Annapurna Interactive has a plan to succeed where so many have failed: put creators first
Annapurna Pictures has been widely credited with reinvigorating the indie movie business it entered in 2011, building a name for itself by investing heavily in auteurs like Spike Jonze (Her), Paul Thomas Anderson (The Master), and Kathryn Bigelow (Zero Dark Thirty). In a Hollywood characterized by super-hero sequels and studio steering committees Annapurna has managed to remain steadfast in its mission of putting creators first, and the strategy has paid off. While not every film has been a box-office hit (Todd Solondz' darkly comic Wiener-Dog), or been universally praised (David O. Russell's rags-to-mops story Joy), there have been far more hits than misses.
Over the past two decades, movie studios' attempts to break into video games have been more miss than hit. The interactive divisions of media giants like Disney, Lucasfilm, and Fox are among a long line of corporate big beasts whose corpses dot the history of Hollywood's attempts to capitalize on the overlap of fans of blockbuster movies and excitable gamers. Now, as Annapurna enters the video game fray with its new arm – Annapurna Interactive – it's determined to use its auteur-whispering powers for good by promoting the kinds of games and working with the kinds of creators it believes the world needs.
Starting small helps. Annapurna Interactive currently has two games slated for release in spring 2017: Gorogoa, a clever and beautiful hand-illustrated narrative puzzle that has you manipulating panels on a page to reveal images and unravel story threads, and What Remains of Edith Finch, a series of short, stylistically and mechanically distinct stories, all centered around the cursed Finch family. Gorogoa is the vision of its sole creator Jason Roberts, enriched by a score from composer Joel Corelitz and Edith Finch comes from Giant Sparrow, the creative team behind the starkly beautiful and BAFTA-winning 2012 title The Unfinished Swan. Giant Sparrow was previously housed inside Sony Santa Monica, developing Edith Finch as an exclusive PlayStation 4 title. Annapurna will also be publishing the next game from San Francisco-based developer Funomena and creative director Keita Takahashi (creator of Namco's wonderful Katamari Damacy), as well as Mountains, developed by a team led by Ken Wong, best known for his work on the breakout iOS hit Monument Valley.
To help deliver, Annapurna has hired Deborah Mars, Nathan Gary, Jeff Legaspi, and Hector Sanchez – all of whom hail from PlayStation studio Sony Santa Monica. Collectively, the team's publishing credits range from blockbusters like God of War and The Order: 1886 to indie titles like Journey, Hohokum, and Everybody's Gone to the Rapture. The Sony Santa Monica exodus is joined by Annapurna's Neale Hemrajani and James Masi; while he doesn't work in the office, Jenova Chen – whose studio thatgamecompany created Journey and is currently at work on his next project – serves as Annapurna Interactive's "spirit guide" and "sometimes tie-breaker" when it comes to difficult decisions. "He's a cofounder – helped set the whole thing up, and helped set the tone – and in general a good brain to have around and pick," Gary says.
While Annapurna's success in the film industry is itself a rather remarkable feat, it's also worth noting that the company's kumbaya optimism has a financial wellspring: the company was founded by Megan Ellison, daughter of the billionaire founder of Oracle, Larry Ellison. For her part, Ellison cites Nintendo's classic N64 adventure The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time as one of her all-time favorite games, and says that the new division’s mission is to explore “the artistry and diversity of interactive storytelling.” To that end, the team says that Annapurna's connections throughout the film industry have been a boon as well, with writers, composers, and other creative minds that can be called on to assist and provide feedback when necessary.
"Annapurna's [film division] doesn't have any particular insight into how game productions are made, but they can come and question a lot of assumptions and old ways of doing things," Gary says. "With us, there are things that you take for granted and get calcified – like, 'this is just the way the process works.' Being able to step away from that and question it and look at it with fresh eyes, with the folks from Annapurna has been super helpful." Annapurna is also conducting in-house play testing, something indie developers generally don't have access to.
Overwatch has something interesting to say
Annapurna Pictures' slate of films is wildly diverse, ranging from Oscar winners like Zero Dark Thirty to last year's animated comedy Sausage Party. Despite the seemingly narrower range of its announced games, this strategy will eventually drive the company's interactive division. "Even right now, we're looking at ranges like that – actively," Gary says. Blizzard's world-bestriding Overwatch comes up several times throughout our conversation; when I suggest that the game may not fit with the company's current slate of games – that, unlike the rest of them, it may not have something particularly meaningful to say – the team shoots me down. "But Overwatch has something interesting to say, I feel like," says Gary. "The cast of that game is incredibly, thoughtfully diverse. You have to work together – it really encourages teamwork, and because of the decisions they made, the community is probably a lot less toxic than a lot of other first-person shooters. And the logo is people high-fiving, which is awesome."
The timing is interesting, certainly; as independent game developers continue to address themes beyond violence and power fantasies, the space seems primed for an outsider focused on addressing a wider audience. Publishers including Devolver (Hotline Miami, Broforce) and Adult Swim Games (Headlander, Robot Unicorn Attack) are fishing in the same waters, but their lineups and especially tone feel far removed. So far, each and every one of Annapurna's announced titles is a quintessential indie game. Given this fact, would it ever publish, say, a first-person shooter? "Yeah, definitely," Gary says, without missing a beat. "First-person shooters have a lot of exploration to do to evolve. I think it's dangerous to say, blanketly, that military first-person shooters are off the table, because I think it dismisses a lot of interesting things that can still be done." It might be a while before we see a Call of Duty-meets-Dear Esther, though.
For now, What Remains of Edith Finch is more Annapurna's speed. The entire executive team agrees it’s very much the kind of game they're going for – the unique vision of Ian Dallas and his team, with a distinctive style that blurs the lines between genres while remaining accessible. In development since 2012, Sony had already invested millions of dollars in the game prior to handing the reins over to Annapurna. In the process, the game went from being an exclusive, first-party Sony title to one Annapurna will be publishing on both PlayStation 4 and Steam, with potentially more platforms to come.
"The first time I spoke to Jenova, he told me that he wanted to create games that build connections," Hemrajani says of his first encounter with the Journey creator. "I remember meeting a tour guide while on my honeymoon in Ho Chi Minh. He couldn't speak a word of English, but I really wanted to connect with this guy some way or another. He asked me what I did, and I said, 'video games.' He said, 'Overwatch!' and I'm like, 'Overwatch!' He said, 'Reaper,' and I'm like, 'Reaper!' And he's like, 'die die die!' And I said, 'Yeah, exactly!'"
"Games have a really, really powerful ability to connect people, and that's something we want to delve into and explore as much as possible. That's something we'd consider our unofficial, heart-of-hearts directive."