When I first played Sayonara Wild Hearts, I wasn’t expecting its final twist. The game was short, sweet, and had great music that effortlessly carried me to the end, at which point it revealed the final ace up its sleeve: Queen Latifah, as the narrator of the musical odyssey I’d just gone on. Hers was an unexpected appearance, and clearly not the driving force of the game, which made the reveal a fun twist to cap the experience. It was also a welcome inclusion that made sense, with Queen Latifah’s warmth echoing through her narration of Sayonara’s tale of heartbreak and rediscovery. What most of us likely didn’t know at the time was that this casting, which developers Simogo have admitted was an eleventh-hour stroke of luck, would kick off an interesting, and particular, trend among some Annapurna Interactive published titles.
Annapurna Interactive, the games division of film publisher Annapurna Pictures, has been around since 2017, when they published their first title, the first-person adventure game What Remains of Edith Finch. This would serve as the bedrock for most Annapurna-published games: independent, narrative-driven titles that boast stylish art or a unique play style and/or conceit. This extended from games like Sayonara Wild Hearts to projects like the recently released Twelve Minutes. Alongside this foundation, however, Annapurna’s casting chops-a likely holdover from its film publishing arm’s influence-has also taken center stage this year as it looks to become a staple of their output, and a growing tenet of what does or doesn’t make a modern game artful.
In 2021 alone, Annapurna’s set to publish three games boasting casts of film actors. The recursive puzzle game Maquette released with the real life couple of Bryce Dallas Howard (Jurassic World) and Seth Gabel (Salem) voicing the couple whose breakup you explore. Twelve Minutes, a thriller about a married couple (to put it extremely mildly) caught in a time loop while fending off an intruder, touted its inclusion of James McAvoy (X-Men: First Class), Daisy Ridley (Star Wars) and one of the most active sexagenerians in the biz, Willem Dafoe (The Lighthouse). Finally next month, The Artful Escape, a psychedelic platformer, is set to come out with the most expansive, and likely expensive, supporting cast of Hollywood stars for an Annapurna game yet, including Lena Headey (Game of Thrones), Jason Schwatzman (The Grand Budapest Hotel), Mark Strong (Kick-Ass) and Carl Weathers (Rocky) to round out it out. Even the much-troubled and now indefinitely delayed Open Roads was announced with Keri Russell (The Americans) and Kaitlyn Dever (Booksmart) as the mother and daughter at the heart of the game’s story.
The casts are undeniably impressive, but for me they’ve never moved the needle. At most they’ve elicited a surprised “Oh” that has only grown quieter and quieter as the move has become a standard expectation from the arthouse publisher. Stunt casting isn’t new to games. As a matter of fact, it’s something that’s only seemed to pick up steam over the last decade, with blockbusters like Call of Duty casting Kit Harington (Game of Thrones) as a villain, and Death Stranding’s (unhinged) casting of far too many film actors, and even directors, to mention here. Even this year’s Far Cry 6 stars Giancarlo Esposito (Breaking Bad) as the dictator you will be trying to overthrow in a fictitious take on Cuba. What’s newer is Annapurna’s adaptation of the formula. They’ve cherry picked talented film actors and put them in the equivalent of smaller indie flicks, transforming the games they’re in into artsy Oscar bait, protections and all. It’s a clever marketing tool, which one can observe in the evolution from surprise cameo in one game to star-billing in later titles. Neither approach is objectively better than the other, but one is certainly more cynical. Most importantly, the tactic reeks of an insecurity all too familiar to games, because it’s a shallow play at artfulness.
Games have long been at the center of discussions (or maybe just pointless shouting matches) about their status as art. Many a Wikipedia article of a widely acclaimed game makes mention of how they’re held up as examples of “games as art,” a hollow phrase and gesture if there were ever a more useless marriage of the two. Think games like Shadow of the Colossus, Journey, and many of the most heralded independent games of the last decade. It’s still a short list, but it’s growing. These games are often heralded for being deeply emotive narratives or for showing a command of the technical prowess it takes to make games unparalleled examples of interactive entertainment. Their commonality is that they all stand apart from most of what the medium has to offer. These games aren’t just artful, their proponents claim, but they’re high art.
In particular, the notion of filmlike games as high art has been taking root for some time now. As technology has grown more advanced, videogames have been able to better capture performances, realize sets and soundscapes, and more effectively pull players into a simulation, often earning praise for their production values. “Cinematic” and “immersive” became compliments in the gaming lexicon, and everyone began chasing after them in search of validation. To that end, game makers have more blatantly tried to shape their games into the films they are compared to, but often bungle what made those muses so inspired. It’s why God of War rolled out with marketing that emphasized its “one shot” camera trick or why Red Dead Redemption 2 is a game quite literally burdened by the weight of all the westerns it tries to be. And yes, some games cast film actors in roles they may or may not be good fits for. The language of cinema is no stranger to being appropriated for games as some shortcut to fulfillment, and while art has drawn from other mediums for inspiration, and that kind of crossover can be the impetus for great innovation, games as a whole are still nascent and immature about what they take and what they want to accomplish with it. And so God of War’s camera trick failed to imbue the game with anything of import, and Red Dead 2 ultimately landed somewhere between ultimate simulation and utterly boring, all the while wearing a facade of prestige and profoundness. Hell, even Twelve Minutes’ esteemed cast turn in ho-hum performances that can’t elevate the game beyond its shoddily executed premise, or hide the mediocrity of itsludicrously bad script. You can only masquerade as something you’re not for so long before the mask falls away.
Being filmlike did not save any of those games from stumbling. In some cases, it actually presented a number of hurdles they couldn’t clear. And yet cribbing from cinema seems to be gaming’s love language, and looks to continue undeterred. “Cinematic,” in the crass way that games tend to realize it, is sexy now. Film actors taking on games roles-even lackluster ones-is a sign of prestige, and gaming audiences (the folks besides game makers most obsessed with fighting over games as art) hold them closely and uncritically in an effort to assert that status as fact. Many of these criticisms will likely fall on deaf ears because the deafening effect of the ploy’s already taken hold. Videogames have become the films. They’ve become “art.”
And so we arrive back at Annapurna, who sure seem interested in courting film’s pedigree in order to give some of their titles status. The shame is that in countless ways, some of their games are in fact like the best films: living, breathing works of art speaking a mesmerizing visual language of their own, and the summation of finely tuned technical work and taste. But they don’t entirely realize that they don’t need to be films in order to be as good as them. Until then, these packed casts, and the prestige they carry, feel unearned, and only underscore how much further games have to go.
Moises Taveras is a former intern for Paste Magazine and the managing editor of his college newspaper, the Brooklyn College Vanguard. He was that one kid who was really excited about Google+ and is still sad about how that turned out.