Sitting down with Josef Fares, and it’s pretty obvious that if you’ve seen his appearances on EA’s E3 stage or at The Game Awards, he is exactly like that in reality. He’s exuberant, he’s passionate, he wanders off on tangents – at one point as I search for my next question, he starts jokingly telling me of his haircare routine – and takes his examples to the extremes. It’s not the first question out of my mouth, but I do eventually ask him about his infamous “F*** the Oscars” moment at The Game Awards. Was he a few drinks down? Jet lagged? Maybe just caught up in the moment?
As Josef explained it, “What happened there was like, during the day everybody’s been talking about the Oscars – Oscar here, Oscar there – and when I went up there the idea was to talk about the Friends Pass, because the game is $29 and you don’t have to buy two copies, but then there was all this bullshit about loot boxes and everything, and I just reacted like ‘F*** the Oscars! This is more fun!’ So I started talking about all the loot boxes and everything because there’s not any loot boxes in this, there will never be in any game that I do, never.”
That obvious enthusiasm is infectious though, and it’s clear how much he’s put into A Way Out as he tries to create a game that he himself really wants to play. It’s fully co-op, all the way through, and with no AI backup in case you can’t find someone to play with. That shouldn’t be an obstacle though, because while it’s built around the idea of couch co-op and being sat right next to your partner, you can also play online and only one of you needs to own a copy of the game – the other can download a version of the game specifically to enable this.
“It makes sense for me, because if you play the game in couch co-op, it should be the same for you online. I don’t see the difference and if you ask me, I don’t care because most of the time games are too long, if you ask me. I’d rather have shorter experiences that are, you know, interesting, rather than have very long repetition going on and on.”
As we play together, we flit from one quick scene to another. Josef is keen to point out scenes and ideas that are unique one off moments within the game – it should be around 7-8 hours he tells us. On the run as Vincent and Leo bust out of prison, there’s a bit of stealth play, as we hide in thick shrubbery and knock cops out as though it was Assassin’s Creed or Splinter Cell. Later on, it’s fishing that’s a one off moment, then balancing in wheel chairs, playing Connect Four.
While being published under the EA Originals label, this is still an indie developer and that’s a pretty huge undertaking, whether it’s a little minigame or something more involved like the stealth play. Yes, a lot of these have been done in other games and it’s certainly much easier to quickly knock together a short little driving segment thanks to modern dev tools, but even so, to create something for just a two minute segment? That’s an impressive commitment.
“The idea came when me and a friend tried to find a co-op game that wasn’t just drop-in, drop-out,” Josef explained. “It’s not that I have something against them, I just felt that I want a game where I’m playing something with personality, a character, not just someone that’s levelling up or down.
“When we started making this game we didn’t really have anything to compare it with. It’s not really done this way, telling the story split screen the whole time. That made many challenges; how do you tell two different stories at the same time and keep the players engaged? Normally in co-op when you have issues, you skip the cutscene or stop listening or whatever, and [keeping people engaged] was way harder than I thought it would be.
A huge amount of this has been scripted, choreographed and acted out, but with either player able to take the lead, there’s a lot of overlap and they’ve had to account for that when designing story beat in the game. A fun tidbit is that it’s actually Josef himself that has donned the motion capture suit for Leo, and then his older brother Fares Fares who has provided the character’s voice.
There’s some really impressive variation in how the game has been constructed. Talk to one of the waiting patients in the hospital and there’s different tones and attitudes to the conversation depending on which of the two outlaws initiated the conversation, as well as then flowing differently depending on your dialogue choices. In a nice touch, as you’re here for the birth of Vincent’s child, if Leo goes up to the nurse at the front desk, you’ll be turned away as she can only reveal the room to a relative.
In some ways there’s common ground with the way that narrative adventures like The Walking Dead or Life is Strange are constructed, but instead of the story branching out, it’s the action. Coming to a bridge and needing to find a way past the cops patrolling it, there’s a choice between knocking a cop out, taking their car and driving over or trying to go under the bridge. It’s a choice that the two of you playing have to agree on, but whatever you choose, the gameplay diverges, you won’t have another “clambering under a bridge” or ‘stealing a cop car’ moment.
Josef said, “I would argue that these type of decisions that change the gameplay totally, which is way more work, are more interesting for the player. We have small scenes where it’s the cutscene that’s different, but mostly it’s gameplay. That, for me, if I could choose between having another cutscene or different gameplay, that’s the more interesting one.
“I mean, you know the secret behind the branching story is that they are not that branching, so I prefer having different gameplay instead. It’s cool to have branching stories as well, and I don’t know, maybe I could try, but I like to try something else. It’s why I keep saying to my team, ‘Let’s f*** shit up, let’s go!’ Even if they say, ‘Will this work?’ I don’t care if it works, let’s do it! What’s the point of life if you don’t take risks, man.”
You can also definitely see Josef’s cinematic flair coming through in the way that certain moments are framed. Much of the game will be played with a straight divide right down the middle of the screen – whether played locally or online, you always see this same split-screen presentation – and as one player engages in a conversation, the other can mess around in full view, spinning on the spot or walking into doors. However, as the action shifts and one player or the other, that presentation can easily change.
There’s perhaps a comic book feel to the way the screen is split, but Josef disagreed: “No, I’d say it’s more from my movie background to get the shot, and the natural way of doing a split screen game. There is a reason why we don’t see them too often, and doing a couch co-op like this and drawing two different screens at the same time, there’s a lot of technical problems with that. Mostly the decisions we take there are for telling a story or setting up the right scene for whatever is going on.”
One particular escape switches back and forth between the two players, giving one a brief break as the other sneaks or fights their way to get away. It’s a great set piece, keeping the pacing right up there, but giving each player a moment’s respite without feeling like it does. It feels almost like the video game equivalent of a single unbroken long take in cinema in the way it keeps your right in the moment. Again, Josef reminds me, that’s a one off moment.
I think what’s going to be fascinating is how A Way Out tries to draw you in to care about these characters. Vincent’s a convicted murderer, Leo has been serving time for armed robbery, but they’re still people, and there’s an interesting story to be told here. If Hollywood has taught me anything, it’s easy to make you root for the bad guys. The difference, of course, is that you’re doing this roleplaying with a buddy by your side.
After the critical acclaim of Brothers: a Tale of Two Sons, and seeing the invention that’s going into this game, there’s good reason to believe that Fares and Hazelight are creating something equally special with A Way Out.
One last word of advice, “Just make sure you play it in couch with someone that enjoys story. Not someone that just wants to shoot, shoot, shoot; then it’s better to play Gears of War. It’s not that type of game!”