The timing of this light-hearted romantic comedy is wonderful because we’re all overdue to feel good. The couch co-op game is a two-person adventure where you play as Cody and May, a bickering couple. They tell their daughter they’re getting a divorce, and she runs off to a barn where her tears fall upon two dolls of her parents. And her tears magically transform the unhappy duo into the dolls.
To escape the fantastical world, they have to cooperate. To change back, they have to work together and overcome their differences, according to a talking book named Dr. Hakim, a hilarious character with a thick accent (maybe Italian, like Fares’s).
May jumps off a ledge and finds she can’t wake up from the nightmare. She comes back. The game is filled with hilarious moments like that. So begins the journey of the marriage-counseling adventure, coming from the same imaginative minds that made A Way Out. But one of the hallmarks of a Fares game is that it captures emotion, starting first with sadness and then moving to humor and then to something touching.
I spoke with Fares about the game, which he somehow convinced EA Originals to publish. I have enjoyed talking with him over the years and will never forget how he famously said “f*** the Oscars” during The Game Awards. He once told me that if I didn’t like A Way Out, then I could break his legs. But he’s more than just funny. Fares is a breath of fresh air, as he never follows a PR formula.
The game is available on the PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC via Origin, and Steam for $40. Players will be able to upgrade to next-gen consoles for free. Our reviewer, Mike Minotti, gave the game a perfect score. Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: You have a very creative game here. It feels like this was a good approach to let your creative people just go crazy. The things you run into are so imaginative.
Josef Fares: The whole idea is that the story and the gameplay should marry together. Whatever happens in the story should be reflected in the gameplay. Also pacing-wise, whatever you do in the game, the players can’t really second-guess what’s going to happen. There will always be something new, something fresh. It’s almost like a movie experience. You don’t just have one mechanic that you’re always playing with. There’s something new all the time.
That’s something we obviously did in both Brothers and A Way Out, but we’re taking it to another level here. There was a lot of internal testing, a lot of trying things out. To take all these mechanics to a level where they feel polished, it takes quite a while.
GamesBeat: It seems like that it helps that you’re not offering tons of choices to the player. They’re acting through a particular path.
Fares: It’s a much more linear game this time, yes. But that doesn’t make it easier, necessarily, because there’s so much content. You’ve just scratched the surface. It’ll continue to go crazy like this. You got to the squirrels, when you fight on the plane, right? That’s a scene that lasts about a minute, and it took us about six months to put it together. The team asked me, “Why are we doing this? We don’t have that much time.” But it’s going to be a special moment.
That’s a very important aspect of the game. If you have a great scene–that’s one of the biggest pieces of experience I bring from my movie background. You don’t reuse a great scene. Even if it takes time, it doesn’t matter. As long as it feels fresh and it fits that scene well, then it’s fine. Not only that, you have to understand–with the mechanics we’re creating, we can’t reuse any enemies either. In a normal game you can use enemies over and over again, but here we can’t do that. What I’m proud of is you feel like you’re playing the same game, but the experience is still super diverse.
GamesBeat: I thought about couples playing it together. Do you see that as the ideal experience?
Fares: If you’re a couple, if you’re friends, father and child, whatever it is, it doesn’t matter. Sure, it does tackle the subject of divorce, but it’s not a heavy treatment of it. It’s a lighthearted action-adventure. The whole idea is that it happens to be that a couple are about to divorce and they’re forced to cooperate. That’s what I love about it. It’s not about what it’s like to really get a divorce. I think it’s obvious when you play the game that it’s more of a lighthearted journey.
I believe that it fits with our kind of player. But of course, if you’re a couple, I do think that because it requires so much from you — the way you interact, the way you talk, the way you have to communicate — it might say a lot about where you are in your relationship with your friend or partner. You have to cooperate and listen and take in what the other person is saying. It’s definitely a challenge from that perspective. But I think you can play it with whoever.
GamesBeat: You need to have patience, because there might very well be a mismatch in skill between the two players. Maybe one of the two isn’t much of a gamer. You could have one person always waiting for the other.
Fares: I think you should play with someone who has a bit of an idea how to play games. However, it was very important not to make the game too challenging. It’s a narrative experience, and in narrative games you don’t want to get frustrated or stuck for too long. We want the experience to be fluid, moving forward all the time. I think we nailed that. It’s challenging enough for players who need a challenge, but it still has a fluid forward motion.
GamesBeat: I liked the mini-games, too. You get a chance to have some competition with the other player.
Fares: There’s 25 of them in all. They’re very spread out. That was the whole idea in this game. I said in the gameplay trailer, “No shiny shit.” There’s not a lot of collectibles. The reason for that is I believe the world should be interesting, not only for you to go around finding shiny coins, but just interesting to run around and explore. You can interact. You can do stuff. You can play the mini-games. Everything that we’ve done takes way more time than just putting coins around the world.
I hope people appreciate that. We’re trying to make the world alive and interactive. Instead of just collecting stuff, there should be things to do. When you find a mini-game and get to play it, it’s something you’re excited to find, not just something that pops up and then when you have 100 of them you can buy something or whatever. Honestly, did you miss collecting stuff in the demo?
GamesBeat: No, I don’t think so. It felt like I was collecting different ways to do things, like the hammer and the nail, for example. When you add on these capabilities you feel like you’re finding things and doing something with them.
Fares: Exactly. When you find the camera or the torch, all this stuff that we’ve spread out, that’s the kind of thing you should find. Actual content, not just something you collect.
GamesBeat: Did you ever have any question that maybe you might not want to do a two-player co-op game? Or did you always go into this thinking that’s the kind of game you’re good at, the kind of game that people expect from you?
Fares: Not exactly that it’s what people expect from us. It’s very important that Hazelight does the games that we trust in, that we want to do. We’ve been very good at the co-op only thing. We’re almost the only ones in the world doing this. You have co-op campaigns in some single-player games, or your survival four-player games, or shooters or whatever. But no one is doing co-op only. From a creative perspective there’s so much to explore in how to tell stories for two people experiencing it together. That’s very underrated.
We saw with A Way Out that there was a huge market for this. People want to play games like this. I want to play them. I hope more games like this come out. It could be its own genre. It doesn’t have to take over. We should have all types of games. But this is definitely a genre that I think more people would love to see.
GamesBeat: I do wonder why games have been particularly bad at romantic comedy, or love and romance in general.
Fares: I don’t know either. Maybe we needed a co-op game to try it out. Sometimes you need to try things that haven’t been tried before. That’s the only way to learn. You have to go into uncharted waters. What can we do here that’s different? That’s what’s cool about the industry. It could be pushed even more, doing new and unique stuff.
GamesBeat: How long has this been in development for you? Has there been anything particularly easy or difficult about the process?
Fares: It’s been a three-year production. It’s been a heck of a production. One of the difficulties, obviously, the biggest one–first of all, telling a story in co-op, that’s hard enough. How do you pace it? You don’t have the attention of the player fixed the way you usually do. It’s a new genre we’re playing around with. Marrying the story and the gameplay, even when we do it metaphorically — things like using magnets when we want to work around attraction — everything takes time. I won’t even go into all the sound issues, how we have to deal with that. And we have to render two screens, two games at the same time. It needs to run at 60 frames per second on the old generation of consoles.
But most of all, it’s all the variation. Not only the variation in mechanics, but the mini-games, the side interactions, all that stuff takes a huge amount of time. Not only locally, but it has to work over the network at very low latency. That’s way harder than people think. You see the two split screens at the same time. We’ve gotten better at that, though, and I think we’ve done a great job. I’m very proud of what we’ve put together.
GamesBeat: How did you manage things through remote work, getting it done during the pandemic?
Fares: We were lucky. Most of the design was already set. We’d just managed to do our mocap shoot before the pandemic started. Then we had a small window of time–our actors were from London. We had a second mocap shoot when they had a bit of an opening there. We were totally lucky. Most of the team worked from home, but about 20 people were still here. We still had a little feeling of being in the studio.
We had some problems with internal testing. Obviously we do a lot of testing. There were definitely challenges. But we were lucky. The pandemic came in the last year of production. Right now, as we’re getting into the next project, we’re seeing it affect us much worse than it did on this game. We’ll see a lot more games being late going forward. I’m surprised that games are still coming out at this pace. We’re learning to work remotely, but it’s much harder.
I mean, you can’t do mocap remotely. You have to meet each other to do it. I know they had some some remotely on Call of Duty, but that was more a PR thing, a small thing. I think they did some animations for in-game characters. But doing mocap for an actual cutscene, no fucking way they did that remotely. That’s not possible. It might look like it. But I know it’s not possible. You could never do mocap like that.
GamesBeat: Did you have to do mocap with multiple actors, the two actors? Is that the way you shoot this kind of thing? Or could you have done it one actor at a time?
Fares: No, no. We record them the way we would if we were doing a movie, pretty much. It’s just like directing and filming a movie. We have two great actors. They have really good chemistry. We did a normal casting process, just like you would in the movies.
GamesBeat: Back to some of the crazy ideas here, I wonder how you pulled those out of people. Like the vacuum cleaner that has a grudge against you. I’d never have thought that would end up in a game like this.
Fares: It’s hard to say where it all comes from, but you start with, where are they at? They’re in this ship. What could there be that you can both be mechanically involved with? What connects with the story? It’s all in asking who the characters are and what are they going through?
Let’s say we designed this game as a normal platformer. You’d have your normal movement, jumping on enemies that die and then running into bosses. Maybe you swing through trees sometimes. But instead here, we’re always asking ourselves, “When they come to this scene, what could they do with it?” We start from the story and create gameplay around that. The gameplay and the story really have to come together. I think that’s the best way to describe how this happens. How do we make gameplay out of a vacuum cleaner? Let’s connect it to this character. Let’s do that.
I often say that sometimes the writer and the designer are making two different games. But here, whatever you’re seeing, you’re playing. The same goes for Brothers and A Way Out, but this takes it to another level. In A Way Out, if you remember, if you came to a scene, you played that. When you came to a scene where they needed to catch a fish, they were fishing. If you came to a car, you drove a car. Many people noticed that in A Way Out, the only shooting in the game happens at the end. It’s not common that you come up with a shooting mechanic and only use it in part of a game.
But that’s what we’re taking to the next level here. We’re always having every scene reflect the gameplay, what you’re experiencing. Wherever you’re at, you’re getting something that reflects where you are and why you’re there. It will keep on going like that. It’s a crazy journey.
GamesBeat: I don’t want you to spoil the ending, of course, but I do wonder how you thought about the ending compared to the ending of the other games. Your other games had very directed, very compelling endings.
Fares: It’s almost like the M. Night Shyamalan thing. People are expecting something all the time. But let me say this. There is an ending, and there is an idea behind it, but this is a very lighthearted story, a warm story. The idea is that when you finish this game, you’ll feel–you know how you felt when you were young and played all those fantastic Nintendo games? That’s the feeling we want you to get from this, a warm feeling of connecting to your friend or partner.
GamesBeat: I was kind of mad at you at the end of A Way Out. You forced me to do something I didn’t really want to do.
Fares: I love it. I love it. That’s the perfect compliment. You couldn’t give me a better compliment. A lot of people ask, “Why couldn’t we have a choice?” I’ve had people who were really pissed off. But that makes me super happy. That means we really got to them. I love that.
The whole essence of the design is that you’re not allowed that choice. The idea is to create that trust, and then we totally trash that in the end. That’s the whole concept of the game.
GamesBeat: Do you feel like the consequences should follow the story you set up?
Fares: Yes. Depending on what game you’re doing–in some games choices are okay. They fit with that vision. But some games, no. You should do what the character is doing, follow the vision of what the creator wants. It’s like The Last of Us II. I know a lot of people reacted strongly to that. I love the fact that you don’t choose, that you have to do what you’re supposed to do. There’s a point to that, a feeling you’re supposed to feel. It’s not always about what you want to do. People have to remember that this is not a game where you make choices. It’s a story you should experience, a feeling you should feel. If you’re pissed off or mad or frustrated at me, that’s a good thing. That means you’re affected in a deep way.
GamesBeat: Did you have to do something you hadn’t done before in A Way Out?
Fares: It’s always nice to do something refreshing, something new. Even the next game we’re working on now, what we’ve just started. It’s something totally other that we’re doing here. It’s not a sequel or a prequel or anything like that. It’s nice to do something different. It’s a way to keep the passion alive, by totally changing everything up. It’s the best way to learn something.
If you look at A Way Out and It Takes Two, you feel and you sense how we’ve grown as a team. You feel it’s a more polished experience, more put together. That’s from all the experience we’ve had now. We’ll keep pushing that. The next game will take it to another level again. We’ll keep doing these–I wouldn’t say low budget, but lower budget games. We’re still a double-A studio. But we’ll still do crazy, creative ideas, great experiences. This type of game is needed even more now.
A few triple-A studios like Naughty Dog, they’re there to take it to the next level and do something super unique, but most of them, when you have so much money involved, you have a lot of push from the publisher and everything and live services you have to do and whatever the fuck that is. It affects the vision. Sony, I think, is the best publisher at doing this, at trusting their developers to create first-party IP that’s super unique. Days Gone, Spider-Man, Last of Us, Horizon. Sony has been super good at trusting these developers and pushing new IP into the market.
GamesBeat: How do you feel yourself about something like–during the pandemic, playing something like this, or playing The Last of Us?
Fares: This game fits well with the pandemic. It brings you together in a joyful way. Obviously I’d love to have people playing together on the couch. But still, it’s a good way of connecting to each other. You have to communicate and talk to each other to play this together. It’s a love story. It’s all about feeling more warm. That can only be a good thing, that we have a bit of a bright shine in a dark time. It Takes Two does that.
GamesBeat: There’s that escapist feeling you need sometimes when you’re in the middle of a tough reality.
Fares: For sure. You need something to break it up.
GamesBeat: You haven’t had to break anybody’s legs lately, right? Or nobody’s broken your legs.
Fares: No, man. Trust me. Play this game, nobody will break anything. Now, you can break not only my legs, you can break my arms or whatever. That’s how sure I am that you’re going to love this game.
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