You might have noticed, but gaming media has been ablaze over the last few days. I mean, when isn’t it? But recently, the news that Sony is focusing it’s developers more exclusively on the type of high-flying triple-A experience as seen in The Last of Us Part II and God of War and is limiting smaller studios attempts to break out and produce their own works has been a cause of contention among the community. Some people are already calling for an end to Sony’s dominance and support for Microsoft’s seemingly more customer and developer-friendly mindset. Personally, I am not particularly bothered by Sony deciding to focus more on their big IPs. As gaming has continue to grow and technology has continued to improve, developing new games has become more and more expensive. Many developers and publishers have taken to some pretty unpopular methods – loot boxes and microtransactions among them – in order to cover some of those costs. As a platform holder however, Sony is in a unique position to deliver these massive games with fewer of the more unsavoury elements that have become synonymous with modern gaming. They are, of course, interested in selling lots of copies and making lots of money from each game, but they are even more interested in selling the PlayStation eco-system. If focusing more heavily on this space in the market means we’ll get more games in the vein of Ghost of Tsushima or Marvel’s Spider-Man, then I’m all for it. That’s also because the small, experimental type of gaming experience that I love is being covered so well by another publisher, a relative newcomer to the field – AnnaPurna Interactive.
Founded in 2011, AnnaPurna Pictures has managed to make a bit of a name for itself in the film industry – 2013 famously saw seventeen Academy Award nominations spread between three AnnaPurna titles, Her, American Hustle and The Grandmaster. They then continued to release a string of indie hits before releasing their first game What Remains of Edith Finch in 2017 under the label AnnaPurna Interactive. The game, which had originally been in development at Giant Sparrow in partnership with Sony Computer Entertainment was eventually supported by AnnaPurna Interactive, formed by ex-Santa Monica Studio employees, after Sony’s involvement began to wane. When released, What Remains of Edith Finch was meant with high critical acclaim, with a Metacritic score of 88 on PS4. The game was praised for its efforts to play with and adapt the standard gameplay pillars of indie first-person story-driven games. What Remains truly plays with the form of video games – it dabbles in a variety of genres as it tells its stories through a series of vignettes detailing the sometimes sad, sometimes gruesome, always interesting deaths that have cursed the Finch family for generations. What Giant Sparrow created here really put them on the map, and, thanks to the game’s success, AnnaPurna Interactive was also able to meet with a successful start.
Since the release of What Remains, AnmaPurna has continued to grow and build a name for itself as a purveyor of unique video game experiences that offer something a little different from the norm. Story is often, although not always, a key point in these games, and the developers can often tackle themes that are relatively underrepresented in gaming. Playing a game from AnnaPurna, you can often feel the pervasive sense of the ‘auteur’ permeating the experience. While there can be some hiccups now and again technically, you always feel that the creators truly wanted to convey something through the experience they’ve created – whether it be a simple love story like in Maquette or the taming of an apolacyptic monster in puzzle game Gorogoa. That independent eye which helped AnnaPurna carve out a space for themselves in the film industry in a relatively short time has also earned them their share of space in the gaming world, bringing something fresh and unique to the table.
Sayonara Wild Hearts was actually my first foray into AnnaPurna’s world – a rhythm-action game with a killer pop soundtrack that told the story of a woman coming to terms with her sexuality and mending the broken hearts of five celestial lesbian deities along the way. The story is not made explicitly clear throughout the game – it is instead told in small metaphorical(ish) snippets at the beginning and end of each level, but in the climax of the game, it all comes together to present itself much more clearly. The story was certainly interesting, but the gameplay and soundtrack were the things that truly hooked me on Sayonara. I’m not typically much of a high-score chaser when it comes to games, but even I found myself restarting levels again and again in a bid to earn myself the gold rank on each one. I have to say that for anyone looking to get into this publisher, you could do much worse than choosing Sayonara as your starting point – it’s fun, high quality, and, perhaps most importantly, extremely accessible. Whereas many other AnnaPurna published releases mess around with video game form, Sayonara is a much more straightforward gaming experience.
In addition to What Remains and Sayonara, which are undoubtedly two of AnnaPurna’s biggest releases, I’ve also played Florence and Gorogoa, two of the company’s smaller releases. Gorogoa is a rather excellent puzzle game in which you move four puzzle pieces depicting the world around on a grid, finding a variety of ways for the pictures and worlds to connect with each other. The story is not as clear as with What Remains, and is instead much more open to the player’s interpretation. A mysterious creature, seemingly heralding the end times, appears in a city, and you are required to help a man find a series of coloured orbs that will give him the power to control the beast, and perhaps stave off the apocalypse. Florence was originally released on smartphones before being re-released on Nintendo Switch in 2020. It’s a charming tale of a relationship (much like that in Maquette) but told through a series of small, basic minigames. The story is short and the gameplay shallow, but with the beautiful music and the charming art, it’s a delightful experience worth much more than the sum of its parts.
That leaves us with the final AnnaPurna game that I’ve played, and the one that, so far, stands out as my favourite – Maquette. The game originally released earlier this year on PS4 and PS5 with the latter version coming out day and date on PSPlus for free. I’ve already written about how much I loved Maquette but I really could go on and on. Solving the puzzles while working my way through the short but sweet puzzles was a delight, and then doing it all again with strict time limits in an attempt to get the platinum trophy was a nice challenge. Maquette still stands as my favourite AnnaPurna release, just squeezing ahead of What Remains.
Outer Wilds is the game that I’ll try out next from the publisher – it’s build up a great reputation for itself as another innovative game with an intriguing gameplay mechanic, and it comes with a strong recommendation from my friend. The Pathless is another one I’m itching to try on my PS5, and looks like it might be the biggest game that AnnaPurna have released thus far. Kentucky Route Zero is also extremely enticing, so I’m looking forward to playing that on my Nintendo Switch, which has become somewhat of an indie games machine for me as of late. These are just the games that have already been released though. 2021 is set to see AnnaPurna grow yet again – they currently have nine games slated for release this year over a variety of systems, their biggest release year so far. The Artful Escape looks to have a beautiful art style and intriguing storyline, and Last Stop looks like it’ll offer something fresh by taking place in modern day London. Neon White, revealed at one of Nintendo’s Direct events looks like it’ll be an adrenaline fueled action game that’s a change of pace from AnnaPurna’s typical fare, which I’m also very excited about.
I’ve got to say that the future is certainly looking bright for this type of game created on a smaller budget. For a while, indie gaming seemed to be heading pretty quickly towards a future of pixel art and roguelikes, so it’s a joy to see that, even inside the indie world, more fully fleshed out and modern games are starting to be released. Yes, it might be disappointing to hear that big developers such as Sony, which have a history of supporting innovative and unique smaller games such as Ico might be moving out of that space, but that’s not to say those types of games are going to disappear – with developers and publishers like AnnaPurna stepping up to fill those gaps in the market, we’re going to be royally fed for a while to come yet.