Interview with Sam Barlow: From Her Story to IMMORTALITY

Author: Rashel
2022-08-31
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Netflix just announced four games that will be released in August 2022, which include the FMV (full-motion video) game IMMORTALITY from Sam Barlow (creator of Her Story and Telling Lies) and his studio Half Mermaid. This time the new story centers around a film star, Marissa Marcel, who only ever appeared in three unreleased movies, “Ambrosio,” “Minsky,” and “Two of Everything.” Then, Marissa Marcel disappeared. The player gets hooked by the untold stories and must explore clips to speculate on the complex mystery: why and how she disappeared.

Aligning with Barlow's previous titles, Her Story and Telling Lies, IMMORTALITY utilizes FMV to recreate these films and the supplementary footage while tasking players with combing through them all for visual clues. To introduce this highly anticipated game to the gamer community in China, indienova interviewed Barlow right before the launch.

Given that the game was developed during a particularly challenging time, what could the most unexpected difficulties have been during the development? According to Barlow, it was that the opportunities to have fun “were overshadowed by the pandemic!” In the game, each of the three films was a chance for the developers to play with the techniques. To give players the entertaining and immersive experience and “the Point of View of a film editor,” the game was designed to make them feel like they had been left alone in the editing suite with reels of mystery footage and an old Moviola machine, where they can roll the film forwards and backward and watch it closely.

IMMORTALITY is a cinephilia game. The studio took inspiration from many films from the 70s, which they call “a golden age of more authentic movies.” That period was when the filming industry transitioned from the studio system into New Hollywood. Through the timeline from “Ambrosio” to “Minsky,” a tension between the old and new ways of film-making is presented, which could be a projection of the crew’s true experience in a medium that has a short shelf life - “mortality.” Therefore, Barlow entitles the game IMMORTALITY principally to convey the idea that “we create art and tell stories as a way of living forever.”

To make films of Hollywood quality, they invited acclaimed composer Nainita Desai to compose the soundtracks. She collaborated with Barlow in his previous game, Telling Lies. The team also ambitiously enriched the game with an incredible amount of films. According to Barlow, they need the quantity for the player “to get lost in it.” So they increased not only the amount of content to two or three times what they had on Telling Lies but also the scope of the story itself.

However, the core development team is still a micro team compared to most games. Working in a small team has been Barlow’s consistent method after leaving Climax Studio. Seeing that the market for single-player games, particularly the more interesting and narrative-focused ones, was shrinking and that the explosion in mobile gaming and digital distribution was allowing smaller teams to create more innovative games, Barlow thought he owed himself one go at trying to find success at that moment. So, he became an indie game developer and started working on Her Story.

At first, he sought a way to create a murder mystery game, a police procedural game that was freer than its counterparts. Then he spent plenty of time digging deep and researching unique approaches. Being immersed in reading the transcripts and watching the real-life police interrogations, at some point, he woke up with the idea of making the game from the video footage itself. In fact, it was only when the game was finished that he realized it was an “FMV game.”

As a storyteller, Barlow thinks the most significant difference between scripting for films and games is how the writer approaches the scale. For a traditional movie, the storyline needs to be precise and succinct, really focusing on the point that the audience should be following. Whereas for his games, opening up the script and “creating space” for the player to sprawl and inhabit is essential. Also, the hardest part is to cultivate enough gaps for their imagination. “If the gameplay is about figuring stuff out, you have to trust the player and actually leave some of the more important stuff for them to figure out,” says Barlow.

indienova noticed that IMMORTALITY would support multiple languages on its release, so we also asked Barlow to share some stories about the team's efforts in the game's localization since, in the new game, the narrative is conveyed not only by texts but also by the acting performance and the order of storytelling, etc. When asked about how they translated the game where the narrative is beyond text, Barlow said, “with Telling Lies, I saw the complexity of trying to translate a game where the gameplay itself is linked directly to the use of words – where each localized version essentially has slightly different level design! So here I was very excited to create a game where the mechanics were all visually driven – and therefore transcended the specifics of the language.”

Barlow continued to explain that the game’s centerpiece mechanic is that the player can jump from one piece of video to another by making visual connections. He called it “exploration by match cut.” That is, when the player sees a dagger, clicks it, then they jump to another moment with that dagger. “We wanted to take the magic of cinema – the ‘cut,’” says Barlow, “and turn it into a tool that the player could use.”

Through this unique transition system, the Half Mermaid studio examined what a movie cannot do and found what can be realized and strengthened in an FMV. Unlike movies with fixed and predictable narratives, in video games such as IMMORTALITY and Telling Lies, dynamic and multilayered experiences are created specifically for each player. They believe it is always important to concentrate on the difference between conventional movies and FMV games because the differentiation surprises the players and makes them feel alive while playing.

Popular art is inevitably forgotten by the times, "nothing is forever." In the article “The Decay of Cinema'' for the 100th anniversary of Cinema, Susan Sontag said: "Cinema's 100 years seem to have the shape of a life cycle: an inevitable birth, the steady accumulation of glories and the onset in the last decade of an ignominious, irreversible decline. It's not that you can't look forward anymore to new films that you can admire. But such films not only have to be exceptions…… Cinema, once heralded as the art of the 20th century, seems now, as the century closes numerically, to be a decadent art." It talks about Cinema, but Game, as the new art genre after Cinema, when the spirit of exploration and pioneering is lost, will also follow the same old disastrous road. Therefore, as a cinephilia game, it's not only a tribute to cinephilia culture with its themes and stories, but also a question with its own exploration of Game, an art genre that is still young: we create art and tell stories as a way of living forever, but how can we?


IMMORTALITY will officially launch on Steam on August 31st. We anticipate seeing how this unique piece of work will make waves.

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