A few days before the world got its hands on Maquette, the game he began building more than a decade ago, Hanford Lemoore took in the top comment on a video reveal of its cast. “At this point, if it’s published by Annapurna it’s a guaranteed banger,” the commenter had written, referring to Maquette’s indie-oriented publisher, Annapurna Interactive. When he heard that, Lemoore exhaled in a sort of semi-moan. “I hope I don’t disappoint,” he said.
Maquette, a puzzle game paired with a love story, came out on Tuesday on PC, PlayStation 4, and PlayStation 5 (where it’s free during March for PS5-owning PlayStation Plus subscribers). It’s the first title published by Annapurna this year, and the 19th in total since December 2016, when the video game division of Annapurna Pictures was officially founded. Less than five years after its formation, and less than four after its first game came out, Annapurna has attained a reputation reserved largely for a select few video game companies with much longer track records.
Prior to the release of Maquette, the average Metacritic score (83) of games published by Annapurna ranked near the top among all video game companies with more than 25 releases (counting each version of multi-platform titles separately), trailing only three storied developers whose histories date back to the early-to-mid-1990s. The average Metacritic game rating is somewhere between 67 and 68, whereas even the worst-reviewed Annapurna game (Katamari Damacy creator Keita Takahashi’s 2019 title, Wattam) scored in the low 70s.
Highest Average Metacritic Rating, Game Companies With >25 Releases (All Platforms)
|Company||Score||Best Known For|
|Company||Score||Best Known For|
|Blizzard Entertainment||85||Diablo, Starcraft, World of Warcraft, Overwatch, Hearthstone|
|Valve Software||85||Half-Life, Counter-Strike, Portal, Dota 2|
|Firaxis Games||83||Sid Meier’s Civilization, XCOM|
|Annapurna Interactive||83||What Remains of Edith Finch, Florence, Outer Wilds, Gorogoa|
|Rockstar Games||82||Grand Theft Auto, Red Dead Redemption, Max Payne|
|Epic Games||82||Fortnite, Gears of War, Unreal Tournament, Infinity Blade|
|Sports Interactive||81||Football Manager|
|11 Bit Studios||79||Anomaly, This War of Mine, Moonlighter, Frostpunk|
|Harmonix Music Systems||79||Guitar Hero, Rock Band, Dance Central|
|Rare Ltd.||79||GoldenEye, Perfect Dark, Banjo-Kazooie, Donkey Kong Country|
Granted, Annapurna hasn’t developed the games it’s published, as have many of the other companies on the leaderboard above. And not every game in its catalog was originally published by Annapurna: In some cases, the company has ported a game that was already well received (such as Flower, Gone Home, Journey, Kentucky Route Zero, and The Unfinished Swan) to another platform. Even accounting for those caveats, though, the publisher is on a remarkable run. Consequently, whenever Annapurna announces a new game or divulges new details about one that the public is already anticipating, people reply with some approximation of the Futurama “Shut up and take my money” meme. If Lemoore hadn’t heard the “banger” comment (which was echoed elsewhere), he might have come across the commenter on the gameplay walkthrough trailer who wrote, “You had me at ‘Annapurna’”; the dude on a different YouTube channel’s cast announcement who said, “I’m a simple guy—I see Annapurna … I purchase”; the guy on Twitter who observed, “Maquette is another Annapurna game so that’ll be ridiculously good probably”; or any number of other potential players who expressed similar sentiments.
Oh, new @A_i game? I’ll be getting that— Austin #Creed4G4 - Future King of The Ring (@AustinCreedWins) February 17, 2021
For Lemoore, the creative director of debut indie developer Graceful Decay, the allure of putting Annapurna’s implied seal of quality on his first game helped ease the wait for Maquette’s turn to exit through the publisher’s pipeline. Lemoore signed with Annapurna almost five years ago, before the publisher’s first game, What Remains of Edith Finch, got its string of successes started. As Maquette’s development dragged on and other Annapurna games gained acclaim, Lemoore recalls, “I would always say, ‘This is a good thing. I know we’re not the first Annapurna game to release. We won’t be the second or the third. But this is a good thing. Because right now, nobody knows who Annapurna is, but hopefully in a few years they will.’”
They definitely do now. Annapurna’s pedigree, Lemoore says, is a testament to the developers who’ve created its burgeoning library of indie darlings: Edith Finch, Gorogoa, Florence, Outer Wilds, Telling Lies, Sayonara Wild Hearts, If Found…, and others. “I’ve always been humbled by my peers in Annapurna,” he says, adding, “These are amazing people making amazing games, and I’m honored to be a part of that, but it is a double-edged sword.” The sharp edge of the blade is the pressure of trying to deliver a banger of his own. “I’m nervous,” he says. “I want to be as good as what everyone’s hoping it will be. I’m hoping that Maquette can live up to the Annapurna brand and these other games that Annapurna brought on.”
Based on the early returns, Lemoore and his colleagues didn’t disappoint. When the review embargo lifted on Monday, critics heaped praise on the game’s novel, brain-breaking recursion mechanic, which allows the player to progress by manipulating objects inside multiple identical-looking but different-sized environments, which lie within one another like nesting dolls. A change on one level produces a corresponding change on the others, forcing the player—who can pass seamlessly from small scale to huge scale, transitioning accordingly from Brobdingnagian to Lilliputian—to consider how placing something on one plane might remove an obstacle on another.
Most reviewers accurately dinged the game for a few flaws: a bit of bugginess, jankiness, and frame-rate shakiness; an air of inertness and a lack of signposting in parts of its world; a sense that its puzzles aren’t always thematically linked with its sometimes-trite story; certain puzzles that fail to produce the desired dopamine rush of discovering an ingenious, elusive solution. Maquette isn’t a masterpiece, but it’s a distinctive, clever, and at times touching experience that doesn’t snap its publisher’s streak of exclusively making good games. Annapurna chose wisely once more.
To put Annapurna’s critical repute into perspective: On January 15, Vulture published a list of the 24 most anticipated titles of 2021. Alongside some of the biggest names in gaming—Halo, Hitman, Super Mario, Mass Effect, Resident Evil, God of War—stood four forthcoming Annapurna-published games: Maquette, 12 Minutes, Stray, and Solar Ash (from the makers of Hyper Light Drifter). Four out of 24 is a high hype rate, especially considering Annapurna had announced only seven 2021 titles in total. (An eighth, Neon White, was unveiled in February.)
Three of those seven made a GamesRadar+ list of 20 indie titles to watch in 2021, and two of those (Open Roads and The Artful Escape) were different from the four on the Vulture list. The only one of Annapurna’s seven then-announced titles that didn’t make either of those collections was Last Stop—and that one was on GameSpot’s list of the top 50 anticipated indie titles of 2021, along with four other Annapurna-published games. Essentially, every one of Annapurna’s prospective releases was generating buzz at the beginning of 2021—a year when indie games will play a more prominent role than usual because big studios that depend on large-scale collaboration are more prone to suffering COVID-caused delays.
Now @geoffkeighley is speaking on what I figured too: games came out last year because the work was largely done— Gene Park (@GenePark) February 26, 2021
Reggie: “people don’t understand how collaborative game dev is”
Imo I think indies will be doing a lot of carrying the industry throughout 2021
Last month, Annapurna released a box set of the PS4 editions of eight of its games. The collection of physical releases was something of a flex, but perhaps more impressive is that the company could go another eight games deep without a drastic drop-off in quality. The Annapurna trophy case is crowded: Edith Finch, Gorogoa, Florence, Outer Wilds, and Sayonara Wild Hearts won six BAFTAs between them (including “Best Game” for Edith Finch and Outer Wilds in 2017 and 2019, respectively), and those and other Annapurna releases won or were nominated for other prestigious awards. (In 2018, Florence upset PUBG Mobile and Fortnite when it won Best Mobile Game at the Game Awards.) Felan Parker, an assistant professor of media and culture at the University of Toronto, studies indie games and contributed a chapter on Annapurna Interactive and contemporary indie development to the 2020 book Independent Videogames. The company, he concluded, “is fostering a conception of games as a legitimate cultural form that challenges conventional cultural categories and imagined audiences.”
How does Annapurna interactive consistently make great games— Emilia (@llamaemilia) April 1, 2020
How does Annapurna publish consistently good games, all the time— Cayman (@caymanwent) February 25, 2021
how come annapurna just came up a few years ago like fine i guess we'll publish all the good games if no-one else is going to do it— alex⸎ (@linedrag) February 27, 2020
In light of the heater that the company has been on for four-plus years, it’s natural to wonder how Annapurna keeps picking potential winners—and, perhaps, helping ensure that they fulfill their promise. Annapurna’s 11 or so employees tend to eschew the spotlight (almost) entirely, preferring to let the developers do the talking, along with their work. (Annapurna Pictures founder and CEO Megan Ellison—who has professed to be passionate about video games—doesn’t give interviews either.) The company declined a request for a phone interview, agreed to an email Q&A, and then responded to a list of questions—about the publisher’s origin story, relationship with Annapurna Pictures, project approval process, profitability, financial and creative terms, plans for its recently announced internal development studio, standards for measuring success, and so on—with the following statement from founder and president Nathan Gary:
Annapurna Interactive was created out of a passion for games that publishers have traditionally ignored. These were the types of games that attracted us to the industry, and we believe that by supporting these games we can inspire people. We have grown the publishing side quite organically along the way to support all of our development partners and our new internal studio allows us to push in to new and exciting directions. We’re excited by the talent that has joined us on our mission. We look forward to sharing our passion and our commitment to inspire as the games industry continues to evolve.
In other words, the publisher isn’t offering itself any public back slaps or spilling any secrets about its unerring eye—partly, perhaps, because the company and its games get plenty of positive press as it is, but likely also because bragging about its own scouting skills would clash with its reputation for empowering creators (something it shares with its parent company, which also made its name as an auteur-driven enterprise and leaped out of the starting block with a bevy of critically lauded, award-winning films like The Master, Zero Dark Thirty, Her, and American Hustle). However, we can glean some insights from a few of the developers who’ve worked with Annapurna, including Lemoore, Outer Wilds creative director Alex Beachum and producer/designer Loan Verneau, Edith Finch and Unfinished Swan creative director Ian Dallas, and Steve Gaynor, the founder of Fullbright (makers of Gone Home, Tacoma, and the upcoming Open Roads). Developer-publisher relationships can often get contentious, if not outright adversarial, but those involving Annapurna seem mostly harmonious.
Although Annapurna Interactive is a relative upstart, it’s not composed of upstarts. Not only does the gaming division have the backing of Annapurna Pictures, but it’s also staffed with executives whose industry experience predates their current company. When Annapurna Interactive launched with a mission to produce and publish “personal, emotional, and original games,” it comprised two Annapurna Pictures production and technology execs and a quartet of video game industry veterans, including Gary and Deborah Mars, who had been the creative director and executive producer, respectively, at Sony Santa Monica Studio. Their backgrounds enabled Annapurna to avoid the missteps that those without video game experience often make when moving into the messy, unpredictable petri dish of game development, and it also gave them credibility with the developers they wooed and worked with. Annapurna itself was a cipher: “They were the unknown,” Lemoore recalls. “They were like, ‘Is this a film studio that thinks it’s easy to make video games?’” But AI’s leaders, at least, were known quantities. “Some of the people at Annapurna have serious design backgrounds,” Beachum says. “They know what they’re talking about.”
In the mid-2000s, the advent of digital storefronts such as Steam, Xbox Live Arcade, and the PlayStation Store, coupled with the rise of crowdfunding and other industry developments, made it more feasible for small developers to make games and get discovered. In 2008, breakout hits such as World of Goo, Braid, and Castle Crashers demonstrated the medium’s economic potential and began to turn indie developers into industry icons, a phenomenon chronicled in the celebrated 2012 documentary, Indie Game: The Movie. Console manufacturers took note of the money to be made and critical favor to be found and courted indie developers to program for their platforms or even partner up. During that period, Sony Santa Monica, the studio behind blockbuster Triple-A franchise God of War, also acted as an incubator for indie developers like Dallas’s Giant Sparrow (which had made The Unfinished Swan) and Thatgamecompany, makers of Flower and Journey. (Thatgamecompany cofounder Jenova Chen would go on to assist AI as a “scout” and “spiritual advisor.”) But in 2014, a planned Sony Santa Monica game was canceled, and the studio downsized significantly and deprioritized the external development arm that had helped produce its indie hits.
The people who had headed up Sony Santa Monica’s indie development efforts left to form the incipient Annapurna Interactive. (Although AI didn’t go public until December 2016—a few months after the launch of less-prolific Annapurna Television—Gary joined the company a year earlier.) They brought with them the knowledge and connections they’d cultivated at their previous posts, which helped them populate Annapurna’s portfolio. Wattam and Edith Finch, Dallas’s follow-up to The Unfinished Swan, had been announced as PlayStation exclusives, but they ended up at Annapurna instead. “When our old friends from Sony, who were then at Annapurna, called us up to ask if we were interested in coming to Annapurna, that was a pretty easy decision on our part, because we had such a long relationship with all those people,” Dallas says. “And it was almost as if the entire Sony department had just sort of moved offices, and then we followed suit.”
Moving to Annapurna allowed Giant Sparrow to rescue the celebrated Lewis Finch chapter of Edith Finch, which was on the chopping block (so to speak) because the game was over budget and behind schedule at Sony. “Because we had moved to a new publisher who was able to amortize the costs over larger platforms, they were more comfortable with moving that release date,” Dallas recalls. Annapurna also sometimes offered creative feedback; the publisher pointed out that a story about a baby who drowns in a bathtub would be disturbing to parents. Although that may sound obvious, Giant Sparrow hadn’t devoted much thought to the sensitivity of the scenario, so the publisher set up playtests with parents so that Dallas and his colleagues could gauge their reactions and adjust the scene’s tone accordingly. (The final version is somewhat abstract, though still heartbreaking.)
On the whole, Annapurna didn’t micromanage. “Creatively, it was very hands-off, for the most part, because they wanted us to make something that nobody had ever done before,” Dallas says. “So any notes that they would give would potentially upset that delicate balance. … If anything, we were often in this situation of trying to pry notes out of them, because they wanted to give us as much freedom as they could.”
Edith Finch was the first game out of the gate for Annapurna, and although Dallas doesn’t recall that pole position weighing on his mind at the time (over and above the built-in overpowering pressure of game design), he’s glad his game helped establish the bona fides of the new division. “I’m very relieved that we didn’t wreck it for everyone else, that we didn’t ruin this opportunity,” he says. Dallas continues, “There are a lot of indie games that are two to three people, or even just one person. And then there are games that are no longer indie, like the 50-person, hundred-person teams. But making a game with 10 to 20 people … it’s been hard to make those kinds of games. … It’s great that Annapurna has been able to find quite a few games that are in that range and been able to make things that were both creatively interesting and that found an audience as well.”
Annapurna was founded amid fears of a so-called “indiepocalypse” caused by saturation of the indie gaming market. Although the talk of an impending collapse of indie gaming proved overblown, today’s landscape poses challenges that the early days didn’t. “2007 to 2012 was a golden age where it was a lot easier for a good indie game to get a lot of attention and generate a lot of revenue,” says Ron Carmel, who produced World of Goo as part of a two-person team and in 2010 cofounded the Indie Fund, which has helped provide financial backing to some games (such as Donut County and Gorogoa) that went on to be picked up by Annapurna. (Last year, Annapurna hired another Indie Fund cofounder, Nathan Vella, who had been the head of indie developer Capybara Games.)
In the current environment, Carmel says via email, “There are an order of magnitude more games being released, and the competition for gamers’ attention is fierce. Not just because there are more games being made, but because developers and publishers have gotten so sophisticated in marketing those games, and relationships with the new gatekeepers matter. … So small developers need a lot more support to compete in this market, and that’s where publishers like Annapurna come in.” Annapurna is the most prominent of several boutique developers that arose to fill this niche, realizing, Gaynor says, that non–Triple-A titles with big artistic ambitions merited “the kind of treatment that until that time, only much larger games had really been given by the industry and by publishers.”
Annapurna stands out to developers, Parker wrote, “because they strike the right balance between deep pockets, industry experience and connections, and alignment with indie values.” And Annapurna, in turn, is “picking winners” by “working with developers already poised for creative and commercial success.”
Outer Wilds and Maquette both eventually landed at Annapurna because of contacts made during the future Annapurna leadership team’s stint at Sony Santa Monica. Beachum, who started making Outer Wilds in late 2012 as part of his master’s thesis at USC, had passed on an opportunity to partner with Sony Santa Monica in order to retain the rights to the IP, but years later, the former Santa Monica execs, now at Annapurna, reached out again. By then, Beachum had joined developer Mobius Digital, showed off the game to great fanfare at the 2015 Independent Games Festival, and released a downloadable alpha build, which was well received. But even with crowdfunding support, he and his team didn’t have the resources to finish the game the way they wanted to. Enter Annapurna. “I liked the way they publish things,” Beachum says. “I got to keep the IP. … We never felt like we had to compromise on what we were making creatively.”
With Annapurna as a partner, Mobius had the wherewithal to redo the level design and massively expand the narrative. The publisher made its internal tech team (which includes Giant Sparrow’s former technical director) available to offer advice to the Mobius engineers, put the developers in touch with the makers of the Unity game engine to iron out issues with Outer Wilds’ physics that could have killed its console versions, gave them access to quality assurance tools that helped them swat bugs, organized trips to conventions and festivals, and helped them make a trailer. Annapurna also organized multiple playtests. One of them, about a year before release, didn’t go well: “People did not really get the game,” Beachum says. In consultation with Annapurna, Mobius implemented a way to track and display rumored destinations, which made exploration much more manageable. At the next playtest, the more accessible experience clicked; one participant said he would rather play Outer Wilds than return to his typical diet of Call of Duty and Madden.
Beachum says his experience with Annapurna “was more than just financial backing. They definitely were there to help us at all the steps of production.” Verneau agrees. “They see what your game can be and they don’t release it until it is what it can be,” he says. “The Alpha had quite some success, and it would have been easy to release a half-baked or unfinished or not completely there version of the game. … And that’s not their way of doing things. They were adamant about making sure we would get to where we needed to be.” If his 2020 self had seen the final version of the game, Beachum says, “I think my head would have exploded.”
You guys you have to try Outer Wilds. pic.twitter.com/e4pdJBp3XA— Mia Farrow (@MiaFarrow) September 6, 2020
Lemoore conceived the core mechanic for Maquette in late 2010 and debuted it at the Game Developers Conference the following March. (Games take a long time to make.) Although he had offers to fund it then, he declined, not yet knowing what he wanted to do with the game. It took him years to refine the physics, fine-tune the fantastical architecture and environmental storytelling (drawing on his work with Disney’s Imagineering group), and develop the romance, which replaced a previous narrative about being imprisoned inside and escaping from the recursive environments. Lemoore met Nathan Gary (who had been in the 2011 GDC audience) when he helped playtest Edith Finch at Sony Santa Monica, and Gary subsequently signed him to Annapurna.
Lemoore, who warned Annapurna that the game’s “universal” love story lacked the drama one would normally find in a film, sings the same tune about the company’s creative input as Beachum and Verneau. He notes that Annapurna arranged for two of the artists who had made Outer Wilds to spend a couple of months working on Maquette when they weren’t needed at Mobius. Being part of the Annapurna stable meant moral support, too. “Talking with some of the other designers on Annapurna games, hearing their own philosophies of why they made the decisions they made and what type of story and what they wanted players to get out of it, definitely made me feel like I was going in the right direction and gave me confidence,” he says.
That communal spirit extends to the other end of the developer-publisher partnership. “Annapurna works in a way where everyone knows what everyone else is doing on the game,” Lemoore says, adding, “They have that great cross-pollination, where it’s not like the people at Annapurna working on Outer Wilds have no idea what’s going on with Maquette and vice versa.” The company uses a single email address to correspond with developers so that every AI exec can stay apprised of each project’s status.
Working with Annapurna provides another perk: a direct line to prominent actors and agents. Maquette’s two characters are played by Hollywood actors (and real-life couple) Bryce Dallas Howard and Seth Gabel. Lemoore knew he wanted to cast a couple, but “when Annapurna came back with Bryce and Seth, I was like, ‘This is more than I ever expected,’” he says, adding, “The famous aspect or well-known aspect obviously is good for marketing, but I just think they were perfect for the part.”
Marquee names are becoming a constant in Annapurna Interactive releases. Queen Latifah narrated rhythm game Sayonara Wild Hearts, and Telling Lies (Sam Barlow’s spiritual successor to Her Story) featured four Hollywood actors, including Kerry Bishé. 12 Minutes, a top-down mystery in which the narrative repeats in a time loop that lasts, um, 12 minutes, will star Willem Dafoe, Daisy Ridley, and James McAvoy. And the mother-daughter duo that stars in Open Roads, a narrative road-trip tale, will be played by Keri Russell and Kaitlyn Dever (from the Annapurna-produced Booksmart). “I wouldn’t have started that conversation nor had the acumen, I think, to follow that through in the way that Annapurna was capable of,” says Gaynor, the game’s head writer, who suggested Russell and Dever when Annapurna asked him for his fantasy cast. “It’s that sort of thing that is going to end up making the game better, fundamentally, and more unique and interesting, through those kinds of casting decisions that I think just wouldn’t even have been territory that we would have explored without the Annapurna partnership.”
Although AI’s parent company may have a comprehensive contact list, it’s not the Annapurna Pictures name that gets actors—some of whom are already fans of Annapurna Interactive’s titles—interested in lending their voices to the publisher’s games. “The materials that we put together, it wasn’t like, ‘Here’s all the Oscar nominations that Annapurna films have, and we’re making Annapurna games,’” Gaynor says. “It’s like, ‘We’re Annapurna Interactive. Here’s all the BAFTAs our games have been nominated for or awarded. … And here’s why you should be excited about doing a game voice-over for this game publisher.’ As opposed to saying, ‘You know movies? We’re related to a movie company.’”
Fullbright and Annapurna Interactive were well established separately before they teamed up. Before the release of Edith Finch, Annapurna reached out to express its admiration for Fullbright’s first game, Gone Home. After the launch of Fullbright’s follow-up, Tacoma, Annapurna got back in touch. The resulting conversation led to Annapurna publishing Switch and iOS ports of Gone Home and then offering to fund Fullbright’s next project. “They’re very active in making connections with developers that resonate with what they do,” Gaynor says, whether it’s a first-time developer with a promising demo or a proven commodity. “They obviously have a lot of people that comes to them that are interested in working with Annapurna, but also I think that they don’t just sit back and wait for stuff to come to them all the time.”
When players navigate the world of Maquette, they don’t have any trouble transitioning between tiny and huge. But under the hood, Lemoore says, “some really complex stuff happens,” which can cause unanticipated problems. (The first time he dropped an object into a smaller level, the object’s bigger counterpart fell from the sky and crushed his character, which is why he installed the dome that covers the game’s main environment.) The same hidden dangers and difficulties apply to a game developer that’s trying to pivot from small-scale projects to more demanding ones, as Fullbright is by adding travel and a computer-controlled companion character to Open Roads.
Gone Home was the work of four people living in one house. For Tacoma, which was released simultaneously on several platforms, Fullbright expanded to 10 people. At that point, Gaynor knew that the company would either have to scale up again or hand the hassle of porting, promoting, and other tasks to a trusted partner. “Having self-funded multiple titles and self-released multiple titles, it just made it clear that I would personally rather let the stuff that isn’t making the game be somebody else’s job who’s really good at that, and let the funding of the game be, to some degree, somebody else’s problem,” Gaynor says.
Annapurna’s existing titles, and the testimonials he’d heard from developers who’d worked with the company, gave him the confidence to surrender some control for the first time. He hasn’t regretted it. “They aren’t trying to change the project,” he says. “They aren’t trying to say, ‘Eh, what if it wasn’t a road trip?’ Or ‘Oh, you go to this place next, what if you went to this other place instead?’ Or ‘We don’t really like her hair. Can you make her hair red?’” Instead, they’re trying to help Fullbright bring about the player experience that the developer intends but that may not be coming across. “Having that outside set of eyes who’s invested, but not in the middle of it every single minute of the day—they’re kind of the ideal audience, right? They want to play the great version of this game and they know about it and they’re on board for it, but they have enough distance that they don’t have all of your internal developer justifications for why you’re doing XYZ.”
Developers that work under the Annapurna umbrella spend a lot of time pondering the commonalities between Annapurna-published titles. “They all have very strong visions, but they’re all different visions,” Beachum says. Gaynor adds that the company has cultivated “a really interestingly broad catalog that still all works together. Sayonara Wild Hearts is not very much at all like Outer Wilds, but they hang together in a way that’s not homogenous, but that fits a certain investment in the originality of each title and the craft of it.” The catalog encompasses walking simulators, rhythm games, action RPGs, shooters, puzzlers, platformers, narrative games, and amorphous experiences that defy traditional genre classifications. In most cases, Gaynor notes, Annapurna is “doing games that aren’t really focused on a lot of violence, doing games that are more focused on themes that, perhaps, are underserved in the Triple-A space, but it also is really cool to see that you don’t have to fit one specific, particular style of game to make sense as an Annapurna title.”
Many Annapurna titles share additional DNA: pick-up-and-play controls, contemplative, wistful, folky soundtracks, and simple, “low-poly” 3D looks combined with what Parker called “quirky, bespoke aesthetic choices,” which he said “signal greater immediacy, authenticity, and honesty based on their divergence from the dominant norm” of Triple-A hyper-realism and orchestral scores. Its titles tend to feature personal, emotional, and sophisticated stories. (According to Sonic the Hedgehog coproducer Dmitri Johnson, his production company dj2 Entertainment is adapting an unspecified Annapurna game into a not-yet-announced TV series.) And Ellison’s advocacy for marginalized and underrepresented groups is also reflected in some Annapurna games’ characters, especially If Found…, Sayonara Wild Hearts, Gone Home, and even Open Roads.
The interesting thing about most Annapurna games, says Lemoore, is that “there’s an intent that’s worn on its sleeve. … I feel like every Annapurna game is truly trying to add something to gaming. They’re not just trying to take the formula and tune one or two things and slap a new coat of paint on it.” Although Annapurna has sought out developers who have histories of making good games, it has yet to publish a sequel, remake, or adaptation. “I personally would rather see games like Maquette or Gorogoa or Florence or Edith Finch that don’t hit a home run but are trying something new, than see games that are just covering the same territory or very little new territory and doing it perfectly,” Lemoore concludes. Originality is hard. In fact, Maquette feels a little less fresh because of a few elements familiar from Annapurna-produced games that preceded it—Edith Finch’s floating text, Florence’s love story, Gorogoa’s experimental puzzles—as well as from some non-Annapurna titles that have also played with perspective and recursion (A Fisherman’s Tale, Superliminal, Manifold Garden, and more).
It’s not getting any easier for Annapurna to avoid repeating itself. The company has published more games with each passing year, and its still-undisclosed plans for its internal studio (for which it was hiring last year) may up its annual output further. That’s good news for designers who get to work with Annapurna, though the effect may be more mixed for smaller fish in the indie developer pond; as Parker wrote, “even as it expands mainstream conceptions of what is possible in games, [the emerging tier of commercial indie games] simultaneously pushes less well-financed and/or more radically experimental game-makers and game-making practices that lack the backing of powerful intermediaries further to the margins.” It’s unclear how big and how busy the division plans to get, what its bottom line looks like, or whether it’s a safe bet to last longer than the other game-making movie-studio subsidiaries that have come and gone (and that keep coming). “Video games are still so young, and we’ve only just scratched the surface,” Gary wrote in his foreword to the PS4 box set.
Just as Annapurna Pictures “occupies the cultural-economic middle ground between popular blockbusters and esoteric art films,” as Parker put it, Annapurna Interactive is aiming for the middle grounds between niche indie titles and polished, promoted mainstream releases, between “casual” games and “hardcore” games, and even between gamers and non-gamers. That balance has become increasingly tricky on the film side, where the streaming wars and franchise-driven blockbusters are threatening to squeeze out midsize indie studios. In 2019, after months of rumors about financial struggles, Annapurna Pictures reportedly explored bankruptcy, which prompted AI to tweet a “WE GOOD” GIF with a “we’re not going anywhere!” The studio’s finances may have bounced back (aside from a few pandemic-driven layoffs last year), but its critical cachet has faded to the point that Annapurna Pictures rival A24 is the most common comp for AI—even within earshot of Annapurna execs.
just heard someone say at our booth "it's like if A24 made video games"— Jeff Legaspi (@j_legs) March 30, 2019
my dude, come on now
Lemoore built some of Maquette’s puzzles by putting himself in situations he wasn’t sure it was possible to solve and trying to find ways out of them. Game development is full of apparent impossibilities, but a good publisher makes some of them solvable. As Parker pointed out, Annapurna’s “carefully managed brand persona”—an irreverent, meme-savvy social-media presence, trendy merch offerings such as vinyl soundtracks and vintage tees—seems calculated to encourage indie adulation. Yet the company possesses an earned authenticity, too. It’s tough to find anyone who has something negative to say about working with AI.
“Their terms are fair, from the few data points I have,” Carmel says. “And more importantly, the people I know there genuinely care about developers.” Thus, the people who make Annapurna games seem as pleased as the people who play them. “I couldn’t really ask for better,” Beachum says about the reception to Outer Wilds. “People get why we made it. They like it for the right reasons. … It was really cool. Thank God.” And also thanks, in part, to a publisher named after one.
An earlier version of this piece misstated Mars’s title at Sony Santa Monica.