From the mind of Sam Barlow, the developer behind Immortality and Her Story

In “Her Story” and “Telling Lies,” game designer Sam Barlow uses filmed performances by live actors to tell deeply involved and engaging stories – just don’t call them “interactive movies”.

“That term would still rub lightly against me,” he told The Washington Post in a recent video interview, speaking from his home in Brooklyn. He had, he said, even gone so far as to subtitle his “Telling Lies” screenplay “an anti-film”.

“What I was doing always felt very different to me,” Barlow said. “The art of cinema comes from editing, controlling and the experience of sitting there.”

He added that his latest project is, in a way, the product of his thoughts on what a film really is: “I was like, well, okay, are you going to keep talking about films? Let’s talk about cinema. »

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Released August 30, “Immortality” is Barlow’s most ambitious and complex work to date. Like “Her Story” and “Telling Lies”, it sees the player sifting through and sorting through the crumbs of a story, coaxing meaning from disparate fragments of a narrative puzzle.

This story spans four decades and revolves around the character of Marissa Marcel, an actress who starred in three previously unreleased films before her demise. The player has access to footage shot for Marissa’s films, as well as behind-the-scenes ephemera: audition tapes, rehearsals, table reads, late-night TV appearances, and more. The result is a cinephile bad trip: “a hall of mirrors”. as actress Jocelin Donahue, who stars in the game, described it, giving the impression of being in a dark, celluloid-strewn editing room.

“Immortality” was shot from a 400-page script which itself was partly a compilation of parts of three feature film scripts written by Amelia Gray (“Telling Lies,” “Mr. Robot”), Barry Gifford (“Lost Highway”) and Allan Scott (“Don’t Look Now”). There are a few hundred clips and around 10 hours of footage in all – about the same amount of footage as “Telling Lies”.

“But it covers a much wider variety of places, times [and] contexts,” Barlow said. “Our goal was to be generous.”

With “Immortality”, Barlow aims to terrorize and haunt the player’s imagination. Barlow specifically cites the influence of David Lynch’s “Inland Empire” and Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s “Cure,” films that “don’t explain enough for you to put it away and walk out of the cinema,” he said. declared. “It’s always happening inside of you. I believe the official term for this horror movie genre is mind—horror movie.

“One thing that a lot of my favorite horror films also have in common is that they feel slightly dangerous. The films are a little lively, a little infectious. I like horror movies that give the felt like I had planted something in my brain. Definitely, deciding to embark on “immortality”, we were interested in exploring how a game like this could feel alive, how malevolent it could feel.

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Barlow has long been obsessed with what goes on in players’ heads. When he first decided to pursue a career as an independent developer in 2014, he had become disillusioned with the industry’s obsession with immersive and contiguous 3D video game worlds. These were games, he said, that gave a sense of limitless possibility, at the cost of not engaging what Barlow called the sophisticated “simulation technology” of the player’s imagination.

In contrast, in Barlow’s games, an intensity of imagination and laborious, almost maniacal concentration is all the point. Even as early as “Aisle,” his 1999 interactive fiction game, Barlow invited players to ponder or even obsess over the myriad of metaphysical possibilities contained and unlocked by a single choice. Partly inspired by the experimental fiction of JG Ballard — who wanted, for example, the reading experience of “The Atrocity Exhibition” to be a kind of archeology — Barlow wants players to be deeply involved and invested in the act. of storytelling.

“I think the guideline of my work is to find ways to let people explore a story the way you might explore a space in a conventional video game,” Barlow said. “To find ways to make the act of exploring or experiencing a story expressive for the audience.

“It sounds very abstract, but I think it fits with the specific obsessions I always run into in my stories – identity, memory. Very romantic concepts.

Ultimately, filming live actors rather than working to fine-tune CG performances is only the natural solution for the psychological depth and sophistication of Barlow’s storytelling – even if shooting for 11 weeks in California during a pandemic was less than ideal.

“Once I started making games with characters and stories at the forefront, it became clear to me that the best way to tell those stories was with actors,” he said. “I don’t think it’s better to tell a story with actors. The extent to which you can take a story and compress it and make it so succinct through the way a talented actor could make a single expression – the joyous way we are capable of, as humans with brains designed for the do, to unpack this whole story of expression. It’s such a beautiful process.

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He added that after witnessing the “obscene” amount of work that goes into CGI and motion capture in-game to make characters look realistic, “every day that I work with live action , it’s like a blessing.”

Barlow is clearly fascinated by the disappointments inherent in acting itself: ‘Her Story’, ‘Telling Lies’ and, now, ‘Immortality’ all feature characters who exhibit performances of one kind or another. . Fittingly for a story — and a storyteller — interested in the blurred lines between authenticity and artifice, the 11-week shoot for “Immortality” involved navigating multiple layers of reality.

When Los Angeles-based actress Manon Gage was called back to play Marissa, the character whose disappearance the player is investigating, she ended her first conversation with Barlow with more questions than answers.

“I was like waiting, so it’s a video game,” she told The Post, “but it’s also three art films? But also a film documentary? But also a mystery interactive?

As part of the role, Gage plays a body of interrelated roles: a film actress in the 60s, 70s and 90s, a woman dressed as a monk in 18th century Spain, an artist’s muse in New York 70s and a 90s pop star, as well as the look-alike of that 90s pop star. To prepare, Gage took a crash course in film history; at Barlow’s request, she watched “Black Narcissus”, “Romeo and Juliet” by Franco Zeffirelli, “The Devils”, “Klute”, “Performance”, “Blow-Up”, “Lost Highway”, “Eyes Wide Shut”, “The Bodyguard” and “Basic Instinct” – all work with stylistic and thematic links to “Immortality”.

“Sam basically gave me a program,” Gage said.

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With so many roles, as well as those of the game’s other characters, in play, keeping it straight proved difficult on set, co-star Hans Christopher explained.

“There was an actor who played a director in part of the game,” Christopher said, “who came to me thinking I was the director, and I was like, ‘No, no, I’m not. not the director, I’m just an actor playing the director in one of the movies where you’re an actor playing a director. That summed up a fairly typical day at work.

It occurred to many of the crew members involved with “Immortality” — as it had previously with “Telling Lies” — that it would have been much easier to make a regular movie. Plus, as cinematographer Doug Potts said, “Sam’s scripts are just begging to be seen on the big screen.”

“Every time I finish filming one of these complicated things, the cast and crew are like, ‘Can we just do a movie next time?'” Barlow said.

Darryn King is a freelance arts and culture writer based in New York City.

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