As Annapurna showcases a new wave of games, we go in search of what makes it stand apart
Two Edge 9s in the space a year is good going for any publisher. But with the very first two games it published? That might just be unprecedented. The one-two punch of Gorogoa and What Remains Of Edith Finch immediately established Annapurna Interactive as more than just the side project of a Hollywood studio, and led to it finishing runner-up for Publisher Of The Year in the 2017 Edge Awards, the very first year it was eligible. (It lost out to Nintendo – no cause for shame, in the year of Breath Of The Wild and Super Mario Odyssey.)
Looking back now, though, it’s clear that Annapurna was just getting started. In 2019, the publisher managed to one-up itself, landing a full hat-trick of 9s with Outer Wilds, Telling Lies and Sayonara Wild Hearts, which took the top three spots in our Game Of The Year list. And while it hasn’t managed anything quite so spectacular since, the publisher has kept its streak going, with a selection of (mostly) great games that just keeps growing.
That was underlined this summer when, a few weeks clear of all the E3 noise – a piece of timing that seems both canny and characteristically off-beat – Annapurna held its first showcase event. In the space of half an hour, it rattled through seven forthcoming titles, plus four developers with which Annapurna has
partnered, before closing with a “wilfully cryptic” tease for an expansion to one of our favourite games of the past decade.
It’s a lineup to rival any in the big publisher broadcasts of the prior month, and indicative of where Annapurna stands today. With August’s Twelve Minutes (p112), the publisher has released its 16th game in less than five years, with another ten titles currently slated for release. That’s without counting the assorted ports and rereleases it has handled (a list that includes yet more of our favourites) or its unrevealed collaborations with these newly announced partners.
“None of us expected things to move as quickly as they did, but we also haven’t changed our approach,” says Annapurna Interactive president Nathan Gary. “We have grown naturally and in a way that works for us.” Which is not to say that growth has been slow. The publisher’s headcount has tripled since it was founded, to 15 people, and last year it opened an in-house development studio to make games of its own.
That expansion has not only increased the number of games in Annapurna’s portfolio, but widened the scope of what they cover. A couple of years ago we might have been able to pin down what to expect from an Annapurna game: arty, story-led, the kind of thing you’d share with friends who aren’t necessarily into playing games – the equivalent, perhaps, of the prestige pictures put out by its parent company. The showcase highlights that this is no longer the case.
A Memoir Blue certainly fits the bill: it’s a dialogue-free, hand-animated story about a young woman reflecting on longforgotten memories. And there appears to be more than a touch of Gorogoa about the presentation of Storyteller, a puzzle game that has you slotting plot elements into comic-book-style panels to craft a story that matches the provided title. The Artful Escape feels like an obvious fit, too, if only because its lengthy development means it’s been on the publisher’s roster since the early days.
The rest, not so much. Solar Ash and Stray are two games that looked perfectly at home in Sony’s PS5 reveal event – the former an expansive open-world actionplatformer, the latter a gorgeously highfidelity journey through a cyberpunk city, with the twist that you play as a cat. And Skin Deep is one of the few shooters in
Annapurna’s portfolio – albeit a very unusual one, fusing Far Cry 2 and Prey with Die Hard and Alien to create a lo-fi sandbox stealth game.
That leaves just one game from the showcase, and it typifies the way Annapurna’s aesthetic has expanded more than any other. Developer Ben Esposito has plenty of history with the publisher: he worked on its very first release, What Remains Of Edith Finch, before going solo to develop Donut County. They’re both typically Annapurna games, in their own distinct ways – both designed, as Esposito puts it, “to be someone’s first experience”. His next project, Neon White, is anything but.
“I spent a really long time working on Donut County – it was like six years,” Esposito says. “And I spent the whole time trying to make a game that would be for everyone. And I ended up having to make a lot of decisions that were not easy, to make it really, really accessible for all ages and to people who hadn’t played games before. And I feel happy with the job I did. But after that
WITH TWELVE MINUTES, IT’S RELEASED ITS 16TH GAME IN LESS THAN FIVE YEARS
experience, I was like, OK, if that game was for everyone, my next game is going to be for specific people. It’s not going to appeal to every gamer, and maybe it’s not going to appeal to people who haven’t played a game before. But if this game is for you, it could be your favourite game.”
On the surface, Neon White is an FPS inspired by Quake jump maps and the traversal of hero shooters such as Team Fortress 2 and Overwatch, with a distinctly retro feel: fast, strafe-heavy, testing players’ twitch reflexes. On the other, Esposito explains, “it’s also a visual novel dating sim” drawing on Persona and Danganronpa. And that’s without mentioning the game’s card element – weapons are added to your hand, and can be discarded in exchange for a movement power. It is, as Esposito says, a game for a very specific audience.
For that reason, despite his history of working with Annapurna, Esposito assumed the publisher wouldn’t be interested, and started the project with the assumption he’d be self-publishing. “I didn’t think they would like it,” he admits. “It’s not that high-minded, it’s campy, it’s genre. That’s not their thing.” He was surprised when Annapurna asked how the project was going, and even more so when the publisher signed it. When we mention that the game changed our perspective of what an Annapurna game looks like, Esposito laughs. “Yeah, I’m learning that too, as we go.”
So is there anything that does connect all these disparate games? Esposito recalls something he was told around the time Annapurna Interactive was founded: “We are not trying to have a genre. We’re not trying to have a vibe. We are just trying to make really cool games with really cool people.” He didn’t really
“WE’RE NOT TRYING TO HAVE A VIBE. WE ARE JUST TRYING TO MAKE REALLY COOL GAMES”
believe this, he confesses. “But now I understand where they’re coming from. They don’t want to be pinned down in that way. They just have really good taste. And that’s it. That’s the only thing that connects all the games.”
It’s worth considering who the ‘they’ in question actually are. Annapurna Interactive’s founding members were Neale Hemrajani and James Masi, production managers from Annapurna Pictures – but the game talent came almost entirely from Sony Santa Monica. The God Of War studio had spent a few years at this point acting as an incubator for smaller developers including Thatgamecompany and Giant Sparrow. The latter released The Unfinished Swan with Santa Monica’s help, and was partway through development on Edith Finch when things changed at Sony.
The cancellation of a triple-A project led to layoffs across the studio, in line with what a Sony statement at the time called “resource re-alignment against priority growth areas”. Clearly, working with these smaller developers was not one of them. Nathan Gary was one of four founding members who made the journey from Santa Monica to Annapurna’s West Hollywood offices, alongside Deborah Mars, Jeff Legaspi and Hector Sanchez, plus Thatgamecompany’s Jenova Chen as ‘spiritual advisor’. Giant Sparrow’s Ian Dallas has publicly acknowledged that, at least for Edith Finch, it was more or less a direct transplant. And it’s hard to shake the feeling that Annapurna is an indication of what Sony could have achieved in the indie space over the past five years, had its attention not wandered.
Beyond the initial batch of games, which seem to have had their roots in this migration – the team behind Outer Wilds
had reportedly turned down an offer from Sony many years before being approached by Annapurna, while Maquette was scouted at GDC 2011 – Annapurna has grown its roster by keeping a careful eye on the indie scene. Everyone we speak to has their own story of how they got involved with Annapurna. And there are some great stories.
When an early five-minute prototype of A Memoir Blue made the finals of IndieCade’s 2018 awards in Santa Monica, creative director Shelley Chen
was asked to fill out a form listing which publishers they’d like to meet with. “As a one-in-a-million shot, I wrote down Annapurna Interactive as my top choice. I considered it an honour to even show them our work, no matter the outcome,” she says. After demoing the game and failing to get their contact details, she flew home to Portland thinking she’d missed her chance. When she landed, an email was waiting for her. “I cried then and there at the airport,” Chen remembers. “The joy was indescribable.”
For rockstar-turned-game-developer Johnny Galvatron and the team at
Melbourne’s Beethoven & Dinosaur, it was the failure of The Artful Escape’s Kickstarter that brought him into Annapurna’s orbit. They had a few discussions, with Galvatron outlining his vision for the game, and then: “Out of the blue, Nathan rang me and asked if we’d be showcasing at PAX Melbourne. I was like, ‘Yeah! No problems! We’ve got a table there, we’re ready to go! See you in three months!’ We did not have a table. We did not have a demo. We had three months.” He called in favours to get a table, and worked tirelessly to put together a demo, arriving at the event with his team, “sleepless shells of humanity”. Annapurna turned up at the table on the first day of the show, at 10am sharp, and played the demo. “Then they took me out to lunch. Victory.”
Meanwhile, Storyteller’s Daniel Benmergui was put in touch by a mutual friend: Luis Antonio, who was already working with Annapurna on Twelve Minutes at the time. He tells us about turning up to his first meeting with nothing prepared. “No presentation, no anything,” he says – just the current build of the game. “They said: ‘Yeah, this looks good. What are you looking for?’ ‘Oh, just give me a bunch of money and let me finish.’ And they were like, ‘OK, you’re in.’”
Whatever the initial point of contact, the thing all these stories have in common is a sense that, once the conversation began, everything went smoothly. And the developers are keen to let us know that this has carried over into their working relationship with Annapurna. Solar Ash creative director Alx Preston neatly sums up what we hear from everyone else: “Annapurna has been great for feedback, but they leave us alone if we want to be alone, generally. They let studios kind of just do their thing and make their decisions – and make their mistakes in some cases, too.”
“Working with Annapurna has been magic,” Galvatron adds, in typically understated fashion. “They’ll leave you to try and catch that lightning in a bottle, and when you do, that’s when you start to realise the resources at your disposal. There’s some of the best game designers working there, ready to take your call. A library of people to check out for writing, marketing, production, gameplay. There’s a series of elite sports cars lined up in rows, with the keys in the ignition.”
He’s joking, of course, but Annapurna’s pockets do appear to be roomy, at least by the standards of indie game development. For many of the developers it has partnered with, this is their first experience of working with a publisher. For Chen, it’s meant a huge expansion of what began as an art-school thesis project. “A Memoir Blue could no longer be the super-short experience that we had originally planned,” she says.
This isn’t limited to first-timers. Brendon Chung, aka Blendo, has been operating as a one-man studio for well over a decade now, and has been working on Skin Deep since at least 2018, but signing with Annapurna has allowed him expand operations significantly, hiring a musician, writer and two level designers. “It’s been great for bringing this game to the next level of what it could be,” he says. “Which is a great fit, because this game is trying to do a bit more than my previous projects.”
This levelling up has allowed Blendo to pack more systems into Skin Deep, which are absolutely vital to its concept. “We’re playing with the idea of what FPS games can be, and what they can do,” Chung explains. “We have the stuff you’d expect from an FPS, but also… what if your character is smelly? What if they sneeze a lot? What if they have all these different verbs that you might not really expect from an FPS game?”
It’s less evident in Chung’s game, which wears its slightly scruffy presentation with pride, but a common theme in our
“WORKING WITH THEM HAS BEEN MAGIC. THEY’LL LEAVE YOU TO TRY AND CATCH THAT LIGHTNING IN A BOTTLE”
conversations with developers is the increase in visual polish that has come from working with Annapurna. Benmergui made the first prototype of Storyteller back in 2008, and even won the IGF Nuovo award with an early version in 2012. There’s “a world of difference” between those and the game as it is now, he says, in complexity and scope. What’s immediately obvious, though, is the visual upgrade – the fairytale presentation of the Annapurna version couldn’t be much further from the blocky, functional character art of the Storyteller that won the IGF. “When we signed up with them, we upped the production values of the game a lot,” he says. “Because if we’re going to ship with Annapurna, we might as well have a game that looks up to par.”
Chen alludes to feeling “a great deal of pressure” to live up to the rest of the Annapurna catalogue, to match their “incredibly high level of polish”. (Watching a trailer of the game, as it switches between 3D and 2D in a style apparently inspired by Mary Poppins’ animated segments, we suspect she doesn’t have much to worry about.) But this pressure seems to be entirely selfdirected: while Annapurna has cultivated the game’s growth through workshops and direct input, “their feedback was not overbearing, and they also supported us when we had specific reasons to keep certain design decisions”.
Something else Annapurna has been able to offer to these developers, aside from the workshops and sports cars, is the kind of Hollywood talent that reminds you who its parent company is. Telling Lies set the standard in 2018, with the FMV presentation putting its four leads (Logan Marshall-Green, Alexandra Shipp, Kerry Bishé and Angela Sarafyan) front and centre. Since then, the names have only been getting bigger. Queen Latifah cameoed in Sayonara Wild Hearts; real-life couple Bryce Dallas Howard and Seth Gabel played the romantic leads in Maquette; Twelve Minutes is a threehander between James McAvoy, Daisy Ridley and Willem Dafoe.
This doesn’t seem to be any kind of publisher requirement, however. The Artful Escape boasts an all-star cast, including Lena Headey, Jason Schwartzman and Carl Weathers, but the game wasn’t originally intended to be voiced. “We’d tried out some scratch dialogue and at that time in production we thought it might be a bridge too far,” Galvatron says. But during a playthrough demo for Annapurna, an audio glitch cut the all-important music. To fill the silence, Galvatron started doing voices for the characters. “I was chewing up the scenery. I was a Shakespearean actor on Star Trek. Afterwards, Annapurna called me and said, ‘We really think the game should be voiced’. So it was my own fault in the end. I’m so stoked we did it. Elevated the game beyond what I thought possible.”
As in movies, there’s surely a hope that these big names will draw an audience who might not have otherwise taken a look. As we talk to developers, though, it becomes clear that this star power also extends to Annapurna itself. “One reason why I wanted to work with Annapurna is because I do want to reach different audiences and reach more people,” Chung says. It’s a similar story for Benmergui: “My ambition for Storyteller is
“THERE’S AN AUTHORSHIP, A SIGNATURE TO A LOT OF THE GAMES UNDER THE LABEL”
that it reaches people outside of, you know, the usual indie game players or usual triple-A gamer profile. I’m trying to break out of that and see if, with this game, I can reach people that don’t normally play these games.”
Which brings us back to Esposito, whose ambition with Neon White seems to have gone in exactly the opposite direction. He thinks back to 2011, when he started planning Donut County: “There was a big feeling in the indie community that a huge amount of people who are interested in games are underserved.” Hence the decision to make a game for everyone. But in the intervening decade, he says, things have changed. “A lot more people play games now. It’s a lot more accessible.” And that, along with his own fortunate position, has given him licence to make “something that I don’t think anyone else would make”.
As we try to make sense of what an Annapurna game looks like in 2021, we keep being pulled back to this idea. As Preston puts it: “There’s an authorship, there’s a signature to a lot of the games that are under the label”. The house style is that there is no house style – because how can there be when you’re trying to let developers make the games that no one else would make?
“We came up during the PlayStation 2, Dreamcast and GameCube era, a time when games felt like they were constantly experimenting with form, mechanics, narratives, themes and art styles,” Gary says. “Over the years, it feels to us like much of the industry has discarded experimentation in favour of a narrow band of concepts that caters to a specific type of player.” (Whether that can be taken as a comment on a certain former employer, we’ll leave to your interpretation.)
The point is that Annapurna wants to ensure there are more games for what Gary calls “an underserved audience”. It’s a phrase that echoes our conversation with Esposito, leaving us to wonder whether it means something different now than it did when the publisher was first founded. And whether, perhaps, Annapurna might have had a little something to do with that shift itself.