At 2 a.m. on a Thursday, I’m vibing at my computer in the dark, my face bathed in the aseptic glow of Her Story creator Sam Barlow’s new game, Immortality. On screen, the camera is tightly trained on the flawless porcelain complexion of forgotten actress Marissa Marcel (played by Manon Gage), who is naked and bathed in a warm, almost infernal light. “Are you ready for a Satanic fuck?” she asks, going off script and cueing raucous laughter from her off-screen crew. While I’m not quite in the market for that, I am ready to get fucked by the unpredictable magic of film.
It didn’t take long for Immortality to bring me back to my stint working in television. I spent the summer before college as a teen intern dubbing tapes in tiny rooms filled with VCRs, watching editors disappear into cocoonlike Avid suites where they spent hours going over raw footage. (Avid technology replaced Moviola machines, from which Immortality draws its scrubbing mechanic.) There was something lovely and mysterious about it — being on the fringes of this enigmatic black box where something went in, and a new, yet familiar, thing came out. It is equal parts frustrating and fascinating, then, to have spent 22 hours immersed in Immortality and still feel wanting; for days, in the time since playing the game, every prop, wig, and gesture lived in my head like it was my job.
Immortality revolves around Marcel, who, according to the game’s fiction, was plucked out of an audition of thousands by a prominent director in the 1960s. She made three films: Ambrosio (1968), Minsky (1970), and Two of Everything (1999). None were released, and she vanished. The game presents itself as special software designed to showcase Marcel’s recently unearthed work, allowing fans to analyze her films and behind-the-scenes clips. The gist is to use match cuts — transitional cuts between objects with similar themes or structural compositions — to explore Marcel’s movies and figure out what happened to her. For instance, clicking on a feline sculpture in Minsky jumps to footage of the cat in Two of Everything; an abstract figure painting might lead to a mask or an actor’s face. “Successful” match cuts and their subsequent revelations will unlock new clips.
Ambrosio is a giallo-esque sexual thriller adapted from the (real) Gothic novel The Monk, with gorgeous matte-painted backgrounds. In the crime noir Minsky, Marcel takes a page from shaggy-haired Jane Fonda in Klute, adopting the same sly, nervy demeanor that ensnares her straitlaced detective love interest. And in Two of Everything, she plays both a world-famous pop star and her body double, whose shared life becomes irrevocably destroyed. With a few clicks on the right hotspots, I can flit from the fresh ingenue Marcel in a novice monk’s robe to an older, world-weary Marcel (who hasn’t aged a day) in Doc Martens.
Right out of the gate, I pour floods of energy into dissecting every scene and scrap of subtext. My initial type-A reaction is to take copious color-coded notes on all three films. After observing Ambrosio’s obvious Alfred Hitchcock equivalent, Arthur Fischer, I contemplate digging out my old Truffaut and Spoto books from a college film class that I barely remember. An interview where Fischer has his hand placed tellingly around the back of Marcel’s neck screams “celebrated auteur grooming young girl.” After watching enough of Minsky and Two of Everything, I jot down paranoid speculations about Marcel’s director, John Durick. I spin incoherent theories based on Brecht, Baudrillard, and Heidegger, and tediously scrutinize the theatrical relationship between material reality, performance, and process. I go down a rabbit hole of German Expressionist costumes and forget what I’m looking for. Finally, I look down and see that I’ve managed to almost reverse-engineer the scripts for all three films. In short, I have accomplished absolutely nothing. I am Charlie Day, putting together a conspiracy theory that spans decades.
When I finally realize what I need to do — without giving too much away, it involves getting strategically handsy with the scrubbing mechanic — I surf through the rest of Immortality on a feverish mission to find hidden footage. The game’s meta-story is an attempted distillation of the most prominent themes in Marcel’s films: identity, sacrifice, duality, and the dialectical relationship between Art and Order. (At times, it’s rather Gnostic.) Most things feel important and connected, because Immortality is exceptionally good at creating layers of complexity while concealing a very simple (and after a certain point, predictable) truth about the way humans make myths. Even when it drove me nuts, Immortality simply would not get out of my head. I can’t say that I loved my time searching for Marissa Marcel, but I wholeheartedly love how beautifully it integrated the player into the processes of watching and filmmaking.
Toward the “endgame” (which doesn’t really apply to this experimental structure), Immortality starts to lose its shine. Once I can (mostly) answer the question What happened to Marissa Marcel? scouring the clips becomes more of a chore than a delight. But since the game unfolds through the vehicle of film, there’s an innate urge to “complete” every film, because it’s the only way we can conceive of fully experiencing or knowing a movie. My enthusiasm begins to wane after flipping through scenes that I’ve already examined dozens of times.
I manage to eke out a few more gems, but after a certain point, the endless clicking offers diminishing returns. From a practical standpoint, my rhythmic search for untried match cuts starts to slow down simply because I’ve run out of objects. To its credit, like the chiding weight of a cat’s paw on my arm, Immortality gently suggests that perhaps I’ve seen enough, which means drawing a line and accepting the limits of what I have learned. Since this is a game that draws so much attention to process, it makes sense that it’s somewhat self-aware of how monotonous it can be.
What Immortality does exceptionally well is reconcile my lifelong love of sumptuous period drama, a wholehearted commitment to stylish production values (yes, I love all the wigs), and a very specific breed of slow, neurotic mystery. Immortality felt most alive in the moments when I was searching for crumbs, even when I was trying the most obvious Film 101 symbolism combinations for match cuts. When I finally came across the scene that showed what happened to the “real” Marissa Marcel, it raised far more questions than answers, while also reminding me that resolutions are simply constructs. My biggest source of frustration, however, was the tonal disconnect between the meta-story and the three films. Even when Immortality tried to avoid overexposition, its prolonged digressions into backstory felt, in some ways, like a betrayal, or at least a huge self-own. I did, after all, want to find Marissa Marcel. (On a minor practical note, I wasn’t a huge fan of the minimalistic UI filters — the “film” and “image” ones are self-evident, but I still have no idea what the third funnel-type icon does.)
Because of its nonlinear narrative, Immortality has no real approach to closure — something I grew to respect, considering how conditioned we are to expect some kind of end, no matter how unsatisfying or abrupt. After working myself into a useless froth to solve the problem of Marissa Marcel and becoming fluent in the game’s visual language, I had made it into the impenetrable black box. I take my hat off to Immortality for how insidiously it deconstructs our collective expectations about the all-important conclusion. I began as a total ignoramus, and ended up wholeheartedly fulfilling my destiny as a devoted Marissa Marcel fan, even though she spends Two of Everything in a strawlike wig that makes Elizabeth Holmes look like a Pantene commercial.
Finally walking away feels like concluding my own role in this strange theater, even though I failed to uncover every shred of footage or milk every scene dry of subtext and meaning. Sometimes a cat is just a cat. Sometimes a gargoyle is just a little statue. Immortality knows how much you want to know more, and it leans into your hunger.
In exploiting this fanlike thirst for knowledge as authority and authenticity — even if it occasionally undercuts the storytelling — the game also creates an easy choice for the curious outsider: Either play, or don’t. Immortality embodies the most enticing hallmarks of the “if you know, you know” meme — there’s no quick recap for a politely interested stranger that can adequately sum up the question What happened to Marissa Marcel? The only way to fully appreciate the scope of this project, flaws and all, is to throw all expectations of story and structure out the window, and realize that the simplistic divide between film and games is holding us back from doing so much more with either medium.
Immortality will be released Aug. 30 on Windows PC and Xbox Series X; it is also coming to Android and iOS via Netflix, as well as Mac. The game was reviewed on PC using a pre-release download code provided by Half Mermaid Productions. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.