This year's The Game Awards was a digital experience just like every other conference in these strange pandemic times. The digital offerings have still been exciting with a lot of titles shown, but the tightly choreographed video presentations certainly lacks a bit of the unexpected craziness, we are used to from these kinds of shows, and which over the years have inspired countless memes. Whether it's giant crabs filled with weak points, Keanu Reeves looking breathtaking, or possibly the worst jam session ever performed by Shigeru Miyamoto and his merry band during the presentation of Wii Music.
Three years ago the Swedish game director Josef Fares gave us one such unexpected moment, when he stole the show at the Game Awards, giving a passionate speech about the industry and making host Geoff Keighley feel very awkward in the process. This time Fares and his studio, Hazelight, also stole the show but in a less dramatic fashion, showing off their upcoming game It Takes Two - a co-op "romantic comedy" that blends platforming, puzzles and nearly every genre under the sun in a dramatic fashion - with a rollercoaster ride of a trailer. And while we unfortunately couldn't get him on stage, Gamereactor managed to get an interview with the outspoken and charismatic game creator. It proved an interesting conversation that quickly took some unexpected turns, but let's start on track with what it's all about - the game itself.
Just like the studious former game, A Way Out, this is a game designed from the ground up for co-op and you can only play it with a friend - either online or through local splitscreen. One of you controls Cody, the other May. They are the two halves of a marriage that has slowly been falling apart over the years, and now they are about to get divorced. "Nothing serious has happened to them, it's just daily life has been catching up," Fares explains and then goes on to explain that their daughter Rose is less than happy about them getting separated. Actually she is so unhappy that she makes two dolls representing her parents and through some crazy, voodoo magic Cody and May actually become the dolls. Now Cody and May have to go through a wild journey in a crazy realm in hope of becoming human once again, and maybe, just maybe, rekindle the spark in their marriage.
It's marriage counseling the hard way, but luckily they got a guide - of sorts - the talking book Dr. Hakim, that their daughter has found. "It's actually a new age book that thinks it knows everything about love. It's kind of cool and cheesy and crazy - I did all of the mo-cap for him by the way - so it's kind of a copy of me in a sense: crazy and cheesy," says an excited Josef Feres.
But while Feres taken out of context, might seem a bit of a loud mouthed jester, there is actually real substance behind his words. Before entering the games industry with Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons in 2013 he directed five successful feature films, so he knows how to tell a good story. And interestingly enough he does this by focusing on the gameplay. "Something we are really fond of is creating unique mechanical experiences, so the narrative feels fresh, and also that the gameplay actually reflects what goes on in there. Which means that every time you encounter something in the story, that is part of the gameplay."
And that philosophy shows in the trailer just released at The Game Awards which is hectic, to say the least, and might even leave you a bit exhausted. The game seems jam-packed with activities, and Fares is especially proud of the fact that each activity is tied to the story. "It can be shooting, flying, solving puzzles, platforming, using different crazy mechanics, it will be huge amount of variation actually, huge amount of variation. Here is the thing. You will definitely now get tired of this game, you want to continue and know what is going on, it will keep shocking you," he says with his trademark self-confidence.
And you perhaps have to be a little mad to put so many activities into a game. Fares estimates there are about 25 different mini-games and mechanics to try out, and for a small studio that is quite a task to develop - especially during a global pandemic that has changed working conditions all over the globe. Fundamentally, it's a very different approach to video games than the one we are used to, where mechanics are often milked for all their worth and repeated again and again. I ask Josef if this philosophy is inspired by his experience making films: "It might be, yeah. When I sit down and talk with designers sometimes they tell me 'this is gonna take 3, 4 months to make and the people experience it for only one or two minutes.' I mean they sometimes say we should reuse it. But I mean, if you have a really cool scene in a movie, a scene that is really impactful, there is no point in reusing that. So yes, it might be that I'm taking inspiration from my movie background"
But just because the various activities and mechanics are limited in terms of screen time, doesn't mean the It Takes Two won't have replay value. "Cody is a stay at home dad, he is very focused on taking care of the daughter, while May is more like a working hard type of character, that really needs to have her stuff and everything under control," Fares explains. The different personalities of the characters are reflected in the game by their different abilities and skills that need to be combined to solve the many puzzles and tasks. Which means you will get a different experience if you switch characters for the next run.
And after playing it two times, you can switch partners in real life and get a brand new experience (speaking strictly platonically of course). This is also the way Josef Fares prefers you to play the game, for the way you communicate really shapes the experience. "We saw that in A Way Out 50 percent of players played local and 50 percent played online. I'm guessing it's gonna be the same here, but people are so used now, especially in these times, to playing online. But definitely don't play it with someone you don't communicate with. You need to talk to your friend."
It's hard to tell how the Covid-19 situation will look when It Takes Two releases on the 26. March next year, but if it's still a hassle to play with friends on the couch, Hazelight and EA have a solution. Just like with A Way Out, a Friend Pass is included that lets you invite a friend to play with you online, so you only have to invest in one copy of the game.
A Way Out had some choices during the story and were by some reviewers described as a bit Telltale-like. But Fares and his team want to tread a different path - one that doesn't necessarily fork in the road, but nonetheless provides exciting experiences along the way. "I know some games out there push more on narrative and less on game mechanics, but that is something I really wanna push on more and more for every game," says Fares. "The mechanics, the interactivity is what makes games special. So when someone says that choices are unique for gaming - no! Choices you can make in a Netflix series, you can choose different endings, that doesn't have anything to do with games. Choices is a little bit of interactivity, but it is not unique to gaming. Unique to gaming is interactivity. Mechanics. That's unique to gaming."
Perhaps that is also why he mentions a certain Japanese company, when asked about his major influences. "It's not hidden that I am a huge fan of Nintendo. I love their work. One of my top three favorite games is Super Mario Galaxy 2, so there is no denying that I'm a huge fan of Nintendo, big, big fan. And you can say it is a love letter to all video games, as well in a sense. Because I love video games so much."
It's hard to argue with the last point, as Fares really is extremely passionate about the industry. But still I couldn't resist ending the interview by asking if he would ever return to making films:
"Well it's not impossible, but right now I really wanna focus on games because I do feel there is so much to be explored from a narrative experience."