For the first time, the festival is recognizing video games as official selections alongside movies and television.

By Nick Romano
June 18, 2021 at 12:00 PM EDT
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Tribeca Games
Credit: Raw Fury; Ember Lab; Annapurna Interactive; EA

Luis Antonio seeks to answer a question with his latest time-loop thriller starring It actor James McAvoy, Star Wars' Daisy Ridley, and The Lighthouse's Willem Dafoe: can he help bridge the gap between film and video games?

Twelve Minutes, spotlighted as a selection of this year's Tribeca Festival, highlights elements of both. A man (McAvoy) arrives home to have a romantic evening with his wife (Ridley), only for a stranger (Dafoe) to ferociously break in and attack them moments later. When the man regains consciousness, he realizes he's 12 minutes in the past. The player repeats this same scenario over and over, picking up new details each time, until the mystery is solved and the time loop is broken.

"There's a spectrum. You have movies on one end where you're passive and then on the other side you have the 300-hour video game experiences that have strong narratives and casts. We're really trying to get something in between," Antonio tells EW following an early preview of his game (out Aug. 19). "You're trying to make it for everyone who doesn't play games, everyone who loves movies and cares about stories and growing the characters."

It's this "hybridization," as Casey Baltes, the vice president of Tribeca Games, calls it, that defines what the gaming division of the 2021 festival is about.

Twelve Minutes
A shot from 'Twelve Minutes,' voiced by James McAvoy, Daisy Ridley, and Willem Dafoe.
| Credit: Annapurna Interactive

For the first time in its 20-year history, the once-named Tribeca Film Festival, launched by Jane Rosenthal and actor Robert De Niro in 2001, dropped the word "film" from its title with the event now recognizing a larger swath of art. Another first? It's the start of the first-annual Tribeca Games Award, which elevates video games up alongside film and television as official selections of the festival.

"What we really want to enhance is the intersection between the mediums," Baltes says. "I always say it's not just games at the festival, it's how games will change or are changing the form of storytelling altogether."

The titles that are doing just that this year are ones like Antonio's Twelve Minutes; Kena: Bridge of Spirits, a fantasy adventure through nature from brothers Josh and Matt Grier of animation studio Ember Lab; Lost in Random, a Tim Burton-esque saga with a stop-motion aesthetic from Klaus Lyngeled of Zoink Games; and NORCO, the sci-fi Southern Gothic tale from the developers at Geography of Robots. Other games distinguished as official selections are Slow Bros.' Harold Halibut, Raw Fury's Sable, Humble Games' Signalis, and Skybound Games' The Big Con.

"Is it a game? Is it a film? Is it an interactive immersive project? By nature of categorization for a festival, sometimes we add labels to these things," Baltes adds. "But a lot of projects tend to be undefinable."

Kena: Bridge of Spirits is a game that looks like a Disney animated film besides Frozen and Raya and the Last Dragon. That speaks to the sensibilities of its creators. The Grier brothers got their start in film animation and visual effects before launching Ember Lab in 2009. You can see that experience come through in how the game handles light. Kena, a spirit guide, journeys through a fantastical forest on a mission to cleanse the corrupted spirits and heal nature. (The Legend of Korra comes to mind.) Her staff, a piece of warped wood entangled around a blue crystal, is the antennae of her power - and that of the Griers, who strategically use the relic to illuminate Kena's sometimes charred surroundings into stunning landscape centerpieces.

During an hourlong demo, held virtually over the Parsec app, Josh jokes that he's been "turning every VFX artist" they work with "into game developers." Such was how the team for Kena (set for Aug. 24) came together.

Kena: Bridge of Spirits
A still from 'Kena: Bridge of Spirits.'
| Credit: Ember Lab

The games highlighted by Tribeca Festival share a commonality in that they aren't necessarily experimental, but they offer "unique approaches" into story, Baltes notes. For Kena, it's about pairing difficult battle sequences with stunning animation and lighthearted characters. For Lost in Random, it's also about the mechanics and visuals. In the world of Random, a young girl, on a search for her sister, is whisked away to a forgotten place where she meets a lovable anthropomorphic die. She's then able to roll that die to obtain powers with which to defend herself against the terrors of the realm.

NORCO doesn't take the third-person perspective when telling its 8-bit tale. Players piece together the backstory of the main character by exploring their surroundings and unlocking memories by clicking on environments and choosing the right things to say. As the protagonist, your brother has vanished in the aftermath of your mother's death, and a fugitive robot that once helped out your mom is your best hope at finding him.

Twelve Minutes, too, is a vastly different animal. Antonio began with the concept, "if you know what's going to happen, what would you?" At first, he experimented with the idea of "a door with a key code" for the player to traverse with multiple time loops. "But that got tired really fast," he admits. He then realized, "There are people and relationships and this knowledge about what other peoples' motivations are. It gets more interesting." Furthermore, "If I don't tell you anything, you're interpreting this knowledge." Unlike time-loop stories like Groundhog Day and Edge of Tomorrow, the player is dropped into the perspective of the man with no previous knowledge of his backstory or that of his relationship. They don't even know his name. Everything is a discovery.

Antonio sees Twelve Minutes as more of a character study or theater. Who's to say this couldn't become a play at some point? There are only three characters operating about a confined (digital) set. It's why he refers to his piece an "interactive thriller" rather than a game.

"Before, there was this thing of a game is something you have to enjoy, you have to be entertained all the time. You have these goals," he says. "I think that still happens a lot in mainstream games, but there are a lot of people who are just experimenting with crazy stuff."

Antonio points to Daniel Benmergui's 2009 release Today I Die and Lucas Pope's 2013 game Papers, Please. With advancements in digital distribution, everyone has "access to make a game," he continues. "You don't have to write an engine anymore. It naturally created this experimental state of game development." Now, he looks to titles like Florence, the mobile game that went on to win a Game Away in 2018 and Webby Award in 2019. Antonio wouldn't be so bold, but Twelve Minutes is certainly a part of this new phase of creative experimentation in gaming.

"The selections really allow us to add a moment of discovery with first-time creators rather than well-established creators," Baltes says of the titles being recognized this year by Tribeca Games. "It also allows us to talk about story not just in cinematic form. What are the other things to demonstrate story in a game that are non-linear, that may not have a specific visual that relates to cinematic elements, but that is either text-driven narrative or animation, or stop-motion? It allows us to actually start a conversation and then to expand it in a broader, more diverse way of being able to highlight story in games."

Correction: An earlier draft of this article stated Kena: Bridge of Spirits is out Aug. 21. It's out Aug. 24. Pre-orders are available now.

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