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How IMMORTALITY captures an "open world" feel with its narrative

IMMORTALITY explores the three lost films of fictional actress Marissa Marcel, letting players click on elements to leap between films to piece together her real story.

Joel Couture

February 23, 2023

9 Min Read
Several people at a script reading. A woman looks directly at the camera.
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This interview is part of our Road to the IGF series. The IGF (Independent Games Festival) aims to encourage innovation in game development and to recognize independent game developers advancing the medium. Every year, Game Developer sits down with the finalists for the IGF ahead of GDC to explore the themes, design decisions, and tools behind each entry.

IMMORTALITY explores the three lost films of fictional actress Marissa Marcel, letting players click on elements to leap between films to piece together her real story.

Game Developer caught up with Sam Barlow, director and writer of the Excellence in Narrative and Seumas McNally Grand Prize-nominated work, to talk about the design ideas that went into giving a story-based game an open-world feel, what drew him to the particular film eras he captures with Marcel's movies, and the surprising delights that came out of the algorithm that would follow the player's directions to new scenes.

Who are you, and what was your role in developing IMMORTALITY?

I'm Sam Barlow, game director and writer.

What's your background in making games?

I started out experimenting with free text games at the end of the 90s, got a job in game development in the 2000s and worked on licensed games, leading up to two Silent Hill titles. In 2014 I went indie and then released my first indie game, Her Story, in 2015. Since then, I've been exploring ways of making filmed storytelling interactive in more radical ways.

Actress looking down with sparkling dress

How did you come up with the concept for IMMORTALITY?

The last few games, we've been playing with the idea of 'open world' design ideas applied to video storytelling. The initial idea here was to actually dig into movies themselves, how they work, how they are made, and more generally to think about why we tell stories in the first place. We had the idea that the perfect vessel for this story was an actress living through the shifts in filmmaking at the latter half of the 20th Century... and this meshed with my love of, and fascination for, "lost movies." So the idea that there was this woman who was going to be a huge star, but her work was lost to time—having that be the hook to have players come in and explore.

What development tools were used to build your game?

Unity, then some in-house tools that plugged into post production workflow to build up the data that we use to track the on-screen action in the game.

What drew you to these particular film eras as you created Marissa Marcel's career and movies? Why these particular types of movies?

There was a huge shift that occurred in movies across the 60's and 70's: the transition from the studio system into a "new Hollywood" that was driven by directors and became more personal and human. We wanted to see that transition happening and see the baton passed between the first movie, Ambrosio, and the second, Minsky.

Then in the 90s, as the millennium approached, it was really the end of the film era, and you had a lot of young directors looking back to the 70s. There was a lot of reinvention—things like the neo-noir which pulled from the 40s/50s and the 70s. So, we were tracking this big change, then the cyclical nature of these trends, and how things felt they were coming to a head in 1999.

It was the same with the genres. We started being drawn to the idea of adapting the novel The Monk because, despite being written in the 18th Century, it's pure noir. And the noir genre is an interesting case study in terms of how the role of the femme fatale is both a role with great agency and power, but is also a trope for the benefit of the male audience. In exploring the limitations, but also the freedoms, placed on our actress, this seemed a place to start. And the religious aspects... storytelling really has filled the place that religion filled in olden times, so there's some synergy there.

Then with the following movies, Minsky and Two of Everything, we see the noir and femme fatale template being expanded and changed by the world and by Marissa herself. So, Minsky is a 70s noir where we ask "Can we reveal that the femme fatale is a killer, but have them be sympathetic?" Franny exists for her own sake. Then we move into Two of Everything where the duality actually splits into two characters, and the protagonist is both victim and avenger of the core violence. So, we're letting the audience track these trends—track these progressions in the narratives.

three actors standing on a stage

Was Marcel's story inspired by anything in particular that you could share with us?

There was a lot of Jean Seberg in there. Such a tragic story that I never stopped being angry about. The character of Carl Greenwood, to some extent, is wish fulfillment revenge on Clint Eastwood for how he treated Jean; although Ty redeemed him more through his performance! We contrasted Jean's story with that of Jane Fonda who was able to affect a much more effective transformation into the 70s. Both of them started out young in the studio system and then were reborn through their brushes with the European new wave and its effect on New Hollywood.

And lots of bits and pieces were taken from the biographies of other stars and directors throughout the twentieth century. Welles and Rita Hayworth. Kubrick and how he killed himself making Eyes Wide Shut. Dino De Laurentis and Silvana Mangano.

What thoughts went into creating the stories of these different films? Into making them feel wholly different, yet creating some connections between them?

A lot of it was looking at what was going on for Marissa herself at the time; what's a good movie to reflect that? And looking at the other films of the time and what was in the water. In retrospect, it's easy to pick out trends and elements that would have sparked back then and building those elements into the movies. Looking at the evolution of genre and how the particular eras changed things, you can get quite specific about what would have been involved. The connections, I think, mostly came naturally because we were tracking the idea through Marissa and her collaborators and their obsessions.

These are not just a handful of films, but an underlying plot about the creation of those films as well. What thoughts went into writing Marcel's underlying career as a story and working that element into the overarching narrative?

We kinda went back and forth. So first, we laid out Marissa's story and all of its key beats. Then, we built the movies and laid them out in terms of their shoot order. Then we massaged things to make the stories spark. After that, we wrapped the films back up again and handed them over to the movie writers. Once we had finished scripts for the movies, the fun bit was to then go in and write the filming—just let the characters react to the scripts and tell me how things would go. That was a fun part of having the other writers come in; I was able to treat the scripts somewhat like found objects and it led to a very natural process of the characters just coming alive in how they went about filming them.

There is YET ANOTHER story underlying all of these. What drew you to add this final, chilling element into the game, and what thoughts went into weaving it into the story so that it was largely hidden, yet still something players would likely stumble across?

It wasn't really "adding" because this element was really the heart of it—the first idea for the game. So, knowing it was always there and having it be the foundation for everything, that gave us the confidence to them not overshare it, knowing it wasn't always there in some way or another. Every scene is written from Marissa's POV and what is going on in her real inner thoughts.

an actor in a trench coat and actress in a dress

Players can click on many different elements in each scene of IMMORTALITY and be taken to a connected moment at some other point. An algorithm decides where to take the player next when this happens. What thoughts went into creating that algorithm? How did you set up how it would decide where to go?

This was the big technical challenge! I wrote something that sounded magical on paper and we had to then go prove we could actually make it happen. It was a lot of work to get the data into the game so everything is tracked, everything is clickable, and the game knows how it all relates. Then, the algorithm wasn't too much more work—telling the game how to balance things like aesthetics, the thematic connection of images, what scenes may or may not be good ones to jump to at that point.

I am a big believer in creating a large amount of content and then attaching enough data so that it allows people (or a system) to make meaningful connections through it. They uncover the 'plot' themselves through putting stuff together. Here, it was fun to give some of that job to the algorithm and inject some surprise and delight into the core loop.

You mention that an element of surprise was important to capture within the mechanics of exploring IMMORTALITY. In using the algorithm, were there some connections that surprised you in some delightful or unexpected way?

I was always delighted in testing when it would put together a match cut/dissolve that was aesthetically really neat and retained some flow of action. Something that felt like "Surely that was scripted?!" I think overall though, just the rush you get, the velocity you can achieve as you kinda free-associate through the story. I think that was the think that I loved the most, it's just such a fun toy. In the way that just mucking about with Mario in a Nintendo game is joyful in its own way, here, we managed to do that with the idea of cutting.

Where your game does not give an explicit moment telling the player they've solved the puzzle. How do you deal with players asking you about whether their theory or interpretation is correct when you've purposely designed your work to be ambiguous?

I try to use my poker face. Really if they are responding to the characters and themes, they're correct. The point is to make something that feels subjective and unique to them.

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