REVIEW: Half Mermaid haunts and humanizes the creative process with IMMORTALITY
Our generation is obsessed with dissecting media — with catching minute details and easter eggs in each frame, haunting Youtube and Reddit to harvest new details and talk theories with the collective hive mind.
IMMORTALITY is a game perfect for those familiar with the frame-by-frame analysis of popular media. For the social media generation's detective. What you find hidden within Half Mermaid's latest masterpiece will leave you breathless. And the task of writing about it all is a tough one. But we can deliver one simple statement up front.
We loved IMMORTALITY.
Just the Facts
Developer: Half Mermaid, Sam Barlow
Publisher: Half Mermaid
Platform(s): PC*, Xbox Series S and X, Mobile (Android and Apple via Netflix Games), Mac *platform reviewed on
Release Date: August 30, 2022
Review code provided by publisher.
IMMORTALITY is the third release from Sam Barlow and company, and fans of the previous two will be in familiar territory with this latest. Barlow's bread and butter over the last decade has been making narrative-driven mystery games — light on the gameplay, yet deeply hands-on as you scour through clip after clip of actual recorded footage, pulling at threads until you unravel a mystery.
In Barlow's last two FMV games, Her Story and Telling Lies, players are tasked with exploring a library of video clips via a text-matching system. Using a virtual computer, players search for words — key phrases, names, and ideas — and uncover clips of a greater whole with matching transcribed audio.
While IMMORTALITY shares a lot of DNA with its predecessors, things are decidedly more visual this time out.
Using a unique "match cut" mechanic, players are instead asked to find visual patterns across snippets of three different full-length movies — to identify and follow repeated imagery that will whisk you to a scene with a similar face, object, or theme. Fast forward, rewind, go frame-by-frame and find the exact image and moment you want to use to transport yourself elsewhere.
You'll start with just one of hundreds of clips in your catalog, and as you "match cut" through them, you'll branch out piece by piece to fill out your library.
For example, click on a cellphone in footage of a '90s film and be transported to a telephone on set in the '70s. Click again and match up with a scene where someone mimes a phone with their hand back in the '90s. Click on an actor's face and be whisked away to another of their roles in the '60s. It's a simple gameplay system that feels like magic when in use.
But let's not get carried away. Before we continue, we've got a lot to cover. Story is king in Barlow's works and IMMORTALITY's got a lot to say in a lot of different ways.
"Using a unique 'match cut' mechanic, players are instead asked to find visual patterns across clips... It's a simple concept that feels like magic when in use."
What happened to Marissa Marcel?
IMMORTALITY tells the story of Marissa Marcel, an actress who starred in three films that were never released and who has gone missing since her appearances on set during her last film. Her story has become something of an urban myth, with sleuths trying to understand one simple question: What happened to Marissa Marcel?
Sam Barlow and Half Mermaid caught wind of this mystery and started digging a bit themselves, when suddenly a library of recorded footage from all three films was unearthed. The team at Half Mermaid collected all the footage together and built this interactive tool for folks to scrub through the footage and see if there were any answers to that fated question hidden inside.
Of course, this first layer of the narrative is all fictionalized and the world of characters, actors, and films that Barlow and his crew have crafted are fake. But Half Mermaid's commitment to marketing the game with this story, blurring fiction with reality, is a testament to this team's detailed and layered all-encompassing approach to telling the game's story. Which brings us to the next layer. Marissa's three films. Each clip you find hidden in IMMORTALITY is a piece of one of these three films — from actual on-set footage to rehearsal to table reads. We were astounded to see that Half Mermaid has essentially created three full films and housed them within this game. Across these hours of unreleased film footage, you'll be able to stitch together each movie's plot while witnessing the relationships, romances, tensions and creative differences that connect and repel the cast and crew.
One clip might be a five-second bit of b-roll of an inflatable snake floating across a pool and another may be a full five-minute scene from the dramatic climax of a film in rehearsal, but each one is ripe with imagery that, when clicked through, may lead you to some dramatic reveal about the overall mystery.
With the "match-cut" mechanic, the narrative is one you'll experience as non-linear — and, as in Barlow's other works, the mystery is surrounded by a surreal quality thanks to this "compression of time."
You'll jump across movies and across decades. You very well may see the final scene of a movie as you're just getting started in the game. You may not get the follow-up to a scene you saw in your first hour until the very end. You're encouraged to embrace the chaos and absorb the narrative as it comes.
In our playthrough, we didn't get a single clip from Marissa's very first movie until an hour in.
Let's all go to the lobby
Because reviews are a little more linear than IMMORTALITY, we'll start actually talking about story by starting with Ambrosio, the 1969 psychosexual religious horror film that kicks off Marissa's career.
Directed by the in-universe directing legend Arthur Fischer, Ambrosio is an adaptation of the 1796 Gothic novel The Monk by M.G. Lewis. It tells the story of Ambrosio (Robert Jones), a pious man whose descent into temptation is accelerated by the presence of checks notes Satan.
During this production, we are introduced to Director of Photography John Durick, a prominent fixture in the rest of Marissa's life. This production feels the most antiquated of the bunch, including in the ways its director operates on set (for good and bad).
Next is Minsky, a 1972 crime thriller with Marissa and her old friend John taking the reins, writing and directing.
It tells the story of straight-laced Detective Goodman's (Carl Greenwood) investigation into the death of Minsky, a famed New York City artist. Minsky's muse (Marcel) is Goodman's guide through the art scene, but her intentions may not be pure.
Minsky represents Marissa coming into her own as an artist and is generally one of the more interesting productions to watch unfold, behind-the-scenes and otherwise.
Two of Everything comes after a 26-year gap, seeing John Durick back in the director's chair and Marissa returning to acting after a prolonged absence. Two of Everything is a bit of a modern Prince and the Pauper with pop star Maria and her body-double Heather (both played by Marcel) swapping lives to experience the greener grass, whether that's a break and musical freedom or fortune and fame.
This film's relative proximity to modern-day makes it the most familiar, but the intrigue behind-the-scenes is highest here as you try to understand where Marissa has been and where she ends up after this film.
IMMORTALITY is a game all about identifying patterns. Honing in on the things that may bring you to specific moments within each film. And those patterns go beyond the visual. As you jump between random moments, you'll come to realize just how intrinsically linked these films are to each other and to Marissa's journey overall.
IMMORTALITY explores the beauty and pain of making art, especially for a woman in the film industry. It explores the drive to execute a creative vision and "capture something alive" — something that latches in the minds of viewers and becomes a part of them, thereby immortalizing the artist. It lays bare the sheer humanity of pouring your heart and life into something that's "not real."
IMMORTALITY is also a deeply mature game, with the content of each film and some of the behind-the-scenes moments depicting scenes that could be major triggers, so be sure to keep an eye on the Half Mermaid's content warning when considering a playthrough. Each of IMMORTALITY's three movies is incredibly authentic to the era and genre it aims to represent — costuming, audio design, acting style, prop-work, writing. Beyond telling Marissa's story and being a vehicle for the overall story the game is trying to tell, these three movies are just genuinely fascinating and are extremely high quality pieces of film-making.
And that's not everything. Not unlike Barlow's other works, IMMORTALITY has a hidden layer underneath that is best experienced with fresh eyes. It's hard to talk about the game without talking about this aspect, but it's hard to say that you should read anything about it before playing the game.
If you wish to avoid spoilers, and I recommend you do, skip to the section underneath the image of a woman with a city skyline behind her. Come back after you've played. But if you wanna dive into the more haunted aspects of IMMORTALITY, continue on.
"Even with Barlow's previous games in mind, I've never played anything like IMMORTALITY and might never again."
Just before we started playing, I was browsing through Half Mermaid's pre-release information. Notes about known bugs, basic release information, and a message from the director. All fairly standard. But then just as I was about to close the document, one line caught my eye and sent a chill down my spine.
"Be warned, we think it might be haunted."
At some point through your sifting through footage, you'll find the background music all but cuts out, an ominous tone replacing it. You may not recognize it in the moment as being anything special, but rewinding the footage in a moment like this reveals an overlaid ghost of some other scene just over the top of what you're watching. Fiddle with it some more and you'll find yourself pulled into something else entirely.
Scenes familiar with what you've experienced but also entirely new... and not quite right. IMMORTALITY earns its horror — and its humanity — in these moments. Beings you can't quite comprehend wander into the scene and speak cryptically about their lives, about art, and about humanity as a whole. These ghosts, as we called them, entranced us immediately. Suddenly the game became just as much a quest for these ghosts as it did anything else.
It became clear quickly that these unnerving moments were key to discovering what happened to Marissa Marcel.
Some of these underlying scenes aren't just haunted — they're haunting. The performance of our main "ghost" could be jaw-dropping at times. Capturing the essence of an immortal being who fell in love with the powerful humanity and futility of art is not an easy sell and could easily come across as cheesy, but it doesn't. It's Lynchian (or Barlowian, he's earned it at this point) in all the best ways.
If you're like us, you'll spend the whole game trying to figure out who these beings are and what they represent — only to decide in the end that they're, well, everything. They're angels. They're aliens. They're Adam and Eve. They're good and evil. They're the stories we tell ourselves and each other to make sense of the world. IMMORTALITY doesn't label them and it leaves it to you to try and comprehend what they are. And it's all the better for it.
A few loose thoughts
It's harder than expected to talk about this game. The ways I think about the experience are almost as non-linear as the narrative itself. As such, before we close out our review, here are a few non-linear thoughts about my time with IMMORTALITY tackling a few major points that I still think deserve talking about.
The performances. FMV games like these live and die in the earnestness of the performances of their actors. Even the cheesy "bad acting" of some classic FMV games of old need the performances to have strong conviction behind them to be worthwhile. IMMORTALITY takes this ten steps further than any of Barlow's games have before. Having to slide between acting each character's... acting on film and then all their behind-the-scenes moments and all the subtle interpersonal moments in between is one thing. To do it all as naturally as possible and as believably as IMMORTALITY's cast does is incredible. All the actors deserve their flowers, but here are a few shoutouts. There's Ty Molbak as Carl Greenwood, whose immediate leading man charm had us falling in love from the moment he came on screen. Hans Christopher as John Durick, whose artistic arrogance was painfully familiar. Timothy Lee Depriest as [REDACTED], whose soft-spoken presence sent chills down our spine again and again. Charlotta Mohlin as [REDACTED], who made us cry, laugh, shudder, and blush in almost every scene she was in. And of course, Marissa Marcel herself, Manon Gage. By the end of our time with IMMORTALITY, it was hard to say goodbye to Manon/Marissa. Gage's performance over decades of in-game time is so deeply human and uncanny all at once. She more than carries the experience and we can't wait to see her do so much more.
Actually playing this thing deserves more love. At first glance, and considering the play experience of the last two games, IMMORTALITY feels like something that'd be best played with mouse and keyboard. But at the review guide's recommendation, I played with a controller and it is definitely built for it. Flicking the left analog stick back and forth allows you to fast forward and rewind through a clip, giving you granular control over the speed as well. At specific points, the game will also use your controller's vibration to great effect as well, guiding you towards particular secrets. You'll also have the ability to sort all your clips in a variety of ways. You can organize by the chronological narrative order of each film, by the actual chronological filming order of each film, by the items you;ve "captured" (a term the game gives you for the items you match-cut with), and by the clips you designate as favorites. The game also makes it obvious what items are clickable and which aren't, so don't worry about mashing on everything to find the right things to chase down. Despite the seemingly randomized experience, with the "match-cut" system taking you wherever it feels is right next, Half Mermaid crafts beautiful AHA moments and genuine surprises all throughout. The experience may start slow, as you find your bearings in the IMMORTALITY experience, but at the end you'll find yourself diving down rabbit holes, chasing leads and items to see where they take you. It's thrilling. Only major negatives I can think of are that the control scheme takes some getting used to, a few minor glitches gave our experience a few unexpected snags, and the mature themes may prove too much for some.
Nainita Desai's score is beautiful! When you start, you'll notice that most sequences and clips are fairly silent. Everything you're searching through is direct from each film's set, unedited and given no extra treatment. That means no traditional score, no music really at all, other than a few moments. Desai's score floats in and out of the experience, just as you need it. When scrubbing through a clip to find that one thing you need to "match-cut" with soaring horns erupt to sell you chasing down the mystery. As you pore over your filling library of clips, a light and eerie piano will remind you that you aren't alone here. Desai's work is truly inspired here and that brings me to my final point.
The pop anthem of IMMORTALITY's 90's movie "Two of Everything" is the best video game song of 2022 and I will accept no comments on this point.
Even with Barlow's previous games in mind, I've never played anything like IMMORTALITY and might never again. It's a 10-15 hour experience that speaks to people who love stories, and to those who love creating and consuming art. It's a love letter to the oral tradition, to cave drawings, plays, films, dance, music, and games.
It blends so many mediums, it contains so many different forms of art, and it examines it all through these displaced films — and through its characters, it reveals in the end that at the root of humanity are stories and storytellers.
And we can't wait to see what else these storytellers do because it sure does feel good to just feel human in this chaotic time.
It's for that reason, and a million others that could add to our pages and pages of notes we took during our playthrough, that VGG is giving IMMORTALITY the highest honor we can bestow.
video games are good and IMMORTALITY is . . . TRANSCENDENT. (10/10)
+ a non-linear narrative that sticks with you forever, a mystery worth hunting after, and three whole actual movies that are engaging enough on their own and doubly so when considering the connections
- some may find its content too much to handle, the controller-designed control scheme takes some time to adjust to
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