Despite key credits on franchises like Silent Hill, Serious Sam, and Legacy of Kain, for the last decade Sam Barlow has been mostly known as that guy that makes the “FMV games.”
Barlow went indie in 2014 and published Her Story the following year before forming studio Half Mermaid and releasing Telling Lies and 2022’s Immortality. With all three, Barlow took a very different approach to video game storytelling — filming scenes with real actors and playing with variations on central mechanics that have the audience searching for information through hours upon hours of footage.
For this, Barlow and Half Mermaid have received numerous awards and accolades, with Immortality nominated three times at The Game Awards for best performance, best narrative, and best game direction respectively.
I spoke with Barlow the day after The Game Awards, who said he went “all out” with Immortality — which leaves him “slightly scared” to consider what he and Half Mermaid might follow it up with.
“Does that mean I have to raise the stakes more?” he says. “Is there an expectation that you keep- Which is the thing where everything always falls apart, right? Like you’ll see season one of a show. I remember really loving 24; the first season of 24 was great. And then every season after that they were like, ‘Oh, we need more. Bigger, crazier sh*t.’ And it just lost everything.”
I ask Barlow what, independent of audience expectations, would make him happy to create. But he replies: “It’s never about being happy.”
“The initial stage [of development] is always really fun,” he continues. “The research stage, and just getting an excuse to sit and read lots of books during the day when I’m awake…That’s really fun. But sometimes, I mean, it was Warren Spector who said all of his game ideas came from a place of…seeing other people do shit and being like, ‘You’re doing it wrong.’”
Despite the pressure, though, Barlow has plenty of ideas, and at least one of them would involve taking a break from being ‘the FMV guy.’ He tells me that during Immortality development, Half Mermaid did some pre-production on a 3D game that was later paused. He says the pitch was essentially a “perfect smooch” of “a 3D character game” and “all of that Her Story, Immortality stuff.”
Barlow is cognizant though that all his most recent work has straddled a strange line between games and television, but doesn’t fit neatly into the box of either. He notes that they came at the concept of Immortality from a “games” perspective at least in part because of the economic justification – they could sell it as a game on Steam for $20, and people would at least functionally understand it. Even if the vast majority of the gaming audience didn’t vibe with its unique structure, a significant subset would still be interested and would buy it.
But even with games as a convenient medium for selling the strange hybrid stories Barlow likes telling, another avenue for future projects Barlow is considering is making his particular brand of storytelling work in the TV space. He says he’s been impressed so far with how Netflix (who published Immortality via its Netflix Games label) has disrupted typical TV viewing between the binge model, variable episode lengths, and things like Black Mirror’s Bandersnatch. But unsurprisingly, Barlow wants more.
“I’d love to see them inject some of these things that are currently unique to gaming,” he says. “That is the expressivity, the exploration, the sense of it being alive. There are a whole bunch of experimental novels and things that have these weird non-linear structures, or books that you can just randomly read pages and put the story together…But what I loved about Her Story is, because it’s digital, you are essentially just pulling shit out of the ether and discovering it. And that was explicitly [the case] with Immortality – the aesthetic of the grid was to have this void of darkness behind it because you were just summoning up these clips. So that sense of surprise and excitement is possible because the computer can hide things from you and can reveal things. I’d love to see [Netflix] do those things.”
Barlow acknowledges there are a lot of business-related reasons why TV isn’t making his vision come true yet. Money-making endeavors are inherently risk-averse, and it’s hard to convince an individual corporate giant to be the first one to fund leaps like the one Barlow’s proposing. “Everyone’s like, ‘We’ll be number two. Someone will do it and then we’ll jump in and be number two.’”
And yet, he adds, big corporations know they have to be on the lookout for the next outside-the-box idea, which is how we got experimental projects like Soderbergh’s Mosaic and Bandersnatch in the first place. Barlow thinks there’s something to the ways in which the younger generation engage with TV that may be the key Netflix is looking for to pull them away from Fortnite and TikTok. And maybe, just maybe, he’ll get to be the one to break that ground.
“Younger people watch TV whilst looking at their phone with the subtitles on, so they don’t have to actually pay attention,” he says. “And all these ways in which my kids will slightly play television like it’s one of my games. They’ll jump into random episodes, skip around, re-watch their favorite episodes a bunch of times…That was one of the things that we were interested in with Immortality was…we’re just constantly watching videos and being just totally expecting that we have an ultimate control over these videos. We can stop, start, and rewind them. Re-watch that episode. ‘Oh, I missed that. I’m going to rewind five seconds because I didn’t hear what the person said.’
“You went and saw a movie in the fifties or watched a TV show, you had no control. You were just sat there, and the movie would be played at you, or the TV would be broadcast at you. I think Peter Greenaway said, ‘Cinema died in 1983 with the invention of the remote control,’ or something. We thought it would be interesting and work to slightly subvert that. So yeah, I’d love to mess around there.”
Rebekah Valentine is a news reporter for IGN. You can find her on Twitter @duckvalentine.