Josef Fares of Swedish game studio Hazelight enjoys throwing out the F-word in interviews and stage talks. It’s a sign of his passion for video games, and the creator of Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons and A Way Out was at it again at the Gamelab conference in Barcelona.
Fares is as famous for his amusing outbursts, like when he said “F*** the Oscars” at the Game Awards, as he is for his games. He also famously said I could “break his legs” if I didn’t like his game. (I did). And in our interview at Gamelab, Fares said he enjoyed “f****** with the player’s mind” when I commented on the big plot twist at the end of A Way Out, which was published by Electronic Arts earlier this year.
His signature is to throw a mind-bending twist into his games. But he is clearly passionate about games and he doesn’t want to make movie-like games. Rather, he wants to find more ways to combine story with gameplay, as he did with the co-op play of A Way Out, where two players played two characters on a split-screen view at the same time. I played the game and thoroughly enjoyed it and was quite annoyed at how he mind-f***** me at the end.
I interviewed Fares along with Robert Purchese of Eurogamer. Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
Question: Did everything turn out the way you wanted for the game?
Josef Fares: With A Way Out? Yeah, we’re super excited. But of course you always want to push it further, do more, have more time, and have more money. Still, it’s been super good.
Question: I thought you’d fooled me at the end there.
Fares: I like to fuck with the player’s mind. It’s fun, you know?
Question: Enough time has passed that the spoilers aren’t as important now. What was the intention there?
Fares: The whole essence of the game is to create this bond of trust between the players, and then to trash it. That’s the whole idea. Everything you do up until then, and then the end comes. What we see, if you look at people who have played the game and how they react, it’s so strong, when that moment happens and you have to pit them against each other. That’s what I love about this. It’s really exciting to see how it fucks with people. I love that.
Question: It makes you feel like Brothers did, too.
Fares: It’s interesting. Some people have said that A Way Out has the worst ending ever in a video game. Which I like. That’s actually a compliment. When someone says your game has the worst ending ever? I like it! Don’t you want to have that? And also people say it’s the best ending. That polarizing means you’ve created a feeling, an emotion for the player.
Question: It makes more people curious about playing it.
Fares: Yeah, exactly.
Question: I’ve been reading a long interview about you. You’re a passionate guy, clearly, and you seem to talk about what your passions are. So now that this is over, what’s your passion now?
Fares: My passion is to always push the creative boundaries of what’s possible in gaming. I always want to do that, as much as I can.
Question: Are you working on your next game?
Fares: Yes, yes. We’re very early, but we’re working. The vision is there. We’re just trying to push the boundaries even more. We’re with EA again. I know people have a hard time believing this, but it’s super good support. I always tell people, I don’t care what publisher I’m with. It’s going to be the same. This is how I work. I respect the economic aspect, but nobody fucks with the vision. That’s what it’s about. That’s very important, and they know it at EA. They’re super supportive.
Question: How long has this new thing been in development?
Fares: Just a couple of months. We’re in early pre-production stuff. But after this vacation, about four weeks, we’re going to full production.
Question: Have you figured out the part where you’re going to fuck with our minds?
Fares: Yes, yes, that’s figured out already. The mindfuck is there already.
Question: Is it going to feel quite different to what you’ve done before?
Fares: I would say yes. Of course, in the same way, you feel a resemblance between Brothers and A Way Out. They’re very different, but you can feel it’s a Hazelight game. It will definitely be very different from both Brothers and A Way Out. In maybe two or three years we’ll show something? It takes so much time to make these games.
Question: Is the production itself bigger than A Way Out?
Fares: It’s bigger. It’s not triple-A big, but it’s bigger than A Way Out. Here’s the thing. For me, the time will go by like nothing. Boom, boom, we’re already releasing this? Time goes by fast when you’re having fun.
Question: Based on how A Way Out ended up, did you make some decisions about how to do the next one?
Fares: Not really? The feedback, I think, makes sense. Most of it I can accept. But some of it, no. I always follow my heart. For instance, when someone said that A Way Out is short, well, that doesn’t make sense. Half the players didn’t even finish the game.
Question: This was something you and Amy Hennig both talked about. Developers are making a lot of narrative games that people don’t finish.
Fares: It’s not only narrative. In general, we have to change the attitude. We need to talk about this. What’s the point of asking this question about replayability and how long games are? I’m not questioning how long a game should be, really. I’m saying, stop asking these questions. Let games be games. If you’re a person who values their time differently and you want 100 hours for your 60 bucks, buy a game like that, but that shouldn’t be part of the way people criticize games. How many people even replay games?
People told me that 50 percent of players completing A Way Out is actually a high number. That’s crazy. If James Cameron said, “Half the audience of Avatar left the theater before the end, I’m happy with that,” that’s crazy. It’s not okay, especially with narrative games. You can’t say the same thing about multiplayer games, but still, you hear it so often. How long is the game? In general, though, when you talk to players, they’ll say games are too long.
We have to make sure that developers focus on their games. Not making something that lasts a certain amount of time. That affects the game in the end. We should make the best game possible, not a game that fits a certain length.
Question: You want to target making a memorable game?
Fares: Yeah. The next game will be longer than A Way Out, but that’s because it makes sense for that game. Developers should focus on making the best game, not just making a game that ticks off boxes. That goes for everyone — for players, for reviewers, everybody. Why are we talking about replayability when nobody even finishes games? It doesn’t make sense. Everyone’s just on autopilot. We can talk about pricing. We can talk about how you value your time. But how often do you replay games, even great games? Not that often.
I know this is a very sensitive subject. People get very upset about it. But I’m fine. Let them go crazy about it. I think the majority actually agrees with me. A good example is something like Journey. That’s a great experience in only two hours. You can have a great experience that’s 30 hours, too. I’m not saying that we should make games shorter. But let the game decide how long it needs to be.
Maybe developers want to make something, but they just know. “Oh, this kind of game has to be this long, or we’ll be criticized.” Then they change it, but what happens then? It costs more money. They have to repeat themselves. They lose time for polish. It’s a bad effect.
Question: One more question about the ending. I felt like maybe I could have one more choice than you gave me.
Fares: No, no, no. That’s the thing. If I gave you a choice, that wouldn’t piss you off. The whole essence of the design is about not giving you that choice. Forcing you. The whole idea is to force you to make that decision, because it’s not about what you want. It’s about what the game wants you to feel. There was no doubt in my mind that there wouldn’t be three endings. Only two.
Question: Did that get into a pretty high level of feedback?
Fares: Some people said that, but I didn’t care. No, no. Never.
Question: What’s the feedback that you got the most often?
Fares: With A Way Out, I think we missed out on some more interactivity. Also, the ambition was here, but we weren’t such a big team. The way we talked about the game and marketed the game, many people thought we were triple-A. They didn’t understand who we are, so some people gave us some poor feedback on the shooting. They compared us to Uncharted. Okay, come on, we have one coder. I understand it. It’s a matter of how you talk about the game.
A Way Out, in a way, looked liked a triple-A game. Developers know that when you have a split screen, you can’t have the same graphic fidelity. You have to draw two scenes at the same time. But gamers don’t understand as well. Why doesn’t this look like Uncharted? When you split up Mario Kart you see the graphics taking a hit. It’s hard to make a good-looking game in split-screen all the time. People think you could just update Uncharted to split-screen, but you have to rethink everything.
That’s the feedback I think we should take in. There were some things in the script I needed to change, because I was too afraid they wouldn’t work gameplay-wise. I’ve learned a lot of things to make the next game better. But not the ending, at all. That was never gonna change.
Question: What do you want to push in the new game?
Fares: Telling a story, making an impactful story for gamers. That’s what I really want to push. How do we make game mechanics that actually tell the story for the player? Through the mechanics, create emotions for the player? This, I think, is super good. When you’re controlling something, you’re also feeling an emotion that you haven’t felt before. Even if you’re upset or irritated or whatever, I think it’s good.
Question: There’s an extreme to this thinking about storytelling. Robert Kirkman, at Skybound, has this writers’ room for The Walking Dead, and that’s the core value of everything they do, that writers’ room, coming up with one story after another.
Fares: The difference is, in a game, the story doesn’t have the same weight as in the movies. In movies, if you have a really great script, you can give it to a half-assed director and it’ll still be a good movie. But in games, if your game mechanic isn’t interesting, a good story isn’t enough. You have to have a mechanic, something you can play along with the story.
Question: If you’re investing, then, you’re not going to overweight the story.
Fares: No, no. I’ll definitely take the story seriously. But again, I think we’re still trying to find a way of telling stories in video games. We can definitely inspire each other. When you write a book, you have your tools. You know what to do. When you write a story for a movie, for the theater or something, it’s the same. But when you write a story for a game, we’re still learning about that. We shouldn’t just look at movies and how they do it and copy them. We should find what works for us, for our medium.
Question: What would you like to see from a next generation of consoles? What’s important to you? Or maybe it’s not necessary?
Fares: Again, the combination of mechanics and story. There’s an idea of what gameplay is today. It’s shooting, jumping, and solving puzzles. When you’re not doing any of that, people say there’s no gameplay. “Oh, this is just another walking simulator.” If you look at Edith Finch, I’d argue that there’s a lot of gameplay there. It’s just not the gameplay you expected. Why is it more gameplay to shoot someone in the head than to make love with someone? Is gameplay just responding to something by pressing a button to kill it? Why is that gameplay?
Question: Can you make a game about making love?
Fares: Yeah, I think so. I think you can definitely make it interesting. That’s why I don’t like to ask, “Is this game fun?” I think the word “fun” is overused in our industry. It should be, “Does this make sense for this scene?” For instance, Mario Galaxy 2, which I love, the mechanics make sense for that game. But you have to ask these questions. It’s not about whether the game is fun. Sometimes games can be fun. But there are scenes in, say, The Last of Us that aren’t fun at all. They’re impactful. That’s what I’m interested in. Combining the mechanics and the story together, that’s what I want to do.
Question: Have you played anything that’s really made you feel passionate in some way?
Fares: What Remains of Edith Finch was the last game that really made an impact on me. It’s so unfair when people say it’s a walking simulator. They’re really trying to make a very interactive experience. But it’s this idea we have that if you don’t kill someone — what is that? You push a button and you kill something, does that make it more gameplay-ey? It’s weird.
Question: I loved the fish factory.
Fares: Right! You’re doing stuff all the time. You’re not just walking and looking. You’re playing a game. For me, that was a very interesting game, from that perspective.
Disclosure: The organizers of Gamelab paid my way to Barcelona. Our coverage remains objective.