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How ‘Immortality’ developer Sam Barlow designs stories to haunt players

(Washington Post illustration; Half Mermaid)

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

“That term would always slightly rub up 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” script “an anti-movie.”

“What I was doing always felt quite different to me,” Barlow said. “The art of movies comes from the edit, from the control, and the experience of being sat there.”

He added that his latest project is, in a way, the product of his meditations on what a movie actually is: “I was like, well, okay, you're going to keep talking about movies? Let's talk about movies.”

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

That story spans four decades and revolves around the character of Marissa Marcel, an actress who starred in three never-released films before her disappearance. 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, etc. The result is a cinephiliac bad trip — “a hall of mirrors,” as actress Jocelin Donahue, who stars in the game, described it — giving the feeling of being in a darkened editing room strewn with celluloid.

“Immortality” was shot from a 400-page script that was itself partly a compilation of portions of three feature screenplays 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 about 10 hours of footage in all — about the same amount of footage as for “Telling Lies.”

“But it spans a much greater variety of locations, eras [and] contexts,” Barlow said. “Our goal was to be generous.”

With “Immortality,” Barlow aims to terrorize and haunt the player’s imagination. Barlow particularly cites the influence of David Lynch’s “Inland Empire” and Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s “Cure,” films that “don’t explain enough for you to be able to pack it away and walk out the cinema,” he said. “It is still going on inside you. I believe the official term for this kind of horror film is the mindf--- horror film.

“A thing that a lot of my favorite horror movies have in common also is that they feel slightly dangerous. The movies feel a little bit alive, a little bit infectious. I like horror movies that feel like they’ve snuck something into my brain. Definitely in deciding to embark on ‘Immortality’ we were interested in exploring how a game like this could feel alive, ways it could feel malevolent.”

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Barlow has long been obsessed with the goings-on in gamers’ heads. When he first decided to pursue a career as an indie developer in 2014, he had become disillusioned with the industry’s obsession over immersive, contiguous, 3D video game worlds. These were games, he felt, that bestowed a sense of limitless possibility, at the cost of not engaging what Barlow has called the sophisticated “simulation tech” of the player’s imagination.

By contrast, in Barlow’s games, a painstaking, almost manic intensity of imagination and focus is the whole point. Even as far back as “Aisle,” his interactive-fiction game from 1999, Barlow invited players to ponder or even obsess over the multitude of metaphysical possibilities contained in and unlocked by a single choice. Partly inspired by the experimental fiction of J.G. Ballard — who wanted, for example, the reading experience of “The Atrocity Exhibition” to be a kind of archaeology — Barlow wants players to be deeply involved and invested in the act of storytelling.

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

“This sounds very abstract, but I think it aligns with the specific obsessions I always bump up against in my stories — identity, memory. Very novelistic concepts.”

In the end, filming flesh-and-blood actors rather than laboring to finesse CG performances is just the natural fit 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 getting to make games that had characters and stories at the forefront, it was apparent to me that the best way to tell those stories was with actors,” he said. “I don’t think you can beat telling a story using actors. The extent to which you can take a story and compress it and make it so succinct through how a talented actor might make a single expression — the joyful way that we are able, as humans with brains designed to do this, unpack all that story from the expression. It’s such a beautiful process.”

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He added that, having witnessed the “obscene” amount of work that goes into in-game CGI and motion capture to render realistic-looking characters, “every day I work with live action feels like a blessing.”

Barlow is clearly fascinated by the inherent deceptions of acting itself: “Her Story,” “Telling Lies” and, now, “Immortality” all feature characters that are putting on performances of one kind or another. Fittingly for a story — and a storyteller — interested in the blurry boundaries between authenticity and artifice, the 11-week shoot for “Immortality” involved navigating multiple layers of reality.

When Los Angeles-based actress Manon Gage got a callback for the role of Marissa, the character whose disappearance the player is investigating, she ended her first conversation with Barlow with more questions than answers.

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

As part of the role, Gage plays a corps of interrelated parts: a movie actress in the 60s, 70s and 90s, a woman disguised as a monk in 18th-century Spain, an artist’s muse in 70s New York, and a 90s pop star, as well as that 90s pop star’s identical body double. To prepare, Gage got a crash course in cinematic history; at Barlow’s behest, she watched “Black Narcissus,” Franco Zeffirelli’s “Romeo and Juliet,” “The Devils,” “Klute,” “Performance,” “Blow-Up,” “Lost Highway,” “Eyes Wide Shut,” “The Bodyguard” and “Basic Instinct” — all works with both stylistic and thematic links to “Immortality.”

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

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

“There was an actor who was playing a director in one part of the game,” Christopher said, “who came to me thinking I was the director, and I was like, ‘No, no man, I’m not the director, I’m just an actor playing the director of one of the films in which you are an actor playing a director.’ That summed up a pretty typical working day.”

It occurred to many crew members involved with “Immortality” — as it had previously with “Telling Lies” — that it would have been a lot easier making a regular film. Plus, as director of photography Doug Potts said, “Sam’s scripts beg to be seen on the big screen.”

“Every time I finish shooting 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 writer covering arts and culture based in New York City.