Immortality is a Meditation on the Worth of an Artist

The latest title from Half Mermaid and Sam Barlow wants the player to think about what an artist gives up for creativity.

[The following post contains spoilers for Immortality. There’s no good way to talk around it while also discussing its themes. I suggest just playing it. It’s on Game Pass.]

There’s no good elevator pitch for Immortality, the newest title from Her Story and Telling Lies developer Sam Barlow. The game is largely driven by FMV, but I wouldn’t categorize it as a FMV game. It does somewhat defy categorization, for better and for worse, and might better be described as a mystery or a puzzle game. It’s a movie equivalent to a visual novel without somehow falling into the trap of just being a movie.

But it’s impossible to separate what Immortality is from what it wants to be, because the underlying themes and messages in the narrative are so intrinsically tied to its own successes and failures. Immortality is not a perfect game, far from from it, but those imperfections — perhaps even fundamental flaws — make for an interesting argument at their core: What, if anything, should be the constraint of artistic pursuit?

The game tells a story stretched across three decades that, in differing levels of subtlety, conveys a message about the not-very unique dynamic between artistic freedom and realistic resources. In Immortality, this is presented as a dyad of art and law existing parallel for all of human civilization. Law seeks to keep order and confine art, while art lives as free expression that advances society. The worst thing that can happen to an artist, it’s argued, is being.

Immortality

This is reinforced time and time again, showing artists trying their best to make something that’s artistically valuable. The idea that you have to suffer to make great art, that you have to give yourself up to it, that you might even have to die for it, is considered virtuous. There’s no greater victory than creating and no greater sin than wasting that opportunity.

But by the end of Immortality, a different thought emerges from the chaos and fire that leads you there. The story becomes a thought exercise on what unrestrained creativity and resources can do to the person channeling them. History is littered with the bodies of tragic artists who gave more to society than they got back, making for romantic stories of living forever through your work by being underappreciated in your own time. But at the end of the day, the person whose desire it is to create those things is twisted, beaten, and burned out as they try to birth something that only exists somewhere deep inside them.

It’s an interesting thought, one that Barlow was undoubtedly pontificating on as he planned another game that could have just hewed closely to his previous titles. Given vastly more resources than before, would Immortality be the unchained id of someone trying to craft the perfect story? Would the price of creating that, of spending years toiling away at something and trading away all your perspective for focus, even be worth it at the end? Are you the same person that emerges on the other side of such an endeavor?

Immortality

Immortality, for what it’s worth, doesn’t really answer these questions either way. It doesn’t take a stand that art is worthless if it destroys the artist in the process. It doesn’t stand on any soapboxes with a concrete argument that our work is only as healthy as we are. Honestly, it might be hypocritical for the game to do that. If it had a soapbox to stand on, the box itself would be gilded and critically-acclaimed, kind of dulling whatever argument came bellowing out from above it. But it asks the questions all the same, like small taps of a finger on your skull, and prompts you to consider what you ask of other people.

In the fictional film chronology, Marissa begins her career with a movie titled Ambrosio, based on a 1796 Gothic novel titled The Monk: A Romance. In that story, the titular Monk makes several direct and indirect deals with Lucifer to attain more of what he wants under the belief that he is not actually doing anything wrong because he’s still a good and pious person deep down. Ambrosio sets the tone for the rest of the game by demonstrating an extreme example of how sacrificing a piece of you to get what you desire, casting the best among us as vessels for making one more deal with the devil in the name of wanting more.

The game’s framework posits that we should care to find out what happened to Marissa Marcel, a woman whose worth is bestowed by her talent and her mystery. Despite the fact that none of her movies ever came out, the thrust of the supposed documentary you’re watching wants you to understand that creativity can be as fulfilling or as hollow as circumstance decides. For Marcel, it was both. And the resulting husk that stares back at the player at the end is a reminder that nothing worth creating is made for free.