Josef Fares has strong opinions. The director of Hazelight Studio — whose latest co-op game, It Takes Two, is out today — rocketed into the spotlight at The Game Awards in 2017 with an off-the-cuff, impassioned speech about the joys of interactive video games that culminated in his meme-worthy “Fuck the Oscars!” line.
Years later, Fares (who, ironically enough, started off as a filmmaker) is still standing firm on his pro-game stance. “Look, my background is a filmmaker. The whole thing with ‘fuck the Oscars’ was actually kind of special,” he tells The Cheatselsword. “One, you have to remember when I was there on the set, everybody was talking, ‘Oh this like the Oscars, it’s like the Oscars.’ And I was like ‘Fuck the Oscars!’ because I was actually saying ‘Fuck the Oscars — because we should celebrate gaming now.’ It’s not that I have anything personal about the Oscars.”
It Takes Two is Fares’ third game, following Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons and A Way Out. Hazelight’s latest game takes a similar tack to A Way Out, in particular: it’s an exclusively co-op game that you can’t experience at all unless you’re willing to play with a friend or partner (either next to you on a couch or over the internet). According to Fares, the studio never even considered adding any sort of AI companion.
“They are designed from the beginning like that, so you have to communicate with someone,” he says. “It’s not possible to play with a random [person]. It’s not a matchmaking game where you are just randomly connected. If you want to play with someone you don’t know at all, you must have the ability to talk because if you’re not talking, you can’t progress.”
Communication is a fitting foundation for It Takes Two, which sees a husband and wife on the Cheatselsword of divorce who are then magically transformed into a pair of Pixar-esque dolls and forced by a magical talking book to work out their differences.
A Way Out offered a thematically compelling narrative pulled out of a crime novel that was let down by dull gameplay that didn’t actually do much to take advantage of the cooperative nature of the game. It Takes Two flips the script: it offers a bizarre, almost nonsensical story lifted up by clever cooperative mechanics. Each of the two characters tends to split up their abilities between levels. For example, an early level gives players a pair of guns — one character can fire sap, while the other ignites it.
The more diverse gameplay isn’t an accident. “We’ve become better at finding cold co-op mechanics that can be combined,” says Fares. “So you really feel the need of co-oping. Also, I talked a lot about marrying the story and the gameplay… we tried to connect the abilities to the character as well. With May, for instance — it’s her toolbox, so she has the hammer.”
The result, though, is that It Takes Two is a much more complex game than A Way Out. To start, it’s a platformer. And while it won’t demand the kind of pixel-perfect skills as something like Celeste or Spelunky, it’s a harder game to get into than the relatively simple A Way Out. Add in the (admittedly more interesting) new mechanics that change from level to level, and the game runs the risk of overwhelming newer or less experienced players.
Still, the resulting game is a unique one, despite the uneven storytelling. As Fares rightly comments, there’s almost no one else out there making these kinds of games. “Of course there are co-op games out there that have your campaign and your add-on co-op campaign and so on, but none are actually designing, writing everything from the beginning as we do at Hazelight.”
“I think that opens up… both creatively, but also the dynamics between the characters that you’re playing, that you’re using different abilities, how you can cooperate, and also what’s going on on the couch,” says Fares. “I think there’s so much stuff to explore there.” He views the experience as similar to watching a movie or a TV show: it’s something you do together. “So why not enjoy a story together in a game?”
And it’s that level of interaction that helps games stand out to Fares from film. “The whole idea is understanding that making the interactive experience [for a game is] totally different than a passive experience as a movie,” he says. “So I sometimes hear when they talk about ‘We should bring on more movie people [to make games].’ Sure, we can be inspired on how they tell stories and so on, but we need to find our own way to tell stories in an interactive way.”
And while Fares won’t give too many details on what Hazelight’s next project will look like or if it’ll be another co-op experience, he definitely thinks there’s more room for other developers to join in — and not just with optional cooperative experiences, like with survival games or shooters like Borderlands or Halo.
“We should have our single-player narratives; I love those. But I think there’s a market here, and I think people really appreciate this type of game, you know. To play something with someone that you love or a friend or a father or a mother or whatever — just experience something together and not just a shooter game, you know what I mean?”
It Takes Two is available now for PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X / S.