With her commitment to artistic integrity and eschewing of traditional Hollywood business practices – she uses her own money to fund filmmakers – you would be hard-pressed to find a film producer more game-changing than Megan Ellison, the founder of Annapurna Pictures. That she and her company are now in the game-publishing business – well, that only further proves the point.
Created in December, 2016, Annapurna Interactive is Ellison's latest bold play making waves across the industry – a Los Angeles-based gaming division that in April published its first game, What Remains of Edith Finch, a peculiar indie adventure by developers Giant Sparrow.
Told through a first-person perspective, the game's haunting, two-hour narrative is best described as a collection of short stories, although it's far more than that. As the player walks through a home once occupied by the Finch family, all of them now dead thanks to a mysterious curse, the game reveals how each character died through a series of vignettes that are aesthetically tailored to each chapter. It is Edith Finch's constant tweaking with how one plays that makes it so memorable: One segment sees you reading through an interactive comic book, while another has you slithering about as a Lovecraftian horror, stalking a boat at sea.
When the player finally reaches the game's conclusion – be it via PC keyboard or PlayStation controller – this mature exploration of domestic melancholia delivers a profound denouement, one uncomplicated by "gamey" elements.
"The word 'game' is tricky, since it implies an experience focused around things like challenges, resources and failure, which isn't what our game is about," said Ian Dallas, Giant Sparrow's creative director. Published by a company known to appeal to the sensibilities of cinephiles, Edith Finch is the perfect cross-medium recommendation for film lovers, especially those who may be intimidated by the time commitment or learning curve that many modern video games demand.
"I've always felt like the experiences we make are closer to being toys than games," Dallas said. "We have more in common with a playground than a chess set."
But whether or not Edith Finch is actually a game only increases its value as a bold artistic expression – which is likely why Ellison was attracted to the project in the first place. Her impeccable taste (Zero Dark Thirty, Her, The Master, this summer's Detroit) is exactly what has helped her avoid being labelled a "billionaire heiress" – or, more simply, the daughter of Oracle chief executive Larry Ellison. Just last week, Annapurna inked a two-year production deal with Moonlight director Barry Jenkins. This is how Ellison operates: She searches for innovative work and surrounds herself with it.
And Edith Finch screams innovation. This is a curious title published by an even more curious organization, one known for staying out of the spotlight unless absolutely necessary (Ellison has never given a mainstream media interview).
"The Annapurna Interactive team prefers for the games and developers to speak for themselves, rather than speaking directly about the division," its publicist told The Globe and Mail – "politely declining" to comment. Fair enough. The game's thematic and storytelling weight will surprise anyone unconvinced that gaming is an art form or a vehicle for emotional gravity.
Still, there is a desire to know more about Annapurna's diversification. The company's website doesn't say much. "A home for creators," its mission page blares over VHS static reminiscent of The Ring. The news release from Annapurna Interactive's announcement provides a little more: "We believe video games have a powerful ability to stir emotion," it reads. "We are excited by the opportunity to collaborate with the artists who inspire us in order to bring memorable experiences to all players, whether experienced or first-time gamers."
So far, that objective seems to be holding true – and it's a mutual admiration society. "We've been very fortunate to work with publishers who shared our values, so there's never been any trouble about the game being too weird or not commercial enough, since we all embarked on this project in a deliberate attempt to make something players had never seen before," Dallas said, adding that Annapurna Interactive is comprised of many former Sony collaborators.
The move seems to speak to Ellison's success in recognizing the sea change in modern entertainment and branching out to reflect that. "A lot of people in this room control the gold," Ellison said in her Visionary Award acceptance speech at the Producers Guild Awards in February, "so let's make new rules."
With cinematic undertakings this year such as Paul Thomas Anderson's next, as-yet-untitled film, Alexander Payne's Downsizing and the Coen brothers TV series The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Annapurna likely won't need to rewrite the playbook – those works should be straightforward enough to market.
But with a language-less puzzle game (Gorogoa), a virtual-reality collaboration with Chris Milk of L.A.-based company Within and plans to distribute its first film this August (Kathryn Bigelow's aforementioned Detroit, which Annapurna also produced), Ellison's six-year-old team won't simply continue changing the game – they will likely go off script entirely.