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Josef Fares made gamers laugh during The Game Awards when he yelled “f*** the Oscars” into the camera, saying that games are where it’s at. And the writer and director at the Hazelight game studio promised that “you can break my legs” if you don’t like his new game, A Way Out, when it comes on the consoles and the PC on March 23.
The game is a risky venture, and it will be published by Electronic Arts as part of its EA Originals label. It is a two-player co-op only game, where you play as the brash Leo or the calm Vincent as the two try to escape from prison and reunite with their loved ones. The action takes place on a split-screen TV, but the human players control one character or the other simultaneously.
I played the game with Fares in a recent demo session. I interviewed him both during the demo and afterward. He showed his passion for the game as we played, noting how just about every moment is unique. You don’t tread over the same tired ground as the duo make their escape.
We played a few scenes from the game that I hadn’t seen before. In one part, we had to escape down a mountain, sneaking by search parties that were on our trail. In another, we had to forage for food, go fishing, and cook a meal. I also had a chance to run through the scene in a hospital where Vincent tries to find his wife and son. It was fast-paced action where each player had to make crucial decisions. It’s the kind of creative game you’d expect from Fares, who made the indie hit Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons.
He has a way of making you laugh while saying honest and witty things. Asked what the title meant, Fares said, “A Way Out could be a way out of the prison, a way out of this life, a way out emotionally, a way out physically. I wanted the title to make people think of more than one thing, but it also just looks good. It’s the first time I came up with the title that I feel is good, actually. Everything I’ve done before — in games, in movies — I suck at coming up with titles.”
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
Josef Fares: This is almost two hours into the game. I won’t go into any story details, but it’s nearly finished. We’re launching March 23. In the beginning of the game you choose whatever character fits your personality. What would you say? Are you rational? You can be the short-tempered one this time.
In A Way Out, diversity is very important. This is a cinematic experience. We need to keep it fresh and unique all the time. You’re investing in these characters, in their personalities. It’s not just a drop-in drop-out game. The characters react differently depending on who they talk to. In the beginning of the game they don’t know each other, but by this time they’re starting to get to know each other. Depending on who goes first in this spot, they’ll say something different. You’ll always be seeing different content, even small things like that.
When you take down a guard, that’s it. Once you’re done with someone here, they’re not coming back again. It understands. That’s the idea. You don’t have to do this the whole game. That’s a foolish thing to do from a production perspective, but aside from that, in a cinematic story game like this, you don’t want to play the same thing over again.
Remember the gas station, where you could choose — there will be moments where the two of you have to stop and make a decision together. That affects the gameplay, although not the story. After this cut scene, you can choose between Leo’s way or Vincent’s way. You see how the characters develop, too. In the beginning it’s more like a single-player experience, but as they get to know each other their relationship builds up. At this point, two hours into the game, this first decision pops up, because the characters have gotten to know each other.
GamesBeat: Is one of these choices a no-win?
Fares: No, you still end up the same way. The story doesn’t change. But the gameplay scenario changes. It ends like it ends, but you get there a different way. I’ll jump to another scene now and show you some more. Here we’ll have some co-op fishing. Those moments are important, both to the story and the game mechanics. It’s all about pacing. We have fast moments and calmer moments.
GamesBeat: How many chapters does the game have?
Fares: The game is around seven or eight hours. I’m not sure how you’d divide it up that way, depending on how you count them. The chapters are all different in length, but they’re similar in pacing. You have shooting when it makes sense, car chases when it makes sense. Everything has to fit in the right place or we don’t have it.
GamesBeat: This is running on Frostbite?
Fares: No, it’s Unreal. I don’t think it would be possible to do this in Frostbite, actually. We’re a very small team, so Unreal worked better for us.
You can go here and craft a spear, or maybe you want to start a fire. The material is over there by the camp. You see now, I have to wade in. You have some nice, cozy moments like this. It’s very Brokeback Mountain in a way, that scene. Two guys, just out of prison, sitting by the fire. I don’t want to spoil too much, though.
I’ll jump to another scene and show you something new. All the NPCs in the game react differently depending on which character you are, and pretty much everything in the world. Right now we’re about five hours into the game. Without going into too much detail on the story, my character is going to see his newborn. This is the hospital that you saw in the video. Here you’ve got a magazine sitting there with your mug shots in it. See what happens when you interact with it. He looks around. Vincent would have just covered it up with a book. They’re different in many ways.
We’ve got a lot of mini-games in here, like this Connect Four game. It’s funny, because when we test, a lot of people get competitive about it, because they all keep scores, right? We have an arcade, darts, baseball, shooting baskets, arm wrestling.
GamesBeat: How long has this been in development altogether?
Fares: More than three years now. We started with just 10 people. It’s a very ambitious game for the people we have and the small budget. It’s crazy what we’ve put together. People are comparing this to triple-A titles. That’s good and bad in a way, but it’s a compliment, I guess?
GamesBeat: Did you staff up at any point?
Fares: Yeah, we went up to 40 at the end, but with no outsourcing. We’re doing everything in house. It’s a bizarre feeling seeing it now that we have the final version. You live with something being so broken all the time, and suddenly it’s all there. It’s working. The music is in there.
All this content, we only use it once. This next scene, it goes on for 60 seconds, all the animations and systems, and you only see it once. But it’s important for that cinematic experience. The mocap for all these stunts and fighting, that was me. When I tell you this was low-budget, I really mean it. Nothing else was possible with the money we had. This (motion capture) is me and another guy named Philip on the team. For a whole day we were fighting.
Again, we’re not going back to the same thing over and over again. If you were to play through this fight again, or go fishing again, you’d lose that variety in the game. It continues like that. We have shooting. We have car chases. All that stuff.
GamesBeat: Can you switch players any time you want?
Fares: I wouldn’t recommend that at all. I haven’t been in any playtests where we’ve done that. What interests me is that people don’t get tired, and that doesn’t happen, because there’s so much going on. I haven’t seen anybody want to change, because they feel connected to their character.
GamesBeat: You’re thinking like one or the other, really?
Fares: Right. You’re Leo or Vincent. Once you choose one, you connect with them. You almost become that character. You don’t want to suddenly control the other one. You can do that, but–
GamesBeat: What are the differences like?
Fares: They’re totally different characters. They solve problems differently. They react differently. There can be small details, like I mentioned about that magazine, or in the way they talk to NPCs. All that stuff is optional for the player. If you talk to people, you get to know the characters that way. But they’re unique, down to the animations. It’s not just systematic. The animations were acted for that character.
GamesBeat: How do you solve some of the problem of wanting to explore, but also be on a path that follows the story?
Fares: That’s been the biggest challenge of this game. How do you tell a story in co-op? That’s not really been done before. There were huge challenges. How do you pace the game? In a single-player story you can trigger different points much more easily. We’re here, and we trigger this cutscene. But here, we need to keep two players focused. I’m very happy that we’ve reached a point where we see players—we’ve done a lot of tests, and we see players getting focused and into the game.
GamesBeat: You don’t get to something like a wide open space?
Fares: It depends. There are areas where you have more room to walk around, but it’s not an open world. It’s a cinematic co-op experience. To be honest, I think some open world games—it’s more like open repetition? Some of them.
GamesBeat: You don’t know where the story goes. You get lost.
Fares: Sometimes, yeah. It’s just a completely different approach in an open world game compared to a cinematic game like this.
GamesBeat: As far as how much you want the player to control versus that cinematic aspect….
Fares: Well, I don’t think they go against each other. You can control it. That whole scene in the hospital, you control quite a lot. It’s just the transition that you don’t control. In A Way Out, I would say it’s much more controllable than most story games. It’s more like an action-adventure game.
GamesBeat: Are you conveying a lot of story through gameplay as well, like in Uncharted?
Fares: In Uncharted, though, normally you keep using pretty much the same mechanics. Taking down guards, for instance, you pretty much just have that in the part you saw. You take down maybe eight guards each and that’s it. There’s not going to be more of that.
GamesBeat: I saw Neil Druckmann talk at DICE. He talked about trying to convey some things in the story, like in Uncharted 2, where Nate can choose to be selfish or choose to help that injured cameraman. If you choose to help him, suddenly you’re limping along and you can’t do all the cool things that you used to. It changes the gameplay for a bit, and it’s not as fun to play, but it makes a point in the story.
Fares: See, what I question is whether fun gameplay is necessarily shooting and jumping and solving puzzles. Why can’t it be fun to make gameplay out of a love scene? Why is shooting necessarily what we think of as fun gameplay? I’m not sure. The question I ask is, can frying an egg be as much fun as shooting? I think it’s possible.
GamesBeat: Or can fishing be as much fun as running around?
Fares: Exactly. Did you like the fishing scene? It’s a great pause from everything else, I think. In many games, you tend to do the same thing again and again. We’re used to that, because for some reason we’ve decided to make games longer and longer, but for what reason, if they’re just repeating themselves? I’m overexaggerating, but you have many great games that I think fall on that aspect, that they repeat themselves too many times.
GamesBeat: Are you viewing this in some way more as a filmmaker might?
Fares: I don’t think so. I’m just trying to see a game from a different perspective, trying to push the boundaries all the time, trying to take a risk. Let’s put in a fishing scene there. Who cares if it’s a bit boring? I don’t give a fuck. This is what we’ll do. Let’s go with it. You can’t go around in life being afraid of everything.
GamesBeat: Do you recommend that people play it once as one character and the other time as the other?
Fares: Yeah, but I’m almost sure nobody will change their character in the middle of the game. Why? If it hasn’t happened until now, I don’t think it will happen. It interrupts the pacing, also.
GamesBeat: Did you always start with the two character idea?
Fares: Always, from the beginning. I can’t go into the details, but the whole essential design of this game is about being two people, from day one. It never would have changed for any reason. That’s the whole vision. You have to stay with your vision.
GamesBeat: Are you supposed to look at the other side of the screen?
Fares: Whatever you want. It doesn’t matter. It’s the same if you play couch or online. It’ll still be split-screen. Most people will focus on their screens, though, except for those scenes where we go full-screen co-op or whatever you want to call it. We also have this friends pass thing. If you buy one game, your friend can play online with you for free. They don’t have to buy it. You just buy one copy.
GamesBeat: Based on your Oscars comment, it seemed like you had strong opinions about film versus games.
Fares: You mean the game awards thing? The thing where I said, “Fuck the Oscars”? What happened there is, people were talking all the time, Oscars, Oscars, Oscars. I’m a passionate guy. I got caught up in the moment. I said, “Fuck the Oscars, let’s focus on this instead.” I think games should be more respected. I don’t have anything against the Oscars in that way. But I’m a crazy guy sometimes. I’m the guy who just says whatever comes to my mind.
GamesBeat: It’s an art form, then?
Fares: Games? When someone says to me that games aren’t art, I don’t even start the discussion. That’s how stupid I think that is. It’s beyond stupid. It’s so stupid that it’s insane. Do you think a painting is art? Anybody would say yes. That’s this small portion of making a game. Do people even say that anymore, that games aren’t art? Isn’t that just old news?
GamesBeat: Do you have more fun making games, then?
Fares: The thing is, compared to the movies — if I make another movie, it’d be like taking a vacation. That’s how much easier it is. Making a game is way harder. Interactivity makes everything more complex. I’m not saying it’s easy to make a movie, work in that passive medium. It has its complexity. But I’ve done six feature films and I’ve done two games. Making this game has been way more work than all six features put together.
When you let the audience loose, it’s almost like letting them loose on a movie set. They play with your camera and your actors. They fool around with everything. They can do whatever they want. That’s most of the work in games. It’s just preparing for what gamers could do and making them understand. From a production perspective, too, in games we haven’t learned as much. We don’t know as much about how to plan for a game and develop a game.
There’s a difference between being arrogant and being overconfident. I question everything. What about this? What about that? All the time. But believe in that vision in your heart, no doubt. It’s not as if I go into every scene thinking, “This is exactly what this is going to be like.” That’s a bad kind of security.
GamesBeat: I talked to one of the people who made Cuphead, and they said they were willing to be flexible about a lot of things, but where they put their foot down was, they wanted it to be really hard, like the old games they used to play. Everybody told them that they were going to lose a lot of players that way, and they didn’t care.
Fares: Exactly. That’s what I like. It’s the same thing here. People said that unless we made it single-player, we’d lose a lot of people. I don’t care. It’s not important. You have to take risks. You have to make it different. You feel it in here. I have no doubt in my mind about that at all. Nobody can convince me any other way. Maybe that’s a sickness?
GamesBeat: That’s why we won’t be breaking your legs?
Fares: I’m all open for it, but I said the same thing on Brothers, I think? The same journalist came up to me when I had the BAFTA in my hand. “I’m happy I didn’t break your leg.” That’s why I have to amp it up a little bit. Break a leg, arms, whatever you want to break. Tell everybody to come over. I can even give you my home address.
GamesBeat: With this, did you know your beginning and your ending when you started?
Fares: Oh, yes.
GamesBeat: I remember Druckmann saying they couldn’t bet on an introduction or an ending until they’d tested the gameplay for each. They were always creating prototypes and systems to see if they were fun, and if they weren’t fun, they’d have to toss them out and go back to rework the beginning of the game.
Fares: It makes sense. Neil Druckmann, I know him personally. I’ve been to Naughty Dog. They’ve seen this game. But the way I approach it—I don’t necessarily ask if this is fun? It’s more like, does this fit here? Gameplay doesn’t have to be fun all the time. Gameplay can be functional, or working. What is fun gameplay, really? What is fun? It’s not necessarily the right question to ask. Is it fun to shoot someone? Is it fun to jump around?
That’s why it’s hard to demonstrate A Way Out, because if I just let you go into a scene — if you experience the fishing scene right after you’ve been in the prison, where you’ve been all tied up and in these dark cells and everything, you come out and it’s like, “Oh, at last, I’m outside.” You go fishing in this beautiful environment. It has its purpose in that place.
GamesBeat: So you didn’t necessarily have a clash between where the story was going and where the gameplay was going?
Fares: At some points? Sometimes you don’t get the gameplay working with the story. Then you have to change it. But that’s part of game development. You prototype, try this, try that, it doesn’t work, try something else. There’s definitely a challenge to that. But that’s also what’s so exciting. You don’t really know what works and what doesn’t. That’s what’s so cool about this industry. It’s changing all the time.
GamesBeat: Did you have some inspirations behind the initial idea?
Fares: A lot of different ones. No one thing. Different movies. The Shawshank Redemption is a great prison movie. But the prison environment was chosen because I wanted to do co-op, and because I felt like that was an environment that isn’t used in games so often. Normally, when you’re in prison in games, you pretty much just press a button and get out. Here, I wanted it to take time for you to get out, so that once you’re out you think, “Whew, at last.” It feels like a relief.
I found some inspiration in Oldboy, you know that movie? It’s great, a Korean movie, South Korea. It has some really cool fight scenes. There’s some of that in the hospital, when you fight from that side perspective.
GamesBeat: It’s like Brothers in that you’re dealing with two people again.
Fares: In a sense? But that’s the opposite of this. That was single-player only and this is co-op only.
GamesBeat: Is there something more to the title?
Fares: A Way Out could be a way out of the prison, a way out of this life, a way out emotionally, a way out physically. I wanted the title to make people think of more than one thing, but it also just looks good. It’s the first time I came up with the title that I feel is good, actually. Everything I’ve done before — in games, in movies — I suck at coming up with titles. This is the first one I came up that worked really well, I thought. Brothers wasn’t me.
GamesBeat: For the game, did you want people to feel more than one experience as well?
Fares: Yes, but I don’t want to go into details. You’ll understand when you play it. Like I say, it’s really hard to demo this game. It’s hard to say, “This is the kind of gameplay you’ll run into.” Sometimes you’re fishing. Sometimes you’re taking these guys down. Sometimes you’re on a boat, sometimes on a bike. You’ll do a lot of different things.
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