#018 — What Others So Discreetly Talk About

Hi, hello, how are you? Today is Sunday, and that means this is Tendrils, your note from me — Adam Wood — telling you what’s been occupying my time and mind in the preceding week. I’ll be honest with you: I’ve made a couple of successive poor decisions regarding video games vs sleep in the past few days, and so I’m writing this through a certain degree of brain fog. However, one of the games in question, I absolutely have to tell you about! First of all however, let’s mark a filmic anniversary.

Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha premiered at the Telluride Film Festival on 1 Sep 2012: a decade ago this past week. It’s a movie that is near and dear to my heart; a couple of years ago, when I put together my list of favourite films, it ended up in the 7th spot. Rewatching it this week, I found it to be just as captivating and full of magic as always.

Performances, script, soundtrack, cinematography… to my mind Frances Ha is a near perfect movie. The way the light illuminates the frames of Sophie’s glasses is one of my favourite visual effects of the last decade. As a bonus for you, here’s a short video on some of the framing techniques used in the film.

My early relationship with FMV (full motion video) games took the form of being amazed by the technology at play in Night Trap for the Sega CD, and envious of my friend’s copy of Sewer Shark for the 3DO. Both of those games came out in 1992, and until fairly recently that felt somewhat like the early peak of the sub-genre. In the time since, FMV games have become a strange niche of format experiments. As PC and console hardware has advanced, exponential increases in both graphical fidelity and memory capacity have made the inclusion of high resolution video trivial. That being the case — given, also, that it necessarily limits player interaction in meaningful ways — the choice to build a game entirely out of video is readable now more as creative choice than the indulgence of a gimmick. (Side note: I recently played through Remedy Entertainment’s title Control (2019), which finds some really interesting ways to incorporate and layer video elements into environments otherwise realised through traditional (though advanced, and advancing) techniques of game world construction.)

Though they’re not titles I’ve really connected with, FMV games have had something of a resurgence in recent years. My sense is that much of the work has retained something of the early games’ sense of camp. You need only browse the titles from Wales Interactive, or watch a trailer for The Dark Side of the Moon (2021) to get a sense of where the heart of the sub-genre lies. At the same time, however, there are people and studios making qualitatively different work: most prominently Sam Barlow of Half Mermaid.

Over the last few years, Barlow has directed three increasingly ambitious games. Her Story (2015) was a crime piece in the form of an interactive one-woman play; & Telling Lies (2019) was a more dynamic, more ambitious thriller, with a larger cast and more modes of player interaction. In both cases, the player’s role is pseudo-curatorial: granted access to a corpus of video, you must find ways to sift and sort the material into a coherent whole, so as to discern the truth of the stories. This much is also true of Barlow’s new game: Immortality (2022), in which the player is tasked with solving the mystery of what happened to Marissa Marcel — star of three unreleased films, now missing. The mode of interaction here has changed from text-based, in Barlow’s first two titles, to image-based: leaping from one video clip to another based on the shared presence of a person or object. I found it to be a more immersive mechanic, which also allowed greater freedom of exploration.

My struggle in writing this is that I don’t want to say too much about Immortality, save to recommend it whole-heartedly. The central performance of Manon Gage as Marissa Marcel is increasingly astonishing, as the player witnesses her play not just Marissa throughout distinct periods of her career, but also each of the roles that Marissa takes on. Some of the smaller roles are somewhat less well-executed, but not distractingly so, and it’s easy to look past when several contributors are doing stellar work. [REDACTED] in the role of [REDACTED] will stay with me for a long time! Equally astounding is the fidelity with which Half Mermaid have constructed the video material; each small slice unfailingly feels as though it belongs to one of the three distinct productions. (Note, for example, the different aspect ratios, colouration, and resolutions to the screenshots I’ve included here.) The first film is an adaptation of MG Lewis’s 18th century gothic novel The Monk (1796); the second a hard-boiled 70s crime piece; and the third is [REDACTED]. See? I can’t risk saying too much, even about that.

The more time I spent with Immortality, the more I was amazed by every facet of its construction and execution. So, let me tread carefully, whilst being as clear as possible: if you have even a passing interest in video games, or in film-making, or if you simply enjoy a brilliantly-constructed mystery story, please play Immortality. As already mentioned, I’ve spent a couple of late nights with it (which proved apt), and though I’ve ‘solved’ the core puzzle, and seen the credits, I am going to keep returning to the game until I’ve uncovered every last piece of footage it has to offer.

I have a folder chock full of screenshots from Immortality that I’d love to show you, but cannot. There is a captivating central mystery to the whole construction that it would be a crime to spoil; I feel bad even alluding to it. It is a rare thing to come across a piece of art that is simultaneously this compelling and genuinely unnerving. The closest touchstones that come to mind for me are Darren Aronofsky’s film Mother (2017), Mark Z Danielewski’s novel House of Leaves (2000), and the immersive theatre work of Punchdrunk.

Immortality is available now on PC & Xbox, but here’s the thing: if you have an iPhone, iPad, or Android device, the game will soon be playable there and included in the price of a Netflix subscription. So, if you’re a Netflix subscriber with a phone or tablet, keep an eye on your app store of choice. Do me the favour of spending a little time with Immortality – it’s truly something special.

• • •

As I write this, it’s September — you may have noticed. This means that my favourite season is soon upon us, and I get to bring my jumpers and jackets out of their cupboard hibernation. I wanted to note one other connotation of this seasonal change: over the years it has become tradition for me to take an extended break from the internet over autumn and winter. I mention it here only because, once October rolls around, projects like this newsletter, the Flux Observer1 podcast, and my blog, will all be impacted as I crawl into my offline cave.

Until then, however, I have bullets to share:

• David Lynch was given a single roll of film, and a 100 year old camera: this is the result;

• I’ve mentioned it here in the past, but this week saw the release of the first three episodes of Björk’s podcast: Sonic Symbolism — it’s already an absolute gift to her fans;

• I kinda-sorta hate this sort of thing, but spot as many Kubrick references as you can in this Gucci advert (and then, obviously, never buy anything from Gucci);

• with everything else that’s going on, I’m not sure Twitter have a laser focus on what they want the future of the platform to be, but the wide release of ‘Twitter Circles’ does seem like a genuinely interesting step;

• music pick of the week: ahead of a new album (set to be released this coming week), I’ve found myself revisiting Santigold’s 2008 debut, so that’ll serve!

OK, I hope you’re well and that you’re even half as excited for autumn as I am. Hang in there, and I’ll write to you again next weekend.


— Adam

  1. Update: indeed, the podcast is on hiatus and has been archived  ↩︎