While you’re able to read our thoughts on It Takes Two, the newest co-op only title from Josef Fares and his team at Hazelight, we were also able to sit down for a one-on-one with the man himself, who is often considered one of the industry’s biggest, and most outspoken, personalities.
He shared his thoughts on what constitutes value for money in video games, how he marries story and mechanics in his games, as well as his experience embodying a love-matic tome, hellbent on mending the failing marriage at the heart of It Takes Two’s fresh, heartful romantic-comedy plot.
Like A Way Out, It Takes Two has no single-player option. What compels you to develop these uniquely collaborative experiences that force gamers to come together?
Well here’s the thing, what we’re doing at Hazelight is a world exclusive, nobody is doing what we do. The whole idea that you create a co-op game only from the get-go, it’s written, designed from the beginning that way and that’s what makes it feel fresh and different.
Now I thought after A Way Out – after the success of A Way Out – that more games would be like that. But I’m surprised we don’t see more like that, you see plenty of single-player games with co-op, drop-in, drop-out but you can’t drop out of this game. You really need each other.
And I do believe you can tell really strong stories and you want to experience stories together, just like we experience movies together. I think in co-op games there’s an underestimated creativity that hasn’t been explored yet and that’s what we’re doing at Hazelight, trying to push this “genre” that we came up with, in a sense, because we’re the only one doing this right now.
I just wish there were more people out there, you know? I just think it’s exciting to have two dynamic characters with two different mechanics most of the time, creating friction between both the players on-screen and the players on the couch, as you saw in Brothers and A Way Out of course. This game will test the level of your relationship.
It already did, it already did. For sure…
Oh, was it your partner?
No, no, he was another writer but still, we’re comfortable enough with each other to yell at each other.
I love just how many small mechanics you jam into It Takes Two, many of them one and done. How hard is it to create a game where you have twenty, thirty, forty, even fifty game mechanics? I don’t want to spoil anything for readers, but there’s a Street Fighter moment in this game!
That scene took half a year to make and you play it for one minute.
My team can sometimes be upset and ask things like why we’re even doing this, but they’re used to it right now.
I think the hard thing is you not only have to create all of these moments, but you have to polish them and make them crisp. And I think we really did. But you have to understand, it’s not just the mechanic that’s unique, the boss it goes with is unique.
For instance, take the Wasp boss that you guys met, you can’t use the hammer and nail to take that out. You see, it’s not only the mechanic itself, it’s everything around it, it’s like creating several separate games. Now with that in mind, imagine that you also have to make a game that feels coherent, when you play it feels like the same game, it still feels like It Takes Two.
So that’s a big part of the challenge: how do you change the mechanic and still keep it fluid? I’d say Nintendo is a big inspiration to not have a lot of pop-in tutorials, and I think we really hit that. We’ve seen it in our testing, people pick it up and it feels so natural in a sense.
Let me ask you: When you looked at the trailer and when you played the game, what’s the difference you feel here? I’m just curious.
The trailer to me initially, especially after A Way Out, made the game seem more mini-game-focused. But having played it, it definitely wasn’t that. Every moment felt worth it and more fleshed out than you’d expect. “Less chaotic, but more chaotic.” That’s my feeling.
It’s interesting you say that because it’s been hard to explain to people this game, like what game is it? It’s really hard, but we’re seeing now, when people have the game in their hands they click with what it is.
I think the gameplay trailer, the latest one, gives it a better feeling as opposed to the first one.
You’re right, I think it’s intriguing. It still captures the imagination in the game.
We obviously have our fanbase from A Way Out so I think we’ll be good there and people will be keen. We’re also going to release the first hour – up to the first two bosses – for free.
We’re so sure it’s a kick-ass game, we just want people to try it.
I know you hate talking about the length of games, you’ve been vocal about that before, but this feels like it’s going to be longer than A Way Out?
Oh yes, it’s around fourteen hours of madness. When I say madness, there are twenty-five mini-games, huge amounts of interactions and stuff you can do, lots of fucked up cool achievements, and a huge amount of different mechanics. It’s fourteen hours of madness.
I often say a game should be as long as it needs to be. The problem with this discussion is that many people misunderstand me when I talk about replayability and the lengths of games.
We have a problem where people are not finishing our games. It’s a big, big problem. It is a problem we need to take seriously, reviewers need to stop writing and measuring the replayability of games. I’ve got nothing against if someone wants to replay a game. At all, do it if you want to, but if we are designing games based on the length—let me ask you, how many times have you felt that a game is going on a bit too long?
(laughs) Almost every game…
Exactly! That’s it, you’re saying it. You should write it as well because they’re [developers] are afraid of getting bad reviews and bad feedback because we’re still talking about length like it’s an issue. You never question how long a movie is, whether it’s two and a half, three hours. It’s value for your money.
You want a great experience. I’m fine if you don’t want to pay $60 for a one-hour experience. Sure, but $60 for a seven-hour, really cool experience? I know some people thought A Way Out was short. Do you know how easily we could have made that game twenty hours by just repeating the same shit?
It doesn’t make sense, that’s what I mean.
It’s almost refreshing to start and finish a game on the same day, it just hits harder.
Yes, and actually It Takes Two has the best replayability in a sense, not that I like replayability.
What I’m saying is you have a different mechanic for every character so when you replay it you almost replay a different game, it changes all the time, so you’re never going to get tired of it but that’s not the thing with this. I believe the bigger problem is people are not finishing our games.
The latest thing I read — obviously Cyberpunk had its problem with its release — but I read they shortened the main campaign because their statistics told them people weren’t finishing The Witcher 3 and that’s the actual fact. And it’s so sad that we’re listening to the few people that actually replay games and they are few, trust me.
If you look at the statistics, there are super few people that replay games. How often do you replay games?
Never. In my job, I’m just happy to finish a game and I don’t take that many reviews on personally anymore because of the length of most AAA games.
Exactly, so that’s what I’m saying. That’s why I keep talking about it. People say to me sometimes I’m outspoken, I’m this, I’m that. I’m not outspoken, I’m just saying what’s on my mind.
It’s refreshing, for sure.
I think more people should talk. I’m saying this to ask the right questions of the industry so we can push it forward and get to a better place and not listen to shit, do you know what I mean?
But then you have games based on dying and replaying, like Hades, that’s part of their design. Fine, do it, it’s fine. But it shouldn’t—
Yeah, you shouldn’t sit down from the start thinking you need to make a one hundred-hour game.
Exactly. Every reviewer out there should stop talking about replayability. Do you know what a reviewer should write? A reviewer should write: “You know what, I actually played through this game and I didn’t get bored, it was actually a fantastic game from beginning to end.”
That’s the thing we should talk about.
It’s clear you value emotional storytelling, is that first and foremost for you, or do you build story beats around the mechanics you implement?
Here’s the thing, we’re all about marrying and mechanics. In A Way Out, I don’t know if you remember, there were fishing mechanics, there were driving mechanics. The idea is, where the story takes you, you’re playing it.
So that’s the idea with It Takes Two as well, whenever you’re meeting the story, you’re playing it. If we can add a mechanic that’s interesting, makes sense, and is fun — it shouldn’t only be about fun, it’s part of the game mechanic — but all of this stuff, if they fit well, then we combine and we try it. Sometimes we have to change the design, sometimes we have to change the story.
We have to balance it all the time. Sometimes it’s just a metaphoric connection to the game. For instance, as seen in the gameplay trailer, you have a magnet at one point and it’s a kind of symbol for their [Cody and May’s] attraction. Even if it’s not super-connected, it’s still a metaphor for it.
I think that connection helps it from just being a narrative game. Most of the time, it feels like narrative and design are doing two different games and at Hazelight we want to connect that and push that even further.
It Takes Two feels like it has a much lighter tone than A Way Out, but it tackles a quite serious issue in divorce. Why did you decide to tackle that issue in this game?
Well, to be honest with you, it’s not like that it tackles it in a more serious way. It’s kind of light-hearted.
But there will be points in the game where both the parents do stuff that doesn’t feel that good. I would say it’s not something that’s often tackled in games, but it’s still done in a light-hearted way, it’s supposed to be this heartful, light comedy in a sense.
So it’s not a deep dive into relationships, but there are definitely points in the game where you’ll feel as well. We haven’t really seen any rom-com in gaming so why not try? Not that it’s the easiest, even in movies it isn’t easy — how many good rom coms do you see?
But we do like challenges at Hazelight and I think we ended up in a really nice place where it feels really good actually.
How did you enjoy hamming it up as Dr. Hakim?
Well, I am him, you know? It comes so naturally, obviously. With the movement, and when we started the mo-cap process, I really wanted to focus on directing but I immediately realised that nobody can do this guy except me. Because he has my energy.
Even the guy who did his voice thought: “This guy’s a nutcase.” I did his voice my way, screaming in bad English, but then we added on a guy that could speak in this funny Latino way, in a sense.
It was very fun but it takes a lot of energy because, you have to understand, during the three years of development and because the quality of the cutscenes are quite a high level—
It’s Pixar-like, honestly, we both said it when we were playing it.
Exactly, yeah, and this takes a lot of time, man. The amount of work behind, it’s madness sometimes.
When I think about it, I’m like: “Oh shit.” But I’m very happy, it’s like a two-hour animated movie. I often wonder how we were able to do this, I don’t know man.
I think it’s incredible, keep doing what you’re doing in every aspect.
Yeah, man. Of course, of course.
It Takes Two releases for PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X and Series S, Microsoft Windows on March 26, 2021.