Immortality is the new game from Sam Barlow, but what does that mean, exactly?
He is not thought of for his spirited contributions to Ghost Rider, or Serious Sam: Next Encounter. (Some, like me, fondly regard his work on Silent Hill: Origins – just about the best game in that series to be made by a Western studio).
What we think of now as the image of A Sam Barlow Game was cultivated in 2015, with Her Story, and it was all image: snippets of actors in rooms, talking, wrapped in a closed-circuit haze, to be picked through and pasted into coherence. After Her Story came Telling Lies, which had the same crux, only this time the videos were cached in a MacBook, and the story was dull. Still, Barlow has acquired a directorial style, specific enough to veer close to a shtick, and those in its thrall feverishly await their next encounter with Serious Sam.
A confession: I don’t count myself in their ranks. I enjoyed the basic hook of Her Story, with its boxy nineties interface. The way the camera held its heroine, the suspect in a murder case, under hard lighting gave it the rough glare of the real deal; you could almost buy the odd conceit of searching for keywords, based on what was said, the better to unearth fresh videos. By the time of Telling Lies, it no longer rang true. I couldn’t shake the notion that the game’s mystery could be solved much more easily with a USB cable; why not dump all the videos on the damn MacBook onto a hard drive and be done with it? The trouble with these games is that so much time is devoted to watching that I wind up craving mechanical intervention. I spent much of Telling Lies playing solitaire, which came loaded on the laptop in question.
And so to Immortality, which ditches computers in favour of film. It’s a better fit. We scree back and forth through spools of footage, trying to spot clues in old movies. By freezing and clicking on parts of the frame, we cut to a similar image in a different clip. These are culled from the unreleased pictures of Marissa Marcel, a starlet who made three doomed films and vanished into thin air. Then again, Marissa was at her most vibrant and visible in air no less thin; her deeds unreel in the soft grain of celluloid, which can warp and burn as quickly as a career. Or a life.
The movies we sift through are Ambrosio, a fictional adaptation of a real novel, by Matthew Gregory Lewis, following a priest wracked by temptation. It looks like something Ken Russell might have directed for TV. Then we have Minsky, a 1970 cop thriller, set in New York, about a dead artist and his dark-eyed muse. Finally, Two of Everything, from 1999, spins around a pop star and her body double. All three share a deeper meaning. Immortality is soaked in the murk of the movie business. We are encouraged to think of David Lynch, and in particular of Mulholland Drive, Lynch’s great and gloom-infested tribute to Sunset Boulevard; both movies dwell on the way that dreams can putrefy, and how the rot can spread into real life. No wonder Barlow has brought on Barry Gifford to co-write Immortality. Gifford wrote the novel Wild at Heart, from which Lynch adapted a film, and he partnered with Lynch to write Lost Highway. Gifford is a specialist in what we might call malefiction: stories about people who are trapped and damned by stories.
Along with Gifford, the writing credits include Amelia Gray, who teamed with Barlow for Telling Lies, and Allan Scott, who wrote Don’t Look Now for Nicholas Roeg. In other words, Immortality is caked in the shadows of movies. It wants to make you feel like David Hemmings in Blow Up, pacing his studio in panicked revelation, surrounded by dripping pictures; or David Warner in The Omen, in his blood-red studio, watching something awful blot into place. But is Immortality a horror?
Well, there is an inherent creepiness to people talking backwards, as you can make them do; the controls have you wielding both analogue sticks as though they were the dials of a Moviola. And, though I’m loath to give anything away, there is another presence here, beside Marissa and her fellow-actors – something older, lurking in the loops of lost time. If you relish the frantic tension of Amnesia or the night-vision shocks of Outlast, all white-hot ghouls emerging from a sea of green, this won’t do the job. But, after several nights in its slow company, I am pleased to report that the mood of Immortality is fruitfully unsettling. You start to wonder just what did happen to Marissa – whether, and in what manner, she lives on.
It’s then that you realise what Barlow has done. His fixation with scrambled narratives has found its natural home, not in the realm of computers, those ghost-free machines, but here, on coils of vulnerable tape. His recent games have really been about editing: about giving us the chance to shape meaning from the mess. Never has that quest felt as urgent as it does here; Marissa is counting on you to see through the lies, and to tell her story.