how it ended!

It worked, but I never really found a satisfying balance. I decided pretty quickly to watch everything in shooting order (not movie order -- the game lets you sort either way). This mostly worked, but as I said, I had to keep breaking the flow to select objects.

The game doesn't make completionism easy. Objects are matched in a pretty general way. A "book" image matches any other "book"; "Marissa Marcel" matches any other "Marissa Marcel". You can't search for "a Bible" or "Marissa laughing". This means that any jump can lead to something surprisingly unrelated (good!) but intentional search is basically impossible (not great). The closest I got to intentionality was noticing that one clapboard-handler wore a ring. The game happened to have almost no other rings, so I was able to get a whole sequence of clips with that guy as crew. Beyond that, it was basically throwing darts.

Well, I got hooked enough on the movies to throw a lot of darts. I think I collected nearly every clip. I even got the "all clips" achievement for the third movie... although it didn't feel any more complete than the others. The game doesn't particularly reward completionism either.

But I really wanted to see everything! The movies are good! The story of Marissa making the movies is good! It's all in pieces and you want to know more!

And then, you know, there's some other neat stuff to find. Also really good. I won't spoil it.

The other thing I love about Sam Barlow games is that he'll happily design an entire game to make one cool thing happen. It's what we used to do in the early IF days, right? Come up with one cool interaction and then write a little game around it. Only Sam's idea of a "little game" is now a movie studio, sets, dozens of actors, and hours of footage.

I watched a lot of footage. The tidal layers of film washed me far from shore. I still don't know what happened to Marissa Marcel. There's a lot of commentary, but it's fragmentary -- disorganized -- you have to put it together in your head. Just like the game! And even if you watch in order, the ending doesn't make sense of it all.

I guess I wouldn't want it to. This way, I'm still thinking about it.