Film companies getting into video games isn’t new – remember LucasArts, Fox Interactive, or Disney Interactive Studios? Probably not, since they’re also no longer around. Then there’s the ongoing uneasy relationship with games trying (and failing) to make the leap to the big screen. So in December 2016, when Annapurna Pictures announced it would be getting into the games business, with a focus on "the artistry and diversity of interactive storytelling", it was hard not to feel cautious or wonder if it’d just mean more walking sims.
But whereas past film studios have waded into the medium to cash in on their own franchises, Annapurna Interactive is purely interested in publishing original games. Its foundations are ex-Sony staffers, including Journey’s creative director Jenova Chen who's also credited as a founding member and advisor (incidentally, where that game involved reaching a mountaintop, Annapurna is also named after the most famous group of mountains in the Himalayas).
Just like it had become a unique force in Hollywood five years ago with the Oscar-nominated Zero Dark Thirty and The Master, Annapurna Interactive has quickly become one of the most exciting labels in games. One can look at its debut What Remains of Edith Finch and see not just one of the most remarkable games of 2017 but also a Statement of Intent. Here is a game that starts with the player in the body of a woman returning to the house she grew up in while narration plays over – you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s the sequel to Gone Home. Yet over the course of a couple hours, it confounds expectations with multiple stories of varying genre, length, and genuinely interactive mechanics that finds a unique way for us to experience the life (and death) of each Finch family member.
It was quite the coup for Annapurna Interactive, considering Edith Finch was originally revealed as a PS4 exclusive years earlier, though it’s never been clear why Sony dropped it. Regardless, its lead designer Chris Bell says, “Partnering with Annapurna meant collaborating with many of the same individuals who had long supported our games at Sony – friends we’d grown to trust over many years of working together. They’ve consistently shared our beliefs of what games can be and – perhaps most importantly – offered their patience and support to get there, even when these more experimental projects were still finding their way.”
Although Edith Finch is about endings, Annapurna Interactive’s story is just beginning. Its logo, flickering with a VHS glow, has been showing up everywhere, from the Xbox E3 briefing to a Nintendo Direct to the PlayStation Experience, announcing some surprising partnerships with games that avoid easy categorisation. There’s The Artful Escape, a platformer where a musician runs and jumps through a musical-infused landscape, Donut County, where a mischievous raccoon makes holes that swallow up everyone and everything in its path, and Florence, an intimate portrayal of a relationship experienced on your iPhone, out this Valentine’s Day. And just when you thought 2017 was over and everyone’s GOTY lists were finalised, along comes the exquisite and meticulously designed and hand-painted puzzle game Gorogoa.
With two incredible releases in one year and with just as exciting and diverse a line-up in 2018, it’s clear that Annapurna Interactive aims to follow its parent film company’s pattern of auteur-led works by investing not in IP but in the creators.
Sam Barlow has partnered with Annapurna Interactive for his next game Telling Lies, despite finding commercial and critical success striking out on his own with FMV police procedural mystery Her Story. “Doing everything on your own is intense, so I wasn’t opposed to working with a publisher. It just had to the be the right one,” says Barlow, though in his mind, there was only one right one.
Given Barlow's ambition to further muddy the waters between stories on the screen and in games, partnering with a publisher with a strong background in film makes obvious sense, but he also sees Annapurna’s approach applicable for other developers. “They like to look for creators who have a unique voice and success in the past, and then they want to help them make their next game and make it easier for them, and make the game better. They're in the business of helping lightning strike again, and again.”
Other successful figures in the indie scene also crop up in the publisher’s line-up, such as Robin Hunicke (previously a producer on Journey) and Keita Takahashi whose wonderfully bizarre friendship game Wattam (another former PS4 exclusive) has mechanics in holding hands, exploding bombs and making poo. Artist Ken Wong had also found success as the lead designer for ustwo’s Monument Valley, before setting up his own studio to develop Florence. “I knew I could use any help I could get!” he says. “ustwo is a relatively large studio, with lots of creative minds to get feedback from and a dedicated PR team. Partnering with Annapurna allows us to focus on what we do best, and get feedback and support when we need it most.”
These established names, as well as the Sony associations, might suggest something of a hipster indie clique, but Annapurna Interactive also has its sights on new talent. A background in games isn’t a major factor either, such as Gorogoa’s Jason Roberts, or The Artful Escape’s rock musician-turned-game developer Johnny Galvatron, perhaps attributed to the company’s connections in film and other media. “They're constantly thinking about broader cultural impact, beyond mainstream gaming,” says Wong.
The games Annapurna Interactive has on its plate are of a playfully experimental nature that don’t fit with current trends, except for perhaps the forthcoming action-RPG Ashen. But even here, it sets itself apart from other Souls imitators with an emphasis on forging wordless, emotional bonds with other players, much like Journey. It’s this "passive multiplayer" aspect that director Derek Bradley says both he and Annapurna Interactive were equally excited about. “They’re dedicated to pushing the boundaries of what a game is, helping games as a medium mature while also nurturing the next generation of innovative game developers,” he says.
One might consider the praise heaped on Annapurna Interactive unusual. After all, publishers are more often viewed as a necessary evil or a punching bag for audiences and developers alike, whether it’s greedy EA and Ubisoft with their microtransactions, or Rising Star Games being accused of sabotaging one of its developer’s games.
Finding out what makes Annapurna Interactive tick is not forthcoming from the publisher itself. Much like its founder Megan Ellison, it likes to shroud itself in an alluring enigma, declining interviews and preferring to “let the creators and games do the talking”. Look at Ellison’s own status – the daughter of Oracle co-founder Larry Ellison, eighth richest person in the world – and a cynic might view Annapurna Interactive not so much a unique indie publisher, but simply a privileged one that can afford to indulge in creative risks.
Regardless, Annapurna Interactive's slate of games speaks for itself. Chris Bell (Edith Finch) didn’t find much of a change in the day-to-day working relationship, but adds that working with Annapurna does mean freedom from the complex hierarchies inherent in a large corporation. “Sony’s goals are bigger than just supporting independent games – they have enormous AAA projects and a whole console platform to care for. At Annapurna these smaller games are their singular focus, and so we can rest assured that we’ll always be their top priority.”
Bradley also cites the publisher’s “unflinching commitment to supporting a creative idea they believe in” as a quality that sets Annapurna Interactive apart. That commitment likely also comes down to trust and appreciation that art isn’t measured in milestones. Wong says “Annapurna gave us the time and space we needed to experiment, and iterate, and fail, in order to find something really special. They understand that art takes patience and inspiration.”
Patience is something Roberts no doubt understands, having spent almost seven years perfecting every intricate part of Gorogoa. Wattam has taken just as long to come together, though its simplistic aesthetics betrays the complex physics system it’s built on – no doubt difficult to explain to a larger company’s higher-ups when you need more time and money.
It’s something Bell no doubt can relate to in his work on Journey, which had a long hectic development to the point that it went a year over Sony’s extension, pushing thatgamecompany into bankruptcy in order to finish it. “When you’re making something as weird as Edith Finch or as pared-down as Journey, there’s many times where it may seem like it’s not going to work,” he says. “It takes incredible awareness, foresight, and faith to push through all that.”
There are of course other indie publishers like Devolver Digital and Double Fine that have their own brand identity and are great at what they do. But Barlow likens Annapurna Interactive as not just a “badge of quality” but as a publisher who can also help elevate a game. “They're not preying on the small guys or trying to cash in on the latest craze,” he says. “They're really about finding where the best art is happening, and then helping to make more of that.”
With a luminous brand that’s not sticking to any tried-and-tested formula, Annapurna Interactive is less a publisher and more a curator with impeccable taste and integrity. “When I look at the games in their catalogue, each game is something I am interested to play or inspired by,” says Bell. “Each is a deliberate opportunity to reach people and push the medium outward into progressive new directions.”