How Hollywood’s Annapurna is bringing arthouse flair to games
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