For several years the British video game designer Sam Barlow (Her Story, Telling Lies) has been exploring fresh territory at the border between cinema and interaction. Unlike the cringey full-motion video films of the medium’s formative years, such as Dragon’s Lair or Night Trap – cinematic versions of the Choose Your Own Adventure books – Barlow typically presents the player with a messy trove of film clips that can be accessed in a random but logical order. In time, they form a narrative collage, from which an observant player can trace the outline and eventually detail of a coherent story.
Immortality is where Barlow’s pioneering experiments (here supported by numerous collaborators) find their ideal form. This is an irresistible plunge into a Hollywood mystery, in which you browse through reels of footage from three unreleased films made between 1969 and 1999 that all star the apparently unageing model turned actor Marissa Marcel. This Monroe-like starlet, at once wildly flirtatious and ineffably sad, has disappeared. Can you discover how and why, using only the clues found in and around her work?
You begin with a single clip. Using an interface designed to replicate the form and function of an old Moviola editor, you can pause the footage at any time and click on any cast member or prop – even a shape – that’s of interest. The screen then zooms in and teleports you to a similar image from another clip, drawn from any of the three movie “texts”. You claim the clip for your collection and begin to build the story through more match cuts. In addition to the vivid film source material you also have access to candid behind-the-scenes moments, and even sexual dalliances. It’s all convincingly acted and beautifully shot, making you feel at once like a detective, editor and eavesdropper, party to things nobody was ever supposed to see, as well as things the participants hoped everyone would see.
As well as the built-in uneasiness of watching intimate footage of a missing person, Barlow incorporates a spattering of mystical elements that darken the mood of the mystery. Take notes. Leave breadcrumbs. This ode to the magic of film-making is a winding warren that reserves its keenest rewards for the obsessively attentive.