Sam Barlow talks his new investigative horror title
Developer Sam Barlow has been best known as the man who single-handedly resurrected the FMV (full-motion video) game with the release of 2015’s Her Story, which not only made the once derided genre respectable and innovative, but surely had a hand in influencing film and TV to experiment in interactivity, such as 2018’s Bandersnatch on Netflix.
Yet Barlow hadn’t even realised he had made an FMV game until other journalists pointed it out when he first demoed Her Story at Rezzed a few months before its release, admitting he then subsequently went back to research those kinds of games just so he could offer an informed opinion.
“Looking back, FMV games were obviously a failed experiment, but generally there was an expansion of genres and types of stories that were being told, because of the affordances of video and partly because of who was making these things as well,” says Barlow. “You had legal dramas, erotic thrillers, a lot of psychological horror, and all these more character-driven things set in a more real, contemporary world instead of the kind of tropes in video games.”
Prior to live-action, Barlow had spent a decade in more traditional games at British studio Climax. But even as a third-party developer working on other people’s IP, he was keen to experiement working as a designer on 2009’s Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, a reimagining of the original Konami horror classic, which was both innovative in its use of psychological elements to alter each player’s experience and controversial at the time for featuring no combat. “That’s now become essentially almost the default for a horror game. But at the time, we had to kind of slip that one under the radar,” he recalls. “There were a lot of things in Shattered Memories that we had to lie to Konami to get done.”
Barlow’s next project was directing Legacy Of Kain: Dead Sun, which was cancelled by publisher Square Enix before release. Barlow describes the three years the game was in development as tense.
“We were booted out of a greenlight meeting because we went in saying there is no multiplayer, because we did the focus tests, and nobody wants a multiplayer Legacy Of Kain,” he explains, which was then ignored as a separate developer (a pre-Rocket League Psyonix) was hired to create a standalone multiplayer component. “We’d always get feedback from an exec level where at every milestone, it would be like, ‘Could you just put some more boss battles in here? Could we have some cool Uncharted moments where stuff explodes? Can you remove the first 30 minutes where you’re doing all that story stuff because people have a short attention span?”
Barlow describes that period as “a perfect reflection of the pains the games industry had been going through”, where the opportunities to make beautiful story-driven prestige games suddenly evaporated save for a handful of big-budget studios. It may have also been that Square Enix simply didn’t know what to do with the franchises it owned, which has a new relevance given the recent news that the publisher is selling off its western business arm to Embracer Group, with the deal including many dormant IPs like Legacy Of Kain.
When Barlow decided to become an indie developer, FMV had been a case of necessity, as he wanted to create strong character-driven narratives but couldn’t afford the kind of expensive performance capture techniques exclusive to AAA. “If I go indie, and I don’t have that money to spend, how am I going to tell these kinds of stories? Some indies are like, ‘we can’t have characters in this game’, so then they’re exploring an abandoned place,” he adds. “All these decisions work for the game, but there’s only so many times you can lean into those constraints before it starts to feel a bit too much of a trope.”
Obsessed with crime shows, in particular wanting to just focus on recreating police interrogation scenes like in 90s British TV drama Cracker, his inspiration for using video actually came after from the DVD of Basic Instinct. “In the extras, they had casting tapes where they just filmed various interview sequences with Sharon Stone in a meeting room, with no real lighting, costume, or make-up – it was just on her face, and I was amazed at just how much more real and intense these scene felt,” he explains, also citing the rise of found footage films like The Blair Witch Project, while public disclosure also saw real-life police interview videos being uploaded on the Internet. “So I just woke up one day and was like, well hang on a minute, why don’t I just do actual videos?”
From there on, Barlow hasn’t looked back, following up Her Story with the even more ambitious Telling Lies where you’re trying to piece together a complex mystery between multiple characters under surveillance over a period of two years. Meanwhile, his upcoming release Immortality is told through the footage of three lost films, a conscious decision to go into the world of film almost as a reaction to the way his other games had been described as ‘interactive movies’.
“I always felt like they were almost the opposite of movies, because movies are all about control and a very specific edit, the director telling you at any given time to look at this specific thing, and leading you through a story, whereas both [Her Story and Telling Lies] were very much leaving it up to the player to find things that they found interesting and kind of creating structure,” he explains. “Immortality came about thinking like, well, let’s actually dig into what is a movie and how movies work.”
The premise of Immortality is that you’re trying to uncover the mysterious disappearance of Marissa Marcel, an actress who was set to become a huge star in the 70s but only ever starred in three films that were never publicly released. To figure out what happened, players have to sift through the lost footage of those films, made of a mixture of dailies and behind-the-scenes footage like auditions, table reads, and video diaries, almost as if you’re in an editing room feeding these through an old Moviola machine.
Instead of the previous games, which you could navigate by typing in words like it was a search engine, Immortality instead relies on a film editing technique called the match cut, whereby two seemingly unrelated sequences are connected by a matching visual or action, such as how 2001: A Space Odyssey famously cuts from an ape throwing a bone in the air cutting to a space satellite. But if that makes it sound like you need to be a film buff to know how to play Immortality, Barlow explains it in simpler gaming terms: it’s essentially a shooter. Or rather, it’s Pokémon Snap.
“In Pokémon Snap, you move through a linear level, you notice cool things, and you try to take photos and get points for it. Sometimes, by doing things at the right time, you might see or unlock something that you had not necessarily seen on a previous trip,” he explains. “In Immortality, we’re giving you this Moviola where you can sit and watch these sequences, and rewind, and find that perfect frame where you can perform a ‘headshot’, and then that will magically catapult you into a cool new moment and create some interesting story dynamic. So if you know what a headshot is, or know what it is to point and click at something, it should be straightforward for people to get into.”
Indeed, as un-gamelike Barlow’s works may seem (he however argues that a single-player Call Of Duty level, with its heavily scripted setpieces so that everyone is going to have virtually the same experience, is even less of a game), he likes to draw comparisons with other games, claiming that Telling Lies’ nonlinear exploration was basically an FMV Breath Of The Wild, and also highlights the importance of game feel, a reason why he believes TV hasn’t yet delivered on its interactive experiments. “The mechanics that we’ve been playing with have to come from the game side, because you need a game engine running to have something be as reactive or dynamic as the things we’re doing,” he adds.
As a game where mystery is paramount, Barlow unsurprisingly doesn’t want to give much away, such as why one of the films takes place two decades later. But to give players an idea of what to expect, he cites inspiration from the works of transgressive British filmmakers from the 70s like Ken Russell, Nicolas Roeg, Peter Greenaway, and Derek Jarman, categorised as part of the Brit Perv School, according to Vanity Fair (one of the game’s writers includes Allan Scott, who wrote the screenplay for Roeg’s horror masterpiece Don’t Look Now).
“Their films might not always be perfect or completely successful, but these directors really didn’t hold back, they went for 11 out of ten to create things that just have a life to them, and a messiness that feels very human and extravagant,” he says, though who knows whether that means we should expect Immortality to also contain very trippy sequences, full-frontal nudity, or other kinds of depravity. “I really thought with Her Story, I had made a Marmite game that would really split opinion, and it didn’t, which was a huge surprise to me. Again, Telling Lies had a pretty solid consensus, so I’m hoping this time I have actually made something that will divide opinion. We’ll see!”
For someone who didn’t realise he was going about reviving FMV games, with a third live-action title, it’d be easy and reductive to think of Barlow as the ‘FMV guy’ in perhaps the same way some developers are pinned to a very specific niche. Certainly, he finds working in live-action much easier. “You can just point the camera at a talented actor and it works,” he explains. “You don’t have to spend six months tweaking animations, 3D character rigs, or working on an eye shader that makes the eyes sparkle the way they would. There’s so much that I just like about working in live-action that would be like, ugh, in going back to 3D.”
Nonetheless, there have been huge advancements in the past decade, especially with Unreal Engine 5 and Meta Humans, which could mean that the kind of stories Barlow wants to tell can be done with more affordable technology. He’s also not completely ruled out a return to more conventional games, for lack of a better word.
“It’s currently paused but we were working on a 3D game, which was a really interesting fusion of Silent Hill: Shattered Memories and some of the cooler things about it that no one else has copied,” he says. “There was lots of other stuff with the way the story was dynamic and built itself around your actions that no one’s really caught up to, and we were doing something interesting there that really plugged into the explorable non-linear aspect of my FMV games. So that’s definitely still on the radar. I’m ambivalent to the actual structure of the game as long as I’m getting to tell an interesting story in a way that makes good on the interactivity.”
Immortality is releasing this summer on PC, Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, and Xbox Game Pass.