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Josef Fares Is Keeping Couch Co-Op Gaming Alive

The head of Hazelight Studios talks about his company’s latest game, ‘It Takes Two,’ and the promise of the medium as immersive art

Getty Images/Electronic Arts/Ringer illustration

Josef Fares used to make movies. Now he makes video games as the head of Hazelight Studios, the game design company he founded in 2014. The Swedish-Lebanese director’s transition to interactive entertainment began with Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, the 2013 title he helmed for Starbreeze Studios. With Hazelight, he’s spearheaded the development of A Way Out (2018) and It Takes Two, the latter of which was released last month for Windows as well as last-gen and current-gen PlayStation and Xbox consoles. All three games garnered critical acclaim, and A Way Out and It Takes Two were published by Electronic Arts as part of its indie-oriented EA Originals label.

Brothers is a fantasy tale about two brothers who set off to find a cure for their father’s illness. A Way Out is a story about escaping from prison and exacting revenge. It Takes Two follows Cody and May, a married couple on the verge of divorce who are transformed into dolls by their daughter’s tears and forced to platform, puzzle, fight, and fly their way back to their bodies. The title of Fares’s latest release could also apply to his earlier ones: Each entry in the spiritual trilogy features a team-up between two protagonists. Both It Takes Two and A Way Out require cooperative play in a split-screen format, though only one player has to have purchased the game. By embracing the beloved but endangered co-op format, Fares and Hazelight have helped prop up the flagging fortunes of local co-op, or “couch co-op,” which has fallen by the wayside in this always-online age.

Fares, 43, who’s also famed for his “fuck the Oscars” speech at The Game Awards 2017, spoke to The Ringer this week about the development of It Takes Two, the evolution of his co-op gameplay, why he has high hopes for the future of couch co-op, and storytelling in movies versus video games.

My wife and I recently played Super Mario 3D World and Pikmin 3. They’re both good games with good co-op modes, but they sometimes make us annoyed at each other. I’m saying, “No, go there, do this,” and she’s saying, “No, do this, do that.” When we play your games, we don’t experience that sense of frustration. You seem to stress collaboration over competition.

I have to start by saying that I think many people are missing [something]. They’re calling It Takes Two or A Way Out a co-op game, and of course it is a co-op game, but it is a co-op game unique of its kind. It’s a narrative co-op game only, which means it’s designed and written, made from the beginning, as co-op. The games you talked about—Pikmin, Mario—those games are single-player games that can also be played as co-op. There’s a great difference there.

When you’re playing a game that’s designed for co-op, it’s done so that the communication is key. Frustration is not supposed to be there. When you design a single-player game and then you add co-op to it, you have to adapt it. In It Takes Two, in A Way Out, you cannot play alone, it’s impossible. It’s almost part of the story that you are playing through, so that is a huge difference.

What have you learned about what works well or doesn’t work well in co-op?

We as a team have learned a lot, obviously. Both from Brothers, [when] we were smaller, and then into A Way Out, and then into It Takes Two. In A Way Out, we were quite a new team. A lot of our team were interns and freshly out of school. All of them have now become kick-ass people who really know how to make great games and scenarios, and we also have learned a lot about how to create interesting co-op scenarios [with] really cool ideas of how to combine the mechanics to create something unique. We also mastered the split screen, art-wise and sound-wise and design-wise. So in every respect, we have become better at what we’re doing, and we’re going to keep getting better and better. But I would say what we have learned most is how to create way cooler co-op scenarios.

What’s the key to a cool co-op scenario?

Finding mechanics that communicate very well with each other. In It Takes Two, that’s what we’re really trying to do, find the mechanic that [lets] both players feel that they are collaborating, that the mechanic means something, and that it combines well with your partner. So this is not like if you have a co-op shooter where you can shoot alone as you choose. That doesn’t require as much communication as this game.

A shared screen like Super Mario 3D World’s can become a source of frustration when one person wants to go here and the other wants to go there. With a split screen, you can each go your own way. But what are the limitations of the split-screen approach?

Even online, some people ask, “Why can’t we play it in full screen?” But all the communication builds on the idea that you can see your friend’s screen at the same time, see what’s going on. That’s how we designed these games, so they are a couch co-op game that you can play online. They’re not an online game that you can play couch co-op. They are very social, and the point is you keep communicating and knowing what your friend is going to do and not do. Obviously, limitation-wise, when you have a split screen, you will always see the other characters. There’s a lot of technical aspects to this, but art-wise, we are quite limited because we’re rendering two screens at the same time.

It’s easier to pace and control the player when it’s single player. You can lead the player a little bit easier. Let’s say in a single-player game, you create a sequence or trigger point that says, “When you are here, trigger this.” But here, you can’t, because you don’t know where the other player is. You’re not in control. The other player could be on the total other side. Another example could be if I want to cut to an animation, if the other player’s looking at you, you’re going to see the popping. You don’t do that if you’re playing single player.

Despite those constraints, It Takes Two is a good-looking game.

I think it looks awesome considering that it’s in split screen. People forget about the idea that if it’s a split-screen game, you have to render two screens. When you play Super Mario Kart and you play split screen, you immediately see the resolution, everything, go down. You see the texture or details go down. We have to do that throughout the whole game. From that perspective, I think our artists—and our coders have been optimizing a lot—have done an amazing job. It’s one of the best-looking games out there, considering it’s done and it’s rendered in split screen. And don’t forget that it runs at 60 frames per second, and it runs at 60 FPS not only on PS5 and Xbox One X, but also on PS4 and Xbox One, with different resolution.

You’ve mentioned Portal 2 as an example of a co-op game that you admire. Are there others that were influential for you?

Portal 2 is the only one that I really, really, enjoy and love. Other than that, you do have your single-player games that you can play co-op. There’s no specific one, but I just felt that Portal 2 felt really made for co-op, at least that campaign, which I really liked. It’s more that we have been inspired from other single-player games. I’m a huge fan of Nintendo, obviously, so that has been an inspiration.

So it sounds like you’re not really trying to recapture some formative gaming experience you had. You’re trying to make a kind of game that you wished existed.

Yes, more like that. Before A Way Out, me and my friend tried to find something, a similar type of game like A Way Out, like a story together that had unique characters, that had the unique stories, and we played with the idea that it would be really cool if you had your own character with almost their own abilities. That’s how it pretty much started.

The Nintendo Switch version of Brothers comes with a co-op mode, and even in the original versions, people would sometimes share a controller to play together. Did you initially envision Brothers as a co-op game?

No. The whole idea, if you played it from beginning to end, is that you are controlling these two brothers, and you connect with them physically with your arms. So it is a co-op game, but it’s for one player. I know some players share the controller stick, but when you do that, you kind of go against the actual design of what the game is about, because—without spoiling—what happens in the end has to be experienced. It’s literally a physical loss. And there is an idea of the left arm, the one you used to control that you don’t use anymore. So you really take away the essence of the design of the game.

I wasn’t involved in the actual Switch port. Of course, they contacted me, but when they said they were going to try that, I was like, “OK, you know what, the game has been out there so long, try it out. Why not?” If people want to do that, they’re still sharing the control stick anyway. So it’s not really a co-op mode, it’s just that instead of people sharing the controller, you can literally take one stick each. So for me, it’s not really a co-op add-on, it’s just making it easier, because I know a lot of people played it with one controller.

The upcoming Dark Alliance game, Dungeons & Dragons: Dark Alliance, was supposed to support local co-op, as its predecessors did. Recently the developers admitted that they’d gotten ahead of themselves, and that the game won’t include local co-op, at least at launch. That seems like a symptom of the decline of couch co-op across the industry. To what would you attribute that decline?

I think it’s sad, to be honest. I would love for games to be done like A Way Out and It Takes Two, co-op only, because you have to design it differently, because you have to write the story differently, design the puzzles, the challenges, everything differently. Before A Way Out, even EA didn’t believe in the concept that this will sell, but after A Way Out’s success, I thought more publishers would go for this. A Way Out has sold almost 4 million units. That’s a huge number, which means that there is definitely a market out there. So why not do a narrative, co-op-only game?

That’s the kind of game I would love to play, so I feel it’s sad that it’s not [more common]. At the same time, I can understand, because if you’re going to do your single-player campaign, then add on a couch co-op, it’s not as simple as just writing in, like, “Make split screen,” and pressing enter. You have to have it with you from the beginning in design. Otherwise, it’s really harsh. I can imagine some developers maybe thought they could do it, and then it’s not worth it because they have to optimize everything, they have to make their single player look visually worse, there’s so much stuff going on. We still get couch co-op, but I hope it comes more [often].

Given the rise of online multiplayer, some developers probably feel like “Well, we have a multiplayer mode already, so we don’t need co-op.”

Yeah, but again, look at A Way Out, It Takes Two. These are not small games. A Way Out has sold more than some Triple-A titles. And It Takes Two is looking very promising, so there is a market for this. It’s almost like before, when people said that single player was about to die. No, it’s not, and couch co-op and games like that definitely have a fan base.

How did you sell EA on the concept of a co-op-only game with free “Friend Pass” support?

EA has zero input on creativity and 100 percent support. I don’t have to convince them. I just say, “This is what we’re going to do,” and they say, “OK.” They can ask some questions, that’s it. They’re super supportive. Nobody believes this, but I can only speak for us and my studio. So there’s no convincing, there’s no nothing. This is what we want to do, and that’s what we do.

However, this is a more complex question. You have to understand, we are a smaller company, so we can probably take more creative risks. But a company like EA, Activision, Nintendo, whatever, is a big company with a lot of shareholders. And remember, the shareholders, that’s the wrong part of capitalism. Things have to grow all the time, which means that every big company will at one point make a stupid decision. That goes for EA, for Nintendo, for Activision, because the shareholders want to grow all the time.

However, at Hazelight, I’m being very clear with EA: “This is what we do, and this is how it’s going to be done.” But if I start asking for $100 million budgets and I start to say, “Oh, we want to do exactly what we want,” it’s different. I can’t just say, “Fuck yeah, I do whatever I want, give me the $100 million.” It doesn’t work like that. So you have to meet in the middle. As long as we can deliver something great and they support us, what’s the problem? When I talk to EA, I say to them, “Look, this is what we do.” So whatever shareholders say—this and that—no, it won’t go with us. This is the way we do games, that’s it. They have to understand that we are not their 20-million-unit [game with a] blah, blah, blah budget.

You’ve gone from a three-hour game to a six-hour game to a roughly 12-hour game. Are your games going to keep doubling in length?

Oh, no, no, no, no, no. It’s quite sad to see when people are screaming about how long games should be, and we are seeing extremely sad statistics on how many people finish games. One of the greatest games ever, The Witcher 3, like 30 percent [of players] finished that game, which is madness. [According to the latest stats on Steam, only 25.9 percent of The Witcher 3 players have finished the game on any difficulty level.] Twenty-five million, I think, sold, so it’s like, what, 7, 8 million played the game? The rest didn’t. Which means it’s a mass psychosis in the world when everybody’s talking about replayability, when we have a huge problem that people aren’t finishing our games.

I don’t have a clue what’s going on. Statistically, I think that the people that replay games are actually [rarer] than the people who buy the game and never start a game, because there are statistics for that as well. So the statistics are telling us something, but we’re focusing on something else. It doesn’t mean I’m against replayability. You can replay your games however you want. The problem is that when you designed it around that, when everybody pushes for that, when everybody talks about that, when you create too-long levels because of that, it affects the creative aspect of the games. Then I see it like, why are we doing so much because of the 0.0 percent of people who might replay a game?

I think a game should be as long as it needs to be. [With] It Takes Two, I’m going to wait and see what the numbers are saying, like how many people finish the game, if we’re seeing a decline. In A Way Out, we had 51 percent, which everybody’s like, “Wow, that’s a great number.” Why should I be happy that 50 percent of the people didn’t finish the game? It’s almost like making a movie and half the audience walks out of the cinema. That’s madness. Nobody’s talking about this. And then, of course, someone says, “Well, I replay games.” Yeah, happy for you, but that’s not how the world [plays]. It’s like we’re adapting the whole industry for an extremely [small] percentage of people.

You crammed a lot of genres into It Takes Two. What was the most difficult or time-consuming type of gameplay to program?

Some mechanics take a lot of time. For instance, when we have the fighting on the plane, there’s a huge amount of time put into that, and you only play it for one minute. But I think the team is used to it now. That’s something I’ve been pushing for a lot—variety, creating so many mechanics. Not only do we have to create them, we have to polish them. So we had that in the back of our heads as well, like, “OK, we have to be able to polish everything,” because just to have different mechanics doesn’t help.

The idea with the mechanics is not only to make the game varied and feeling fresh all the time, but also it should reflect what goes on in the story, which means whatever happens in the story will be reflected in the gameplay. If you meet a couple of squirrels with some weird tic, you play that. If you come across a fidget spinner, you play that. So the whole idea is that all the time, you’re playing the stories, you’re more invested in what’s going on.

Of course, there’s a lot of challenges. I know sometimes people are saying, like, “Why are we putting so much time into a squirrel fight on a plane when [it lasts for] such a short time?” But I compare it to a movie. In games, we keep reusing cool stuff because it takes a long time. But it’s not like in a movie, when you have a great scene, you’re just, “Oh, this is such a cool scene. Let’s play it again for the audience.” You don’t do that. It takes away the specialness of it. But we are getting better and better at doing different mechanics and still being able to polish them, and we’re going to continue to do that.

Was the premise of It Takes Two inspired by a real relationship?

No, not really, but I say inspiration comes from everything you do in life. It could be stuff you’ve seen or heard. So there’s definitely something inspired from my own life, but there’s not a specific relationship.

At the end of the game, you leave the relationship open-ended—it’s not necessarily happily ever after. Was there ever a version where they do definitively break up?

We went a bit back and forth on that. At first, they weren’t going to be together. But we still felt that the tone of the game in the end became so warm and nice and heartfelt, so it felt really good to have kind of a mixed ending. We don’t really know if they’re going to get together or not. If we would go the other way, I think it would be a bit too dark. Here, there is a bit of opening, but we don’t really know. It’s more like that they’re going to become friends, but it doesn’t really say if they’re going to stick together or not.

Now that Hazelight has established a reputation for making narrative, co-op-only games, do you feel pressure to stay in that lane? Would Hazelight making a nonnarrative, co-op-only game be viewed like Bob Dylan deciding to go electric?

I think it’s an underrated genre. There’s so much to be explored here, and there’s not many games done like this. I don’t feel the pressure. We’re going to continue to do what we believe in, and if it’s not a co-op game or it’s a more single-player game, then that’s what it is. As long as you feel your heart pumping when you think of the idea, that’s the most important part. So it’s definitely not [certain] that we’ll only do co-op; however, there’s just so much stuff to explore there. The next game, I think, will get close to what we have done before. But with that said, it doesn’t mean that we won’t do anything different in the future.

What links do you see between the three games that you’ve made?

The connection between the narrative and gameplay, and the story told for the two people. The lack of collectible stuff, but that the worlds are interactive and that the gameplay is trying to be part of the storytelling.

Do you find the fantastical settings of Brothers and much of It Takes Two either more or less stimulating than the realistic tone of A Way Out?

No, it’s not like that. For the next game, for instance, the ground vision is there, but now we are starting to explore everything. I don’t know, I never think of it like that. It’s just, “OK, this is what we’re doing,” and then everybody starts to go crazy. Like I say in the studio, “Everybody start to fuck shit up here.” It’s a word I use a lot to push everybody here at the studio to do some things that they never expected to do, and I think many people that come work at Hazelight are actually surprised by the level of creativity that we’re able to reach.

The next game we’re doing is very different from everything else. It’s just nice to almost start over and do something completely from the beginning. That’s why I will never say never, but I think to make a sequel, [there’s] just so much stuff that we can explore for now until we’re going to make that.

Are the narratives that you’re crafting compatible with player choice? I’m thinking of the ending of A Way Out, where you thought it was important for the player to do what you wanted them to do, even if that wasn’t what they wanted to do.

The player shouldn’t always choose. It’s not always up to the player. I know some people are going to get really upset. I know people got super upset over The Last of Us Part II, for instance, like, “I don’t want this, I don’t want that.” Yes, maybe not, but that is the intent of the game. That’s the idea. Those are the feelings you’re supposed to feel. You cannot always have the power to choose what you want. That’s not what games are about. Choices are in some games, but they’re not in all games, so it’s really weird that some players feel, like, “I want to choose everything.” No, this is the story that’s supposed to be told.

In A Way Out, it was extremely important that they didn’t have a choice. The whole essence and idea of that game is that you get super upset. That is a compliment. Some games let you choose, but a lot of games don’t. I think sometimes people mix up that [feeling of] “Oh, this is bad,” just because they felt emotionally impacted. They should instead change it to “OK, I’m feeling something, that is a good thing.” Sometimes, that design doesn’t want you to have a certain choice.

In video games, people expect interactivity, and sometimes they expect that to extend to everything, including the story.

Yeah, but not all story games are like that. I would say there are more games that don’t let you choose the story than do let you choose.

The controller mechanic in Brothers and the head-to-head boss battle in A Way Out make for moments that would be hard to replicate in any noninteractive medium. Having made movies and video games, do you find that there’s greater potential for some types of storytelling in video games?

In the future, it might be, for sure. I think it’s going to get better and better, and I think at the end of the day, an emotional impact on people, that’s what they want in the end. And if you can get it in an interactive medium, I think it can become more impactful and stronger. But I don’t think we are there yet. We haven’t had the same time as books or movies have had to develop their craft. So we just need more time to get better and better at that. But I think at the end, when we get really skilled at it, we will definitely be better at this. And I believe it will be, in a sense, stronger and more impactful than a movie.

It does seem that filmmakers have discovered the latent potential of video game stories. So many games are being adapted into TV shows or movies.

Yeah, for sure. But you have to ask yourself—movies came at the end of the 1800s, so I think in the beginning of 1900, if you asked someone, “Do you think this movie thing will become as impactful as reading a great adventure book?,” people would say, “Nah, I don’t know.” Because in the early 1900s, movies were extremely basic and simple. There was no sound, no color, nothing. Compare that to a super cool book with a great adventure. I think many people were like, “Yeah, movies will never get there.” I’m not saying we’re that early, but I think we need time to develop and craft how to write video games.

Would you want people to make movies of A Way Out or It Takes Two, or would you worry that they would be inferior versions?

I think sometimes people make too many comparisons between movies and games, especially when I see writers and people coming from the movie industry that don’t know so much about gaming. You have to understand when writing for a movie and writing for a game, the way that you write a script and the way you write a book are two different ways of writing. And the way to write a game, we would need to find its own way. So we should get inspired from other mediums, but we should understand that games are games and movies are movies. To answer your question, yeah, it would be fun if people made a movie out of it. But at the end of the day—and it’s what’s happening already—movies are starting to look at video games and [are] looking up to video games and what they really are. It’s time for movies to step down.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.