Image: John Watson

Video game designer Sam Barlow: ‘We follow rabbit holes on the internet, right?’

The maker of Netflix game Immortality on his plans to modernise storytelling
December 8, 2022

Sam Barlow has already achieved immortality. Actually, that’s not quite right. Let’s reformat: Sam Barlow has already achieved Immortality. For that is the name of the video game he released to great acclaim earlier this year—although, if you’ve never played games, or haven’t for a while, and are unaware of what they have become, then “video game” might be selling it short. Perhaps “culture-spanning, psycho-visual experiment” is a better descriptor.

The November day I speak to Barlow, 44, is also the day when Immortality is released on Netflix, after a few months exclusively on game consoles. He hints at some of the reasons for the wait: “It’s much more difficult in terms of the technology; a smart television running Netflix is not the same as a gaming machine… you have a controller issue, possibly; there’s a huge question of educating the audience…”

Regardless of the challenges, Immortality and Netflix feel well suited to each other, not least because Immortality is mostly about browsing films; three particular films that pretend as though they were made in the past but were actually shot by Barlow and his crew for inclusion in the game. The first is a scurrilous religious flick, Ambrosio, purportedly from 1968. The second is a cool detective drama, Minsky, from 1970. The third is a psychological thriller, Two of Everything, from 1999. The twist is that all three star the same actress, Marissa Marcel, who is mysteriously ageless and, well, no longer around.

We try to create order and recognise patterns in an ocean of bullshit

Your task, as the player, is to sift through the films and their marginalia to discover what became of Marissa. It starts as a form of cataloguing, then becomes something else entirely. The first time you rewind some footage and bump into an otherworldly presence—in a way that could never happen in a traditional movie—is one of the great cultural punctuation marks of the year. There is a before and there is an after.

All of this—or most of it, at least—is the work of Barlow, who grew up in the UK and its gaming industry before moving to New York City to run his own company, Half Mermaid Productions. Most of the formative influences he mentions aren’t games—though he has a clear fondness for the simple text-based adventures that used to buzz around computer networks in the late 1990s—but books and films. “I was a ridiculously voracious reader as a kid,” he says. “I would steal both of my brothers’ library cards to max them out.”

A love of narrative is evident in all of Barlow’s major works, from 2009’s Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, which he directed for one of gaming’s most popular horror series, through to his own Her Story and Telling Lies, both of which prefigured Immortality in their blend of film and gameplay.

But love is not the same as slavish devotion. What Barlow is trying to do, it seems, is modernise storytelling: “We follow rabbit holes on the internet, right? We try to create order and recognise patterns in an ocean of bullshit. It makes sense to take that relationship and put it into our stories.”

In this respect, Barlow is simply giving the people what they want—or, rather, what they do. Yet, like any artist, he is also bringing his own dark preoccupations to the canvas. As you progress through Immortality, a literal collage is made of the objects that have drawn your gaze. A portrait, a pool of blood, the top of a thigh… it becomes an indictment of the player’s own voyeurism.

“I can’t see that this won’t be the future,” says Barlow of this digitised mix of authorial intent and reader involvement. And I can’t see that Barlow won’t be one of the heroes of this new narrative age, even though there are others who are helping to bring it about. He might just achieve immortality—lower case, not the game—after all.