Last December, Swedish Lebanese director and writer Josef Fares, the cofounder of Stockholm-based independent game developer Hazelight Studios, flew to Los Angeles to appear on the live stream for The Game Awards 2017, the gaming industry’s Oscars equivalent. The 40-year-old Fares, who made several feature films in the 2000s before transitioning to video games, was ostensibly there to present a trailer for Hazelight’s upcoming game, A Way Out. And he did, eventually. But before he—or, rather, increasingly discomfited host/human play-off music Geoff Keighley—threw to the trailer, Fares launched into an occasionally coherent viral rant.
“The Oscars should fuck themselves up,” said Fares, who later flipped off the Academy Awards for emphasis. “This is the shit! I’m telling you, this is the real shit: interactive gaming.”
Fares later explained that the point of his passionate, unfocused outburst was to goad the gaming industry into overcoming its artistic inferiority complex, which often manifests itself via game-makers measuring themselves against movie-makers. Fares, who’s been both, was arguing that games were a separate, and in some ways superior, pursuit. “It’s time for people to understand that games are, like, a serious art,” he said.
Although Fares’s literally show-stopping speech earned a lot of attention—almost certainly promoting A Way Out more effectively than he would have had he stuck to the script—his first game, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, had already expressed the same argument wordlessly and with even more force. Brothers, which came out in 2013—originally as a downloadable title on Xbox 360, and later on many more platforms—tells the story of an older and younger brother who set out to save their sick father by journeying through a fantasy setting and collecting a life-giving fluid from a distant tree. The player controls both brothers simultaneously, with one’s movement mapped to the gamepad’s left joystick and trigger and the other controlled by the right.
The unique control scheme, which at first feels like the gaming equivalent of rubbing one’s belly while patting one’s head but soon starts to seem instinctive, enables Brothers to deliver one of the most memorable endings in recent gaming history. In the game’s climactic battle, the older brother is mortally wounded, and dies before the younger brother can revive him with the Water of Life. The player, operating the bereaved younger brother, then buries the older brother using only one joystick and trigger—a physical reflection of an emotional loss.
When the surviving brother returns to his village to save his father, he finds deep water in his way, forcing him to swim—something he couldn’t do at the beginning of the game, when he had to cling to his older brother’s back. The only way to reach the opposite shore—and, immediately afterward, to pull a lever and climb a cliff (both “older brother” abilities)—is to use the trigger that originally controlled the now-absent sibling. That realization is left entirely to the player, with no on-screen instruction to spoil the surprise and significance of the symbolic act.
Video doesn’t do the moment justice, because video can’t capture the controller input or the player’s epiphany. Gaming’s greatest asset, interactivity, makes the moment. Fuck the Oscars, indeed.
Much of the team behind Brothers followed Fares to Hazelight to work on A Way Out, which came out late last month on Windows, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One. Brothers was a critical and financial success, but A Way Out is bigger and more ambitious, and has already reached a higher sales stratosphere. Brothers moved more than 800,000 copies in its first 18 months; A Way Out, which was published by behemoth Electronic Arts through its indie-centric “EA Originals” program, moved more than a million in a matter of weeks, exceeding EA’s internal forecasts. A Way Out is roughly twice as long, and where Brothers, which featured a fictional, nonsensical language, relies largely on actions, expressions, and context clues to tell its tale, A Way Out enlists a more conventional combination of cutscenes and dialogue.
On the surface, A Way Out is more movie-like: Set in 1972, it stars Vincent and Leo, two prison inmates united in anger against the double-crossing crook, Harvey, who helped put them inside. Together, they break out of the fictional California clink and hunt down Harvey, who’s holed up in a mansion in Mexico. Despite its cinematic premise and realistic-looking environments, though, A Way Out is clearly descended from Fares’s first game. Brothers is a one-player narrative adventure about cooperation between characters. A Way Out is a two-player narrative adventure about cooperation between people. One player controls rational and reserved Vincent, while the other—either connected via the internet or, for maximum camaraderie, sitting in the same room—operates impulsive and hotheaded Leo (played by Fares’s brother). A split-screen display enables each player to see what the other is doing, encouraging coordinated activity, and at several junctures, the game presents multiple paths, prompting the players to pick the same one to proceed.
A Way Out starts slowly, tasking the two players with creating diversions and avoiding detection by guards, then dials up the adrenaline after Vincent and Leo escape from their confining surroundings at the beginning of the game, reuniting with their wives and kids and then devoting themselves to revenge. Much of the five-to-six-hour experience features a Telltale-esque mixture of exploration, light puzzling, and quick time events; a few driving and shooting sequences provide relief from that familiar moveset, even though they feel like clunkier covers of more action-oriented games. The game’s greater scope takes a toll on its polish: The pacing and tone fluctuate wildly, the writing and voice-acting are nowhere near Oscar quality (not that Fares would consider that the standard), and the unremarkable graphics get glitchy in some scenes. Unevenness notwithstanding, though, the game succeeds in provoking the player’s empathy, and its cooperative elements foster a bond between players that’s mirrored in their avatars’ growing rapport.
Like Brothers, A Way Out uses its unusual mechanics to manipulate emotion, teaching the player one way to play and then upending the formula in an unforgettable endgame. A Way Out’s twist comes after the two escaped cons kill Harvey and fly back to California. When they land, the law surrounds them on the tarmac. As the two fugitives wait with hands up, an FBI agent approaches and hands Vincent a gun, which he reluctantly turns on his friend. Vincent, an undercover agent, has been playing Leo all along.
In pulling the narrative rug out from the players’ feet, the game gets complicated. The revelation reframes the story in retrospect, leading to ludonarrative dissonance, or conflict between narrative and gameplay: For one of the good guys, Vincent kills (or aids and abets Leo in killing) quite a few police. (In A Way Out’s defense, Vincent really is avenging his brother, whom Harvey killed, and at branching plot points, he always advocates the less violent course.) It also runs the risk of alienating the player: Whereas in the acclaimed 2007 game BioShock, the protagonist, Jack, discovers the true nature of his mission at the same moment the player does, in A Way Out the player who’s been controlling Vincent belatedly learns that the character he or she was growing attached to had hidden motives all along. If Fares had found a way to clue in the player controlling Vincent from the start without also alerting Leo’s human handler, it might have enriched the reveal by making the Vincent-player complicit in the deception. As it is, though, both players feel betrayed in one way or another, which sets the stage for an almost-flawless finish.
The twist isn’t entirely unforeseeable—it’s quite a coincidence that two inmates with a grudge against the same guy are assigned to adjacent cells—but it’s wrenching regardless; even watching people play A Way Out’s finale delivers a vicarious thrill. For roughly the last half hour, A Way Out brilliantly shapeshifts from a cooperative game into an adversarial one. Leo eludes capture and takes Vincent hostage, and the resulting manhunt culminates in an indoor firefight that pits the two players against each other in a sequence straight out of a competitive shooter. For the first time in the game, each player has a health bar that the other whittles down bullet by bullet, thereby becoming the boss of their former partner’s playthrough.
Until it takes a competitive turn, A Way Out’s mechanical simplicity makes it a good game to play with a friend or family member who’s less adept at on-screen slaughter. Inevitably, though, that accessibility sets up a mismatch during the final firefight. As Vincent, I wiped away my wife’s Leo as ruthlessly as I’m often dispatched by very good gamers online. It had to be done, and I didn’t enjoy it. If anything, the easy victory only deepened the guilt that I felt about backstabbing someone who’d thought we were on the same side. I wasn’t a passive participant, observing from a distance as the plot played out. I was the one doing the deed.
This was “the real shit” that Fares referenced in his speech—the powerful sensation, several hours of couch co-op in the making, that he’d described as “an interactive experience where you can feel it in your heart.” Like Brothers, A Way Out conjured a meaningful, emotional moment in a manner that only an interactive art form could. This wasn’t a “cinematic” moment. It was more than a movie—even an Oscar-winner—could hope to bring about.
Yet almost immediately after A Way Out demonstrated the potential of interactivity, it reminded me of where its limits often lie. After the firefight (and an ensuing fistfight), Vincent and Leo lie on a roof, broken and bleeding. Then they spot a gun some distance away, and begin dragging themselves toward it. The faster each player presses a button, the faster their character crawls. The first person to get to the gun picks it up, points it at the other player, and fires, triggering the last cutscene in a literal sense.
In his 2017 memoir, Significant Zero, the game writer Walt Williams explains the thinking behind his 2012 shooter Spec Ops: The Line, which was celebrated both for portraying war in an unglorified light and for eschewing the simplistic moral choices—virtuous option A and evil option B—with which games too often present players. “If we wanted our game to truly be compelling, the underlying question of our choices couldn’t be, ‘What is right and what is wrong?’” Williams writes. “We needed to attack the core of our own game by asking the player, ‘What are you going to do with the gun in your hand?’”
To illustrate how Spec Ops went beyond binary choices, Williams describes a scenario that he and his team dubbed “the Hanging Men.” In one of the game’s middle chapters, the player’s squad encounters two prisoners who’ve been strung up by Konrad, the game’s Colonel Kurtz–like Big Bad. Konrad demands that the player pick one to spare and one for his snipers to execute. But the game gives the player options, each one of which has a consequence. Leave the area, and the snipers kill the protagonist and the two prisoners. Attack the snipers, and they shoot the hanging men. Shoot the ropes, and the snipers pick off the prisoners as they flee. Kill one of the hanging men, and the other survives. There’s no way to save both, but the sequence still asks the game’s core question. “In the case of the Hanging Men,” Williams writes, “the possible answers were ‘Exactly what the game tells me to do’ or ‘Whatever the hell I want.’”
A Way Out doesn’t ask that question. It only offers an answer. When my Vincent got to the gun and aimed it at an unarmed, unmoving, and unthreatening Leo, I didn’t fire at first. Maybe I could hold him at gunpoint until the cavalry arrived? No; nothing happened, and the longer I waited, the sillier-looking the standoff became. Maybe I could fire over his head, or hit him in the arm? No. The game declined to continue unless I aimed center mass and finished off my friend, for no other reason than to make the credits roll. There wasn’t a way out after all.
From there, the two characters hold hands as the wounded one slips away. The scene looks like the ending of Heat—no Oscars there, either—with a gradually weakening controller rumble representing a fading heart. Sometime later we see the survivor, wearing clean clothes and a dirty conscience, visiting his victim’s home to tell Leo’s wife that she’s a widow or deliver Vincent’s last letter.
But for me, the rest was ruined. “A moral choice should be dirty and dangerous and frightening,” Williams writes. But instead of forcing me to make a choice, the game had compelled me under duress to stick to its script. In what might have been its most traumatic moment, A Way Out took me off the hook, leaving my conscience lamentably clean. This wasn’t true interactivity; this was puppetry, and the strings were exposed.
At its best, A Way Out’s ending made the most of its medium. At its worst, I might as well have been watching a movie. And not one that would win an award.