Amid the games industry’s constant push-pull between contained single-player stories and sprawling multiplayer experiences, Josef Fares and his studio Hazelight keep making things that sit somewhere in the middle. 2018’s A Way Out, and 2021’s It Takes Two are both well-presented, start-to-finish stories built around set protagonists, just like the titans of the single-player world. But they can also only be played in co-op (whether in-person or online), enforcing some of the competitive camaraderie of multiplayer onto that familiar structure, and adding new challenges and ideas that single player games simply can’t.
Fares has, in effect, created a new genre of game to work within – narrative co-op adventures might be a suitable name. A Way Out was his first true tilt at the idea, but you can see the first sketches of that approach in Fares’ first game, too – the wonderful Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons was effectively a co-op game designed to be played by a single person, or by two people on a single controller. Fares is clearly deeply interested in telling stories using multiple bodies, whether virtual or physical.
“There are so many unique and cool story experiences with a tailored co-op experience you can create,” Fares tells me when I ask him why he’s so drawn to this unusual style. “You can create this tension between the players, or this relation between the players through the game. There’s definitely something that should be explored. That’s something that we as a studio really want to push and become the best in the world at.”
He pauses momentarily, before adding. “We are the best in the world, because nobody else is doing it.”
He’s not wrong. Even years after its release, no one’s made quite the same kind of game as A Way Out – possibly because Fares is the only person with the level of all-consuming self-belief to convince publishers to finance such a thing:
“When I believe in something, nothing can stop me. Obviously no one believed in [A Way Out] – not even EA thought it would sell, but they still believed in me. I didn’t care. I was like, ‘This is going to happen.’ Now, we’ve sold almost 3.5 million units of that game. These numbers for a small team of 30, 35 people are madness, you know? And at 3.5 million units sold, that means that, I don’t know, almost seven million people played this game, which is crazy.
“Now it’s proven but, for me, the important thing was to follow your passion and what you believe in. I do believe that there might be someone in the industry who wanted to try this kind of game, but they didn’t really dare to because they were afraid of what could happen. I just think that sometimes you need to f**k s**t up and really go with what you truly believe in. That’s the only thing that matters, you know? I do think – and hope – that more people do this, especially when publishers see that, ‘Oh, we have an audience here.’ People want this, obviously.”
He’s out to prove that point again with It Takes Two, albeit with a very different kind of story. Where A Way Out was a mostly self-serious jailbreak tale, It Takes Two takes a wildly different tone, spinning a yarn about a couple on the edge of divorce being turned into dolls and brought back together by a magical talking book (mo-capped, naturally, by Fares himself) by way of a series of fantasy adventures.
But despite the disparate narratives, It Takes Two looks to be building on almost everything that set A Way Out apart as a game. It’s still a co-op only experience with shifting split screens, using a multitude of different activities to serve its story (Fares tells me he thinks it’ll win a world record for the number of different mechanics included), using the relationships between its players to inform the relationships between the characters. Essentially, not only did Fares basically invent a genre, he’s choosing to fill it with new games himself while no one else will.
I ask him why – and if it felt like he has unfinished business with the ideas created for A Way Out. He tells me it has more to do with building on the experience created by making that first game: “In A Way Out, a lot of the team were interns who were new, [but] now we have become really badass developers. The animation, the coding, the sound, the design, everything – it’s a way better polished product, with mechanics that really feel much fresher, and nice, and tighter than A Way Out.
“Of course I wish we could have pushed all that more with A Way Out, but it was hard with the team we had. But I still think we did a great job considering what we had. In A Way Out we got compared to AAA titles – you know, you compare Uncharted’s shooting with our shooting, I mean come on. We had one coder on our shooting. But with this game, we have gotten way better and we can deliver a way better game.”
As we speak, it becomes clear that Fares doesn’t just like making this kind of game, he believes in its value, particularly in the space of games that look to tell a story above all else:
“I do believe in the narrative game. We really need to look closer at how mechanics are connected to story, and I really, truly believe that in [other] narrative games, sometimes designers and writers are [making] two different games. We need to drop the idea of the old thing where you learn your mechanic and blah, blah, blah, you get better. That’s old design rules. I don’t care about them. They could function and work in another game but, in story experiences, you have to have the [game] and the narrative meld together. This is what we’re trying to do. Everything the characters are seeing, or interacting with, or encountering is part of the gameplay.”
The more we talk, the less it feels like Fares is making his projects because he specifically likes story-based games that two players control, and more that he feels that, for now, this is the best way to prove that story and gameplay can work hand-in-hand, rather than simply in parallel with one another. He goes some way towards proving that point when I ask whether narrative co-op adventures are what Hazelight will make from now on:
“No, no, no, no, no. The next game I have in my head is very different to this. I mean, very different. […] This is not the new tone for the kind of game we’re doing. The next game is totally different. It’s something totally else, which is so cool. We’re going to start with it in the next month.” Rather than sit within his own genre, it feels as though Fares is feeling out his next steps, building on his original ideas, while thinking of ways to push them further in future.
I wonder if the key to moving beyond his current ideas is new technology, in that case – does the next generation of consoles offer Fares what he needs to push further? And would It Takes Two have been even bolder if it hadn’t started development before new hardware became available? His answer is typically forthright – and includes some choice thoughts on Microsoft’s new console naming conventions for good measure:
“I don’t really care about consoles. I care about games. Of course I wish we could have looked more into the new consoles [for It Takes Two]. I’m just happy they are more powerful, because it takes a lot of time when a console is not really powerful enough, but what I like about the new generation is that they are powerful, that we can focus on them. But to be honest with you, they came in so late in our production – of course it’s going to look better on PS5 and Xbox Series X, but we didn’t really have the time to adjust them and make the PS5 version special, or the Xbox blah blah… Whatever they call the Xbox Series.
“That’s a f**king confusing name. What the f**k’s going on with Microsoft? They’re losing it, man. What the f**k is going on? Like Series S, X, Mex, Next. I mean, who knows this? Come on. Madness. Call it the Microsoft Box and that’s it. I don’t know. It’s a total f**king mess. Trust me, even them, they’re confused in their offices. What is this X, S… I don’t know, what the f**k.”
He collects himself for a second. “Anyway…”
It’s the kind of outburst we’ve come to expect from Josef Fares in recent years, but one that I include with a point – I think it speaks to exactly what makes this director stand apart. This is a digression born in the moment – it’s not a prepared statement, just a thought carried through to completion. Fares’ outspoken approach doesn’t feel like a show, or an affectation, and you get the sense that it contributes to his creative approach as much as his public persona.
I suspect Fares creates what he does not through compromise, but in steamrolling disbelievers with a combination of unwavering self-confidence and charm. It’s how he turned a career in filmmaking into video game direction, how he convinced EA to let him spend their money on a game they didn’t think would recoup its costs and how, if he gets his way, he’ll help push his own invented genre forward even further.
“There is so much stuff to be explored in narrative experiences,” he tells me. “I keep saying this: this is just the beginning. We are just getting started, so there will be a lot more.” And when he says it, he says it with total conviction. I believe him.