What is art? It’s a question that humanity has found difficult to answer since we started making it. You’ll be hard pressed to find an entire group of people who all give the same answer. In a way, that’s the beauty of it. That it can be and mean different things to different people. Immortality wants to say something profound about the nature of art and the people who make it and it almost succeeds until it gets so wrapped up in its own message that it leaves behind what makes art profound to begin with.
The central conceit of Immortality is figuring out what happened to Marissa Marcel, an actress who made 3 movies, none of which were very released and then she disappeared. Her first movie was a historical religious erotic drama in the late 60s titled Ambrosio, her second was a gritty detective drama in the early 70s titled Minsky, then she disappeared and re-emerged in 1999 to star in thriller Two of Everything. The game is essentially a mock film exhibit that lets you view clips and behind the scenes footage of Marissa’s films through a device that film editors used when films were still made on film called a moviola. You can fast-forward, rewind, pause, and slow down any clip to your heart’s content. You can also click on an image in any frame and it will transport you to a new clip that also features something identical or related to what you clicked. So you can click on an actor and it will take you to another clip with them in it or you can click on a chair and it will take you to another clip with a chair in it. The purpose of all this is of course to figure out what happened to Marissa and it’s here that the game is both brilliant at what it’s doing and atrocious at it.
It’s hard to really go into anymore detail about the game without getting into spoilers but what I will say is that Immortality‘s puzzle is one that at first seems like there is no solution to until you discover that there’s more to this than you thought. Whether or not you get to that point of discovery though is another matter because I can very easily see people tuning out before they reach that “aha” moment. I know I almost did. That’s a major problem with what is ostensibly a puzzle game. The real puzzle is not shown to you until you discover it. Once you do, that initial “aha” moment will hit you with wonderment, and freak you out in equal measure like a brick in the face. Until you get there though, you’re treated to a puzzle with no real solution and nothing to really say. Everything before and even a lot after that moment is filled with a whole lot of nothing. Busy work and dead ends that contribute neither to the purpose of a being video game nor to the wider themes at play.
What makes it so frustrating is that when Immortality works, it works brilliantly and can hook you like very few games can. So it’s unfortunate that it so often chooses to meander in the name of false interactivity and “look how profound we are” indulgence. The ability to choose an object in any frame to transport you to another clip is great on paper to ensure no two people go down the same path and make it seem like you really are on your own journey of discovery but it can also lead you into circles with nothing new to see nor any idea that you’re even doing anything. I got an achievement a few hours into my playthrough saying that I discovered what happened to Marissa Marcel when I most certainly didn’t. It was only after that achievement did I finally discover the real story at play. Once I finally reached the credits, I still hadn’t truly discovered everything or fully pieced together what happened. It’s like doing a jigsaw puzzle that tells you that you’ve beaten it when you can see there are still pieces missing.
Immortality is as much an interactive film as it is a game and in its examination of art has chosen film as its main avenue. There’s a lot here for film nerds like myself. The fake films Ambrosio and Minsky are legitimately excellent imitations of films from those eras. They look like they were made back then. The backstage footage is accurate of the time period. It’s very impressive for a game that probably had one-tenth the budget of a standard Call of Duty let alone a proper feature film. The 1999 film Two of Everything unfortunately fails to look like a 1999 film and more like a low budget soap opera but the backstage footage of that film is as excellent a recreation of that time period as the other two. The clips are also packed with references for film buffs to pick up on. It’s a shame that the references don’t really offer anything other giving you something to point at on screen like you’re Rick Dalton. This is a video game about art that takes the form of various films and features references to films but the references are simply easter eggs for film buffs to pick up on and smile instead of contributing to the wider themes about the timelessness of art vs the ticking clock of those who make it.
For a game that is so indebted to film, I can’t help but compare how it functions relative to films that its structure is similar to. The way Immortality progresses had me thinking about the works of Christopher Nolan and David Lynch a few times throughout because it’s clear this game is trying to function like the films of those two directors but in a more interactive way. The problem is that it fails and it once again comes back to the fact that Immortality flounders its best aspects to try and be smarter than it is. It tries to trick you into thinking it’s one thing before revealing what it actually is, then once you figure it out it continues to try tricking you into thinking there’s even more there when there isn’t. The films of Nolan and Lynch are as much puzzles for the audience to unravel as they are movies but they’re puzzles that once they reveal themselves, allow you on the ride to the solution and that solution provides closure and meaning. Immortality never lets you on the ride to the solution and it never gives you proper closure and so it loses some of its meaning. Even Inception gave you closure because for as open as that ending was, the puzzle of the film has a solution and it invited to see it. Immortality doesn’t really invite you to its solution so much as it just tries to outsmart you in an attempt to be profound.
Despite my problems with it, I’m glad I played Immortality. In fact, despite disliking so much of it, I was so engaged in this ride to nowhere that I beat it in one sitting. There’s so much here that works against it but when you reach the points that contribute to what it’s trying to do there is a truly thought provoking message here about what we put into our art and what that art puts into us. I just wish I didn’t have to sift through so much pointlessness to get to those points. I wish that theme came together at the end in an meaningful, way but it doesn’t because the end isn’t really the end and the solution of the grand puzzle the developers made is hanging in purgatory. Art is profound because it leaves behind a immortal legacy of not just the artists intentions but also the individual meanings of every single person who views it. Immortality wants to be profound but in trying so hard to be profound it leaves you with nothing except a very specific message it wants to hit you with but doesn’t because it would rather try to trick you into believing how smart it thinks it is.
Some will think Immortality is a masterpiece and others will think that it’s atrocious. Neither group is wrong. I frequently fluctuated between each of those thoughts throughout my 5 hour playthrough. I do think it’s art though. It’s not as profound or thought provoking as it thinks it is but it’s definitely art because art captures us, engages us and stays with us whether we think it’s good or not. I still don’t know if I truly thought Immortality was good or bad but I can’t deny that it captured me, it engaged me and there are moments in it that will stay with me forever.
Rating: Cruise Control
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