Avant Garde

How Hol­ly­wood’s An­na­purna is bring­ing art­house flair to games

EDGE - - SECTIONS - BY CHRIS PRIESTMAN

Af­ter con­quer­ing Hol­ly­wood, An­na­purna In­ter­ac­tive brings its art­house flair to videogames

Here’s an un­likely prophecy: a Hol­ly­wood stu­dio might pro­duce not one but two great videogames this spring. That prob­a­bly reads like a joke but it could also be the truth, un­be­liev­able as it is given the his­tory of cin­ema-video game crossovers: most in­fa­mously that em­bar­rass­ing Su­per

Mario Bros film and the ter­ri­ble E.T. The Ex­tra-Ter­res­trial game for Atari 2600. The rea­son to have any faith at all in this turn­around is the ar­rival of An­na­purna In­ter­ac­tive, the game­pro­duc­tion di­vi­sion of An­na­purna Pic­tures, which an­nounced its pres­ence to the world last De­cem­ber.

It has been the busi­ness of An­na­purna Pic­tures to sub­vert ex­pec­ta­tions since 2011. It was founded by Me­gan El­li­son, daugh­ter of bil­lion­aire en­tre­pre­neur Larry El­li­son, who set out to fi­nance so­phis­ti­cated and dar­ing movies that big­ger Hol­ly­wood stu­dios deemed too risky. A big part of El­li­son and her stu­dio’s tac­tic has been to in­vest in au­teurs rather than fran­chises, coun­ter­ing the ap­proach favoured by the rest of Hol­ly­wood that’s epit­o­mised by the on­slaught of su­per­hero block­busters. While there have been some dis­ap­point­ments, An­na­purna’s big­gest suc­cesses have made rip­ples across the in­die-movie land­scape, such as Spike Jonze’s Her, Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Mas­ter, and Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty.

El­li­son has been known for de­clin­ing to do in­ter­views over the years. It’s not nec­es­sar­ily be­cause she’s shy, though that might well be part of it; it’s more that she would rather her work does the speak­ing for her. She has al­ways led with a strong vi­sion of what movies can be and has let that trickle down through the film­mak­ers she chooses to work with. The same ap­proach has been adopted to her step into videogames. Only a sin­gle line in a press re­lease ex­ists to clue ev­ery­one in on what An­na­purna In­ter­ac­tive will fo­cus on, and that is “de­vel­op­ing per­sonal, emo­tional, and orig­i­nal games that push the bound­aries of in­ter­ac­tive con­tent and en­cour­age artists to bring new vi­sions to the medium”.

If you ask for any­thing more you get a blunt state­ment back: “The An­na­purna In­ter­ac­tive team prefers to let the de­vel­op­ers and games speak for them­selves.” If noth­ing else it’s an in­vi­ta­tion to ex­am­ine the peo­ple the stu­dio has un­der its em­ploy. Aside from An­na­purna’s long­time pro­duc­tion man­agers, Neale Hem­ra­jani and James Masi, there are a num­ber of for­mer Sony Santa Mon­ica crew on board. Deb­o­rah Mars, Nathan Gary, Jeff Le­gaspi, and Hec­tor Sanchez have col­lec­tively worked on PlaySta­tion ti­tles in­clud­ing God Of War, Ho­hokum, Ev­ery­body’s

Gone To The Rap­ture, and The Or­der: 1886.

THE ONE THING EACH STORY HAS IN COM­MON IS THAT THEY ALL END IN DEATH

How­ever, per­haps the most sig­nif­i­cant mem­ber of the team, as Rolling Stone dis­cov­ered, is An­na­purna In­ter­ac­tive’s un­ex­pected co-founder and ‘spirit guide’ Jen­ova Chen. The de­signer of award-win­ning emo­tional ad­ven­tures such as Flow,

Flower and Jour­ney at Thatgame­com­pany, Chen is cur­rently work­ing on his next game, which is said to be “about giv­ing” and is due to be re­leased later this year. His pres­ence as covert fig­ure­head speaks vol­umes about the di­rec­tion An­na­purna In­ter­ac­tive is head­ing.

It’s prob­a­bly not a co­in­ci­dence that one of the first games An­na­purna In­ter­ac­tive is pro­duc­ing is be­ing co-de­signed by one of Chen’s for­mer col­leagues, Chris Bell. He was a pro­ducer and de­signer on Jour­ney and is cur­rently work­ing on the first­per­son an­thol­ogy game What Re­mains Of Edith Finch, due out this spring. It fol­lows a young girl who re­turns to her cursed fam­ily’s home in Wash­ing­ton state to dis­cover the sto­ries of her de­ceased an­ces­tors by break­ing into their pre­served bed­rooms to re­live the day of their deaths through the be­long­ings they left be­hind. What should be re­mark­able about Edith Finch is the way it weaves each story with such vari­a­tion in tone and game­play. In one, you’re sat on a swing try­ing to loop over the bar; in an­other you’re a ten­ta­cled mon­ster snatch­ing peo­ple off a boat; next you’re a cat, leap­ing across the crooked branches of a tree.

The one thing each story has in com­mon is that they all end in death. In some cases that means a child’s demise; this is ter­ri­tory from which videogames typ­i­cally shy away, but not de­vel­oper Gi­ant Spar­row. The stu­dio’s first game, The Un­fin­ished

Swan, com­bined a fairy­tale re­vealed by splash­ing paint across 3D en­vi­ron­ments with the much less jolly story of an or­phan. With Edith Finch, de­signer Ian Dallas says that deaths aren’t meant to be mor­bid but in­stead ex­pe­ri­enced as pyrrhic vic­to­ries; each Finch fam­ily mem­ber marches hap­pily to­wards death.

An­na­purna has also signed the next ti­tle by Funom­ena, the San Francisco-based stu­dio founded by Robin Hu­nicke and Martin Mid­dle­ton, who met while work­ing on Jour­ney at Thatgame­com­pany. The game, Wat­tam, is the lat­est dig­i­tal play space de­signed by Keita Taka­hashi, the enig­matic creator of

Kata­mari Da­macy and Noby Noby Boy. While the story will have you work to unite char­ac­ters who were ac­ci­den­tally blasted into space, the lo­cal-mul­ti­player com­po­nent en­cour­ages you and a part­ner to re­dis­cover child­ish tom­fool­ery, sab­o­tag­ing each other’s ef­forts by eat­ing and poop­ing each other out, blow­ing each other up, and mak­ing friends with sen­tient flower pots and toast­ers. Wat­tam is less about com­pe­ti­tion or co­op­er­a­tion, and more about caus­ing mis­chief.

Wat­tam doesn’t cur­rently have a re­lease date. But that’s much more than can be said for an­other game un­der An­na­purna’s pub­lish­ing wing. The four-per­son team at new stu­dio Moun­tains is work­ing on an unan­nounced, pre­mium-priced mo­bile game. The team is led by Ken Wong, the lead de­signer on one of the most praised mo­bile games ever made, Mon­u­ment Val­ley. Wong’s lips are shut tight when it comes to dis­cussing what he’s con­jur­ing up next, but he was at least pre­pared to ex­plain why he chose his new part­ners. “An­na­purna has a great his­tory of in­vest­ing in artists, and giv­ing them the space and sup­port to cre­ate great work,” Wong tells us. “I strongly be­lieve that for games to grow and ma­ture we need to bridge the gap be­tween tra­di­tional game cul­ture and non-gamers. Col­lab­o­rat­ing and learn­ing from other in­dus­tries like film is one way to do that.”

This sen­ti­ment is re­peated by Ja­son Roberts, cur­rently the only solo act signed by An­na­purna In­ter­ac­tive, who is fin­ish­ing up work on his first game Goro­goa. Roberts has put his all into the game – it means a lot to him – and it’s An­na­purna’s abil­ity to recog­nise that in which he finds value. Af­ter meet­ing with the team, he says he was struck by its good pedigree and re­lated to its sen­si­bil­ity. Roberts sees An­na­purna In­ter­ac­tive as hav­ing a dis­tinct, cu­ra­to­rial voice, and a team that se­lects their pro­duc­tions to match a cer­tain vi­sion for what games can be. “I was ex­cited by the idea there could be a brand within games that sig­ni­fied some­thing, that would catch peo­ples’ at­ten­tion,” Roberts says. “Some­thing like HBO, where pres­tige is part of, or at least a sen­si­bil­ity is part of how they project them­selves.”

Yet Roberts needn’t say this, as his game says it all; it’s lin­ing up to be one of this year’s most al­lur­ing pieces of in­ter­ac­tive

“I WAS EX­CITED BY THE IDEA THERE COULD BE A BRAND THAT SIG­NI­FIED SOME­THING”

sto­ry­telling. He’s been work­ing on this hand-drawn, point-and-click game for a num­ber of years. He can no longer re­call how many – he’s had his head down the whole time, draw­ing in­tensely, with an ob­ses­sive at­ten­tion to de­tail. His ded­i­ca­tion shows in the pres­tige of Goro­goa’s images, which are pre­sented as if an in­ter­ac­tive comic book, each frame pro­vid­ing a win­dow into the game’s world.

Every sur­face has its own pen­cilled tex­ture, whether you’re over­look­ing the red-shin­gle rooftops of a city from afar, or have zoomed right in on the furry pat­tern of a moth’s wing. “Vis­ually a lot of scenes have a lot of de­tail, which is just some­thing I like do­ing,” Roberts says. “I find that den­sity grat­i­fy­ing. It feels like you’re see­ing a lit­tle clut­tered corner of a larger world.” There’s a sense that within each im­age there are mul­ti­ple sto­ries to be found: a crum­pled rug sug­gests do­mes­tic dis­or­der, a knot in a tree begs to be looked in­side, and be­cause the game has you think in frames, each paint­ing hang­ing on a wall in­vites the idea that in­side it is yet an­other world to ex­plore.

Tak­ing it all in, it seems per­fectly ap­pro­pri­ate that Roberts thinks of Goro­goa as a game about de­vo­tion. “And par­tic­u­larly ob­ses­sive de­vo­tion to some­thing in­vis­i­ble, some­thing that lies out­side of the world, out­side of the ma­te­rial plane or what you can di­rectly per­ceive,” Roberts says. This idea is cap­tured in the game at the very start, when a young boy glimpses a mag­i­cal crea­ture, and tries to chase af­ter it. The pur­suit is an easy metaphor for Roberts and his years-long ded­i­ca­tion to get­ting Goro­goa right (“I re­late to it as de­vo­tion to a cre­ative pur­suit or prin­ci­ple,” he says). His own pur­suit started as a hobby af­ter years of work­ing as a soft­ware en­gi­neer in and around Sil­i­con Val­ley. Out­side of the day job Roberts took play­writ­ing classes. He then tran­si­tioned to mak­ing games by turn­ing those writ­ing lessons into an en­try for an in­ter­ac­tive fic­tion com­pe­ti­tion. This was when Roberts first en­coun­tered his big­gest and most per­sis­tent cre­ative chal­lenge: his own overblown am­bi­tion.

“I was writ­ing a game that was set in this desert, which has all these rock out­crop­pings, and I got re­ally in­volved with the code so that, as it got later in the day, the shad­ows in the rock out­crop­pings got longer and the de­scrip­tions of each lo­ca­tion would change,” Roberts says. “This is all text, mind you: hav­ing a re­al­time mov­ing sun and re­al­time weather, but in a text game. So, yeah, I got into the weeds there. I think I’ve mostly learned my les­son about that kinda thing.” That fail­ure, along with

see­ing so many other writ­ers strug­gling to ex­cel in their craft be­yond merely dia­logue, con­vinced Roberts that it would be bet­ter to learn to tell a story vis­ually be­fore us­ing words. Naively, he thought vis­ual sto­ry­telling was more ba­sic than writ­ing, and learned the hard way that the op­po­site is true.

He started out by scrawl­ing into note­books the game-de­sign ideas he had stored in his head for years. Mostly, these were im­prac­ti­cal, many of them be­ing big 3D puz­zle boxes like those in The Room, but with worlds and cities built in­side each ornament. It didn’t work out. “I had de­cided that the de­sign had got­ten too com­pli­cated – that I should take the same me­chanic and tell a sim­pler story,” Roberts says. “In some ways, Goro­goa is a very sim­pli­fied, flat­tened ver­sion of that idea.”

There are two rea­sons why Goro­goa took sev­eral years to get to its cur­rent near-fin­ished state. First is the time-con­sum­ing process of cre­at­ing all the art­work for the game: Roberts did it all by him­self, draw­ing thou­sands of images over the course of sev­eral years, and paint­ing them in Pho­to­shop. He learned the tech­niques nec­es­sary to pull this off along the way, to the point that he had to dis­card the first gen­er­a­tion of art en­tirely, as he “had learned so much that [his] orig­i­nal art­work be­came un­ac­cept­able”. He reck­ons in those first years he had done prob­a­bly five times as many draw­ings on the game as he had done in his whole life up un­til that point.

Job done, you’d think, but no: next, Roberts re­alised he had to over­haul many of the game’s hand-drawn spa­ces and char­ac­ters. His ini­tial idea was to make a puz­zle game us­ing the lan­guage of comic-book frames. In Goro­goa, each frame acts as a win­dow into one of the game’s lo­ca­tions, and the view can be moved around to re­veal new ob­jects and per­spec­tives, ei­ther by zoom­ing in or out, or pan­ning across a flat plane. It’s also pos­si­ble to rear­range the po­si­tion and or­der of the frames. These me­chan­ics have been in place since very early on in devel­op­ment, but what Roberts strug­gled with was how to marry them to the game’s story. “Had I known what kind of story I wanted to tell from the be­gin­ning, and what all the scenes should be, the scope would have been man­age­able,” Roberts says. “It was just fig­ur­ing out where in that pos­si­bil­ity space the game laid. That’s what’s so time con­sum­ing.”

As Roberts ex­plains it now, Goro­goa seems to have locked won­der­fully into place, with the me­chan­ics and story com­ing to­gether to ex­press “the idea that there is this hid­den meaning or struc­ture in the world around us, but that in a sense can only be per­ceived from out­side of the world”. View­ing the game world

through frames cre­ates the dis­tance nec­es­sary to un­der­stand it from a dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive than its pro­tag­o­nist, al­most as if the player is a god. Roberts plays with this con­ven­tion both me­chan­i­cally and the­mat­i­cally through­out, as the frames must be re­ar­ranged to con­nect the world in­side in a way that tran­scends time and space. “I think of that as a metaphor for mir­a­cles,” Roberts says. “The way they work is in­com­pre­hen­si­ble from our plane of ex­is­tence. The square bor­ders that make up the game rep­re­sent the con­fine­ment of the or­di­nary ma­te­rial world. And vi­o­lat­ing those frames is what it means to tran­scend that world.”

For Roberts, the idea of mir­a­cles is an im­por­tant part of the game’s themes. While it starts with a boy chas­ing a mag­i­cal crea­ture, as the game un­folds it be­comes a multi-lay­ered story, fol­low­ing that same boy at dif­fer­ent points in his life, but still try­ing to com­pre­hend that ini­tial ex­pe­ri­ence. That the game is about de­vo­tion to a cre­ative pur­suit is only one in­ter­pre­ta­tion. Roberts also thinks that it talks to the idea of re­li­gious faith, and also adds that he sees the re­order­ing of the frames, each of which con­tains a frag­ment of a sin­gle life, as be­ing rep­re­sen­ta­tive of mem­ory.

Roberts is in his early 40s now, and talks about the process of look­ing back over his life, “re­ar­rang­ing and rein­ter­pret­ing and re­com­bin­ing frag­ments of mem­ory to at­tempt to con­struct an or­der to your own ex­pe­ri­ence”. It’s an ex­er­cise that en­cour­ages a per­son to think over the achieve­ments in their life so far, and to com­pare them with their child­hood as­pi­ra­tions. As such, Roberts also sees Goro­goa as be­ing “about the dif­fer­ence be­tween what that de­vo­tion means to a child and what it means to an adult”.

There’s a lot to un­pack within the dense images and mul­ti­fac­eted in­ter­ac­tions of Goro­goa. At first glance it strikes you with its beauty, but in ex­plor­ing its form it comes into fo­cus as some­thing much more pro­found and so­phis­ti­cated. As with the other games in An­na­purna In­ter­ac­tive’s lineup, it man­ages to ap­peal to our child­hood play­ful­ness while also talk­ing to us on a more pen­sive level about the hu­man ex­pe­ri­ence. An­na­purna In­ter­ac­tive was right: it doesn’t have to say a thing about its vi­sion. The games it has cho­sen to pub­lish say it all.

“THE WAY THEY WORK IS IN­COM­PRE­HEN­SI­BLE FROM OUR PLANE OF EX­IS­TENCE”

Each bed­room in the Finch house­hold is pre­served ex­actly how its oc­cu­pant left it. Their per­son­al­i­ties can be in­ferred from ob­jects and their place­ment

Nearly all the sto­ries in Edith Finch take place at or near the house, so the same lo­ca­tions and char­ac­ters are in­ter­weaved across dif­fer­ent sto­ries

One way Roberts over­comes the lim­i­ta­tions of telling a story with­out words is to dis­play char­ac­ters’ thoughts via small an­i­mated scenes

The im­age of an eye is Goro­goa’s cen­tral mo­tif. It’s a game about see­ing things in dif­fer­ent ways: puz­zle pieces, re­al­ity, and mem­o­ries

While sketch­ing, Roberts fig­ures out how every de­tail can help tell Goro­goa’s story in or­der to save valu­able screen real es­tate

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