Haven’t Got Time for Immortality

Immortality is both a masterwork and a frustrating example of the limitations of interactive storytelling. Spoilers within.

Immortality is a fascinating and frustrating interactive movie that asks the audience to solve the mystery of what happened to a promising young actress by watching and scrubbing through clips from her three unreleased films. I can’t remember ever having this kind of reaction to interactive entertainment, where I can recognize that it is both a fantastic achievement of ambition and execution, and also a disappointment.

I’ve been careful to say “interactive movie” and “audience” instead of “video game” and “player,” because Immortality is not a game. I don’t consider calling something “not a game” as a pejorative, and it’s absurd that people get so hung up about it, but this is kind of a weird case. The main thing that keeps it from being a video game is my biggest issue with it: you navigate the experience with insufficient information, so you’re essentially wandering through a collection of very well-made video clips, instead of making meaningful choices.

But this is a perfect example of how I’m of two minds about Immortality, because the thing that made it ultimately not work for me is the same thing that made it an amazing experience for the first several hours. It’s structured so that it’s front-loaded with discovery, as you’re uncovering more and more stuff and marveling at how deep and layered the whole experience is. It’s honestly unlike anything I’ve experienced in games or interactive entertainment before, and to come up with any kind of comparison I’d have to go way way back to the early days of the internet, when following a hypertext link could result in diving down a rabbit hole that seemed to have no end.

I read a review that promised no spoilers, but then talked about something crucial to the game that I really wish I’d discovered myself. So I recommend going in cold, with just one piece of advice: play it with a game controller if at all possible. I spent the first evening using just a mouse and keyboard, and while it was still fascinating, it turned out that I was missing a crucial part of the experience, and I was just going around in circles. The rest of this post is going to necessarily give too much away, so I recommend giving it a try even if just for those spectacular first few hours. It’s absurdly affordable considering how much work obviously went into the production, and it’s also currently included with Xbox Game Pass, if you want to take a risk-free dive into it.

I went into Immortality prepared for the kind of amateurish, just-below-syndicated-TV quality of FMV games of the CD-ROM era — steeling myself like a parent going into a school play and thinking gosh darn but the kids gave it their all. That wasn’t the case at all. They went very specific with the movie history references here, and nailed the look and feel of all of them. Not just with the segments from the films themselves, but with the supplementary material like behind-the-scenes footage, screen tests, and rehearsals. Even the characters holding the clapper boards are period accurate!

Most impressive to me was Ambrosio, a late 1960s hyper-sexualized religious drama inspired by Ken Russell’s The Devils. It was extremely ambitious to choose that, and I was even more impressed by how well they pulled it off. And that was even before I discovered the shots that used elaborate matte paintings.

But Minksy, which is essentially their take on Klute, was an ingenious choice for a second film, since it required an entirely different scale of production, level of budget, and style of performance. And then I couldn’t think of a direct reference for the third film, Two of Everything; I’ve read reviews that compare it to Mulholland Drive, but I don’t think that’s accurate. Maybe Basic Instinct plus Lost Highway? Whatever the inspiration, it felt extremely authentic to the early 2000s, and if I’d seen the footage in a different context, I wouldn’t have had any idea it was made for a “video game.”

One of the most subtly impressive thing about the three movies is how they use so much of the language of film to solve a practical problem with the game’s format: because you’re bound to be watching these clips out of order, not just within a single movie but across three, you need to be able to immediately identify which “era” you’re seeing. They all use a different color palette, different style of costumes and wigs, and different tone to the film overall. All of them quietly emphasize just how much work goes into the art direction and cinematography of a film, even a contemporary one that’s not intended to be a period piece.

There’s an astounding level of planning that must’ve gone into Immortality, making the clips work not just to develop one of the three mini-movies, but to make them work together in the larger experience. Even though my biggest issue with the game is the whole “match cut” mechanic, I’m amazed by the level of planning required to include all the objects for the cuts — knives, crosses, snakes, apples, masks, notes — while simultaneously having them exist organically within three very different movies, and often giving them an additional layer of symbolic meaning within their movie.

And then there was all the effort involved in having so many different layers of identity. Not only were the actors playing actors playing multiple roles, but those roles themselves had changing layers and identities in each of the movies. The actors had to keep all of those versions in mind, often signifying the change with a simple facial expression, or “dropping character” when the director called “Cut.”

It’s that experience that made my first several hours with Immortality so wonderful and unique — jumping into a scene in progress, scrambling to figure out the context. You’re constantly having to assess and reassess what’s “real” and what’s part of the fiction, and then what’s part of the fiction-within-fiction. Here’s a violent confrontation, but it looks like real footage, was it a behind-the-scenes argument? No, it’s part of a rehearsal. But the rehearsal is re-contextualizing a scene we saw earlier. Is this character betraying our hero? No, her character is; she’s actually pretty nice and supportive. But wait… is she really?

All of it is gloriously disorienting, even before the additional twist that reveals itself as you scrub through the footage. For the longest time I was convinced that Two of Everything was a romantic comedy, so I was surprised to see it take such a dark turn, even though I knew I was playing what was classified as a horror game. Immortality is full of those moments of electricity as you’re piecing together threads of narrative, except you’re dealing with a dozen threads at once, and you can rarely be sure of what you just saw. It’s even more amazing when you realize that it was designed so that it would still work with the clips played in just about any order.

One of my favorite things about the game is its use of nondiegetic music. It’s so effective at reminding you that you’re in a separate story that exists outside of the dozens of mini-stories that you’re furiously trying to make sense of. It recasts so many of the clips into a different tone, with rising tension that doesn’t quite match the action you’re watching, or an ominous blaring note to alert you to something sinister that you might’ve just missed. It was so well done that it didn’t even occur to me until later that it came out of necessity; since we’re watching clips from unfinished or unreleased films — not to mention that we’re watching so much behind-the-scenes footage — they wouldn’t have been scored.

It was turning the entire experience into a cohesive one, and one that was making me increasingly anxious even as I was going through the relatively tedious task of scouring through hours of footage, and I didn’t even realize how it was working until actors in a scene would yell “blam” for a sound effect to be added later, or were dancing to music that didn’t yet exist.

The unpredictability of the “match cut” mechanic is a huge part of what made that possible, but unfortunately it’s what ended up killing my interest in the game. I didn’t unlock everything in the game, but I did make it to the final clip, and later I saw a sequence that was clearly intended to be the end of the main game. The credits rolled afterwards, giving an even clearer indication of how much work went into such an ambitious game. But I was left feeling disappointed.

It’s not a case of my being a completionist, but more the feeling that I had seen enough to trigger the end credits, but not enough to piece everything into a satisfying story. I don’t really feel like I know what happened in any meaningful way. I even resorted to an “explainer” in the form of the game’s subreddit, where I was even more disappointed to see that something that I’d taken for granted was a symbol for The Artistic Process was being given some very specific and literal science-fictiony explanation. And unlike a traditional movie, I didn’t feel like I had enough information to settle on an interpretation, and I didn’t feel inspired to go back through and get that additional information.

Immortality‘s mechanic is set up to all but guarantee diminishing returns to the experience. It was already evident after one night of playing that all the excitement and magic of the discovery process was going to devolve into tedium as I was scrubbing through clips I’d already seen several times over, looking for something that would trigger an additional clue. That’s exactly what happened; I was looking for anything in the scene that might lead to something new, and kept ending up at the same points over and over again.

My bigger issue is that the “match cuts” don’t seem to have any systematic predictability to them. As far as I could tell, there was no clue as to where clicking on a on object or a character would lead, and in fact the same item or character might lead to different places at different points in the overall experience. Some basic rules quickly became evident: how it worked to click an actor who only appeared in a specific movie vs clicking on the lead actors, how to “use” the clapperboards and the production assistants holding the clapperboards to give some level of predictability to when or where you’d jump, etc. But more often than not, the only thing seeming to connect the two scenes would be “someone is drinking from a glass” or “someone has a cigarette.” It’s impressive that they found so many different ways to work a snake into three different movies, for instance, but it’s not quite as impressive when the snake “means” something completely different in each movie.

There were also several moments where I wanted to be rewarded for noticing something, like a secret conversation between two actors, or the significance of a specific object, but the game didn’t let me. If there is a more controllable and predictable dynamic than just clicking around and scrubbing backwards when the game tells you to, I never found it.

I don’t want to imply that the “match cut” mechanic is completely arbitrary and meaningless, because it creates some really interesting moments that are only possible in an interactive entertainment premise like this one. For instance, there are multiple points where an actor appears nude, in multiple different contexts. The viewer is invited, and even expected, to click on an exposed breast or bottom to unlock a new scene. Instead of feeling prurient or gimmicky, just the act itself quietly implies multiple layers of commentary about voyeurism, body autonomy, gender dynamics, exposure, confidence, identity, commodification of sexuality, and loss of innocence. It’s handled maturely and in a novel way, and never felt to me as if it were being too strident with a message nor included purely for the novelty. It was also interesting how every instance of female nudity I saw depicted the women in control over their bodies, not just meeting the male gaze but playfully manipulating it to remain in control. The male actors, on the other hand, were awkward and uncomfortable when it was their turns to be exposed. But again, all of the impact was in the act of choosing the link; the destination rarely felt like a pay-off to the choice, but instead like going off on a tangent that didn’t have any evident connection to the previous scene. (For instance: I’d expected that clicking on a male actor’s exposed bottom would lead to a scene that revealed his vulnerability or discomfort, but it just linked to a nude statue and a seemingly unrelated moment).

My last day with the game was just tedious. Even armed with a list of scenes and some associated notes (again, from Reddit), I couldn’t figure out how to get to any of these still-locked scenes, and I found that I didn’t care that much anymore. It’s frustrating because the characters and the mini-movies are so vivid and still so full of potential energy that I’m still thinking of them, days later. But I’ve lost any desire to wade back in looking for stray nuggets of unseen material.

What profoundly drove home the idea that it’s not a game is that any attempt to approach it as a game made it a worse experience. I kept seeing achievement popups from Xbox Game Pass, including overly cutesy film-related names and descriptions, and they always came at the worst time, either undercutting a tense or dramatic moment, or just feeling insultingly shoe-horned into an experience that was so clearly hoping to raise the bar on what games and interactive entertainment can do.

So again, I’d consider Immortality an overall success, if only for that initial fantastic period of seemingly boundless discovery. But it also proves my theory that I’m much more interested in the process of making a choice than in the outcome of the choice. For me, it ties in surprisingly well with all of the ideas about the multiverse that are throughout Everything Everywhere All At Once and suggested in Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness: the allure of a seemingly infinite selection of possibilities and all the potential energy that implies, vs the reality of making your much more limited opportunities more meaningful ones.

I don’t doubt that there is an over-arching narrative still lurking inside Immortality, and I only saw a glimpse of its actual narrative arc. And I’m don’t believe it had much of anything to do with choices or multiverses outside of its repeated themes of multiple identities. But with a book, movie, or even a higher-minded video game, if I get too focused on plot at the expense of recognizing a deeper theme, I can just put some more thought into it, or go looking for key moments that’ll make everything clearer. With Immortality, I’d be forced to go back into it like a video game completionist looking to get all 100% of the achievements. It’s frustrating demanding that a project as ambitious and mature as this one to be more accessible, but that’s where I’m at: I believe that there’s more to be seen, but I simply don’t have the patience to look for it.