Despite significant franchise credits such as Silent Hill, Serious Sam, and Legacy of Kain, for the past decade, Sam Barlow has been known as the man who makes ‘FMV games’.
Barlow went independent in 2014, publishing Her Story the following year before forming the studio Half Mermaid, releasing Telling Lies and 2022’s Immortality. In all three, Barlow took a very different approach to the storytelling of her video games. It shoots scenes with real actors and plays with variations on the core mechanics that viewers search for information through hours of footage.
For this reason, Barlow and Half Mermaid have received numerous awards and accolades, and Immortality has been nominated three times each for Best Performance, Best Story, and Best Game Direction at The Game Awards.
The day after The Game Awards, I spoke with Barlow. He said he “did it all out” on Immority.
“Does that mean we have to raise the stakes more?” he says. “Are there any expectations you keep – which ones always fall apart? Like you watch season one of the show. I remember loving 24. The first season of 24 was great.” And every season after that, they were like, “Oh, we need more. Bigger, crazier shit. And it lost it all.”
I asked Barlow what he would be happy to create apart from audience expectations. But he replies:
“Early stage [of development] It’s always really fun,” he continues. “In the research phase, just having an excuse to sit down and read a bunch of books during the waking day…it’s a lot of fun. But sometimes, I mean, it was Warren Spector said All his game ideas came from… watching other people shit and thinking, “You’re doing something wrong.” ”
Despite the pressure, Barlow has plenty of ideas, at least one of which is to stop being an “FMV guy.” He tells us that Half Mermaid did pre-production for her 3D game during Immortality’s development and then paused later. He says the pitch was essentially “perfect smoothness” of “3D character her game” and “all that her story, immortal stuff”.
Barlow recognizes that all his recent work straddles the odd line between games and TV, but doesn’t fit neatly into either box. He says that they arrived at the concept of immortality in terms of “games” at least in part because they could sell it as a game on Steam for $20 and people would at least be functional Even if the majority of game viewers weren’t impressed by its unique construction, a significant portion would be interested and would buy.
But even if games have been a convenient medium for selling the weird, hybrid stories Barlow likes to tell, another avenue for future projects Barlow is considering is his particular It’s about making brand storytelling work in the TV space. He has so far described how Netflix (which published Immortality through its Netflix Games label) has confused typical TV viewing between binge models, varying episode lengths, Black Mirror’s Bandersnatch, and more. He says he’s impressed with what he’s done. But understandably, Barlow wants more.
“I would love to see them inject some of the things that are unique to games right now,” he says. There are a lot of books out there that have a non-linear structure or just read pages randomly and put together a story…but what I loved about her story is that it’s digital so you’re essentially you .just pull the shit out of the ether and discover it, and it was explicit [the case] In Immortity – Grid’s aesthetic was to have this dark emptiness behind it as it was just summoning these clips. A sense of surprise and excitement is possible because the computer can hide or reveal something from a person.I would love to see it [Netflix] do those things.
Barlow acknowledges that there are many business-related reasons why television has yet to fulfill his vision. Attempts to make money are inherently risk-averse, and it’s hard to make an individual giant company the first to fund a leap like the one Barlow suggests. It’s going to be 2. If someone does it, we’ll jump in and be number 2.”
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