Why Annapurna Interactive is the most exciting publisher in video games

The power of a brand lies in how much excitement you get just from its logo. We’re used to seeing studio and company logos appear at the start of trailers, whether for films or games, but over the past few years, if there is one that has proven to make me sit up and take notice, it’s from Annapurna Interactive.

Since its founding in December 2016 as a division of Annapurna Pictures – renowned for producing acclaimed films, including Oscar winners Zero Dark Thirty, Phantom Thread, and American Hustle – the publisher has been a force to reckon with, confidently putting out one bonafide indie darling after another. After all, having magical realist family drama What Remains Of Edith Finch – beating even Breath Of The Wild to BAFTA’s best game award in the same year – is a debut others could only dream of having.

On one hand, Edith Finch looks like a familiar first-person narrative game that had been populating indies at the time, walking simulators with little gameplay or interaction apart, which also had a knack for basically telling a story that had already happened. But go beyond this, and it’s actually a number of surprisingly playful vignettes with a diverse range of styles and mechanics – a shapeshifting child with a monstrously insatiable appetite, a former child actor thrust into a comic book horror, a fantasy adventure played alongside chopping fish heads in a cannery – each putting you in the shoes of each Finch family member before their untimely demise. A diverse range of styles and mechanics is something that also sums up Annapurna’s output.

Edith Finch
Edith Finch. Credit: Giant Sparrow

A focus on narrative is something you might expect from a publisher whose origins come from the world of cinema (although Annapurna Pictures had dabbled in producing fictional video games earlier for those who remember Spike Jonze’s 2013 film Her). But where storytelling in games too often means aping film, TV or books, diverse storytelling styles combined with playful interactions have always defined an Annapurna Interactive joint. There’s incredible artistry to each of its games, and while every one of the publisher’s titles effortlessly tells deep and often personal stories, none of them ever do it in quite the same way.

There’s Gorogoa, a graphic novel played out as an impossibly intricate puzzle game, the time-looping Outer Wilds as you try to prevent the end of a solar system, Telling Lies, a non-linear open-world game but through searching through FMV, the highs and lows of a relationship captured on the small screen in Florence, discovering the story of a transgender girl and her queer found family growing up in rural Ireland through reading, and erasing, the pages of her journal in If Found…, and many more that escape simple categorisation.

And what a track record too. While I haven’t necessarily loved every single release – the recursive puzzle game Maquette earlier this year didn’t quite fit together for me – Annapurna Interactive’s quality has just been consistently high, only slightly behind Sega on having the highest Metacritic average in 2020’s publisher ranking table. About the worst that you could say about their games is that they’re perhaps a little too arty, a little too ornate, a publisher who’s so chic and cool and they know it – which, frankly, is a bit like saying you’re an overachiever when asked to describe your weakness.

Outer Wilds
Outer Wilds. Credit: Mobius Digital / Annapurna Interactive

Okay, maybe if you have an old-school gaming sensibility, you might think Annapurna’s games won’t do much for you, but that’s also a misconception, as the publisher has also supported games that fall into more recognisable “gamey” genres, but which still do things differently. Think Ashen, a tough Souls-like but where you meet fellow travelers who slowly transform your hub into a settlement and community, or Sayonara Wild Hearts, a pure sugary pop music album played as an old-school arcade game. It’s even dabbled in the team-based shooter with early access title Due Process, where its procedurally generated maps and lethal gunfights mean you really do have to communicate with your teammates.

Of course, as part of a film company, that has also worked in the publisher’s favour to leverage some real Hollywood talent for its games, and not the kind of awkward stunt casting in AAA games, like putting Kit Harrington in Call of Duty, but the kind of casting you might expect for an Oscar-favourite, be it an indie chamber piece like 12 Minutes featuring the voices of James McAvoy, Daisy Ridley, and Willem Dafoe, two-handers like Maquette’s real-life couple Bryce Dallas Howard and Seth Gabel, or just managing to grab Queen Latifah for a few lines in Sayonara Wild Hearts.

It was only inevitable then that Annapurna would finally decide to take matters into its own hands with its first-ever showcase this year. Carefully setting itself outside of the E3 bubble, its debut stream was a confident, flawless half-hour of non-stop delight, putting other dreadful fillers to shame (looking at you Gearbox, Capcom), while having the slickest production, pacing, and announcements that you come to see from the best in the biz, the Nintendo Direct.

Sayonara Wild Hearts
Sayonara Wild Hearts. Credit: Simogo

The thing about Annapurna Interactive however is that the publisher has a totally hands-off approach where it prefers to simply let the games speak for themselves, or as we also saw in this showcase, let the developers do the talking. We had a producer giving us a walkthrough of the futuristic cat adventure Stray, developer Ben Esposito showing off the awesome speedrunning possibilities of Neon White, and even when there were no games to show, there were fun and insightful featurettes of the new developers the publisher has partnered with, such as Ivy Road and Outer Loop.

I’ve had to watch many digital presentations where the host decides to do a fireside chat with a developer after a reveal trailer that tells us nothing, and they have all been dull. Perhaps it’s down to Annapurna’s filmmaking credentials for putting together really great featurettes but its new partnerships simply demonstrate its knack for picking the best people to work with, from revered indie veterans or fresh talent with interesting diverse backgrounds with a unique vision. On its most basic level, the Annapurna label is just a seal of quality, though news that it has also launched its own internal development studio also raises high expectations of whether it can create games as wondrous as its collaborators.

12 Minutes
12 Minutes. Credit: Luis Antonio

Perhaps developing its own games is when we’ll see the publisher stumble, as the law of averages dictates that it surely cannot maintain this streak forever – certainly on the film side, Annapurna Pictures had a rocky time in 2019 when a debt of US$200 million put it close to bankruptcy. But when we have time-looping thriller 12 Minutes, rock opera adventure The Artful Escape, and adventure platformer Solar Ash from the creator of Hyper Light Drifter still to come this year, it’s safe to say there’s still much to look forward to, and it’s going to be riding high on that wave for a while longer. The next Annapurna Interactive showcase can’t come soon enough.

Alan Wen is a frequent contributor to NME.