You’re forced to work together in A WAY OUT, EA’s biggest little game in years
Josef Fares is looking animated but there’s an eyeful of dedication behind his words. “It started out with me actually wanting to make a game
I want to play,” he tells us about A Way Out, the game that began life about three years ago. The brainchild of Fares, worked on by those who made up his team on Brothers: A Tale Of Two Sons and backed by a few million of EA’s development dollars, its reveal at 2017’s E3 was one of the best surprises of the show. A refreshing take on the co-operative approach, it tells the story of two convicts, Leo and Vincent, on the run from the law who have to (and we mean have to, this is co-op only) work together to succeed and survive.
But it all came from Fares wanting a game that didn’t exist. “I’ve always had an urge to play something with my friend that wasn’t just a drop-in, drop-out,” he says. “I’m not against those games, it’s just that I need something that means something to me. I want to play a story together with my friend.” Step forward… well, nothing. Unless there was something hiding in the recesses, there were no story-based, co-op only games out there. After Brothers did well, EA’s Patrick Söderlund approached Fares with an offer: make us a game. With $3.7 million on the table and full creative control under the EA Originals banner, Fares decided he and his Hazelight team would make that game he wanted.
Working with EA is a process plenty would warn against, and that anti-publisher sentiment has been stoked further in recent months. But Fares seems immune to any and all of this negativity: “Look, this is the person I am now, this is the person I’m going to be if I make triple-A titles. Nothing will change,” he laughs. “The collaboration with EA has been great since day one. They haven’t said a word on what we should do or not do, no input at all. We’ve had help with production,
and that’s it… I know there’s been a lot of talk about EA… people f**k up sometimes, people do good stuff sometimes, I’m not really into that. For me, I’m a passion-driven man, that’s my thing. I have no problem, I can only say good stuff about working with EA.”
Choice or decision
In its three years of development, AWay
Out has remained incredibly faithful to its original ideals – Fares proudly showed us his early sketches for the game and how they compare to the near-finished product. This singularity of vision has led to a focused – linear – experience that plays out like nothing else. While there are narrative-based titles out there, your Telltale adventure games and whatever Quantic Dream wants to work on for the PlayStation, AWayOut stands apart from them. For one, your decisions don’t actually impact the overall narrative structure – something Fares was clear about being an intentional design choice. It’s not about making one choice or another and expecting fresh outcomes; it’s about making a decision together and playing out the story to completion. An important distinction to be made, as since its reveal at E3 AWayOut has been placed neatly into the same category as the aforementioned narrative games.
Fares is bullish about how his game is positioned, though, and openly – happily – says it’s not going to be a game for everyone. “I say if you want to shoot the gas station cashier right in the head then, you know what, go play GTA. This is not your game.” Fares explains, “I don’t care. If I lose a couple of gamers with that, fine, go, I don’t care. For me, it’s not important. If you want to go have a run-and-gun game, go play one. This is not for you.” This, he explains, is also why he recommends those playing AWayOut find a co-op partner who is willing to play for a story and cinematic experience – the real-life chemistry between players is just as important as that between Leo and Vincent. “If not, then it’s going to spoil for you this kind of experience… This is the vision. Trust it, go with it, or let it go. Play something else. You have a lot of games out there. Stick with your vision, that’s what I’m saying.” This approach might be making EA’s PR uncomfortable, but it’s a refreshing honesty we don’t see much of from those making games under the behemoth’s banner. In a big part, it’s likely down to Fares’ background.
Push it to the limit
Born in Lebanon and fleeing civil war with his family when he was just 10 years old, Fares’ adoptive home of Sweden would be the place that moulded him into a film director. He was accepted as the youngest student ever to Sweden’s most prestigious film school at the age of 20 and his debut feature film Jalla
Jalla premiered to rave reviews and box office success, before he even graduated. With six features now under his belt, he’s a man with a wildly different background to that of
most game directors – something he was able to show with the haunting, melancholic Brothers. But that schooling in the world of the movies didn’t quite prepare Fares for just how hard it would be to make games, and the increased ambition behind AWayOut has meant the Hazelight team is working long hours to get its game finished, polished and out in March 2018.
“My background as a filmmaker has helped me out with this game,” Fares says. “If you look at the cinematics, look at how the camera movements are, look at some gameplay ideas – how they are played in a sense. I have many ideas on how to take that even further.” While it’s clear his passion for filmmaking is still present and accounted for, Fares is genuinely excited when talking about the potential for games: “I think the games have a really bright future. It’s really exciting where we’re going to,” he says, “[But] even if it looks amazing, you need something else. I think the future, the future is creativity, not technology. I’m not saying take away technology, but the future is in creating games for gamers like us, who can’t play the same shooter over and over again. We need something else. This is what the challenge for Hazelight is – how do we push medium forward all the time [with AWayOut]?”
“I’m passion-driven. I have no problem, I only can say good stuff about working with EA ”
“I think EA is surprised what we have done for this amount of money”
Well, that would be by making a game taking all the best parts of – genuine – co-op experiences and putting them together in a game. Whether you play as Leo or Vincent, the options and approaches to situations are always changing – we saw two methods of playing through a gas station robbery, with the hotheaded Leo storming in and shooting holes in the ceiling, while the calmer Vincent strolls in and gently warns the cashier of his intention to commit a felony. Similarly, another level, this one during a prison break, offered two distinct methods to pass a police checkpoint – over or under a bridge. A simple, straightforward decision it might be, but one that led to vastly different journeys, both of which met up neatly in the same ending. That linearity – again calling back to Fares’ filmic background – is part of the reason why AWayOut is looking so special. Yes, every scene starts at A and ends at B, regardless of your decisions, but while bigger teams with larger budgets are able to slap together vast, beautiful, ultimately rather sparse open worlds, Hazelight is putting together a series of environments full of interactivity and experiences. Chew the gum. Splash the water. Chat with that guy, or don’t. Every interaction is bespoke; it’s all made to react to specific situations, to the characters doing the interaction. It’s crafted.
It’s an impressive feat for a title made with just a few dozen staff and a few million dollars, and Fares maintains his good humour when talking about the game’s relatively small budget: “I think EA is actually quite surprised what we have done
for this amount of money, actually. We’re really pushing the limits,” he says. “I sometimes joke that we have the coffee budget of Naughty Dog!” At the same time, the game-film director is under no illusion when it comes to the relative freedoms afforded by less money: “It is possible that we take more risks because we’re not a highrisk,” he explains. “It doesn’t mean you can’t take risks with money involved. We have to meet in the middle. I don’t like when creative people go, ‘We want to make art,’ and underestimate that we actually have a world we’re living in that needs an economy to go around. I don’t like when the money people say, ‘This [is just] about money,’ so there has to be a yin-yang effect, they have to meet in the middle.”
Those risks he talks about include the demand for co-operation – including an online split-screen mode that allows you to see your compatriot’s side of things at all times, even if they’re in another country – and most interestingly of all, the Friend Pass. This is a feature of AWayOut that allows one player who owns the game to play with another, anywhere in the world, so long as they have an Xbox One and a Gold subscription. Not a level, not a side mission, not a time-limited segment – the whole game, start to finish, completely free. It might seem crazy generous, especially from a big publisher like EA, but to Fares it’s just something that had to be done. You have to play in co-op. It had to be an option. It just makes sense.
“This is a cinematic experience. It’s not your typical couch co-op game”
Ultimately, that’s what AWayOut comes down to: it makes sense. It makes sense Leo and Victor would want to work together to escape. It makes sense when you come upon an abandoned fishing camp and one of you sets about fashioning a fish-spear while the other gathers firewood. It makes sense you then have to work together to catch said fish. None of it from what we played felt crowbarred in, or like it was there to tick a box – even the weird bits, the ambitious bits, the arty bits, it all madesense.
“This game is a cinematic experience together,” Fares says. “It’s not your typical couch co-op game; this is one that actually dares to pace down, not to have action moments all the time, that dares to stop for a moment.” It’s a game that sees exciting escapes, guns and violence, tender family encounters, driving, fishing and more. Even with a small team, even with limited resources, and even though he openly acknowledges you’re not getting a NeedForSpeed- level of driving physics in AWayOut, Fares maintains the importance of this variety.
“For me it’s a personal thing,” he explains. “First of all, diversity is very important to keep the experience fresh all of the time… Even if [the driving’s] not perfect, it’s still good enough to get you on the road, [same for] the shooting or whatever. For me, because it’s a cinematic co-op, you want it to be fresh and unique all the time… I don’t know what you feel about this, but I feel that the repetitiveness of games gets me bored. Especially if you have a lot of repetitiveness in a cinematic game, it’s even worse I would say.”
And so AWayOut is a game of pacing and variety, not just a onetrick pair of ponies sending you on
endless quests to tick boxes off a huge, sprawling map. “The important thing is the totality,” Fares says. “About the pacing down, that’s another thing I think is important in a story game – that you actually have moments where you take your time and go fishing or meet a loved one, so you don’t have to have these endless high [tension moments]. I mean, what movie has that all the time?”
Fear of failure
We’re still a few months from AWayOut’s release at the time of writing, but ever since its E3 reveal it has been a game to be excited about. With that excitement, expectations are formed – some a little off the mark, it’s safe to say, like the seemingly firm belief this would be a big-budget triple-A title. Fares takes the comparison as a compliment, of course, but it heaps the pressure on Hazelight’s project. “I think we all are surprised and proud of what we have done here.” Fares remains philosophical: “We’re so close to the finish line, this is where the real hell starts, but it’s going to be good.”
Even with the weight of expectation so suddenly landing on the team, there’s still an air of confidence from the main man – well, we say ‘air’, it’s more like a hurricane. “Let’s pretend this game came out, everybody says it sucked,” he postures. “That wouldn’t affect me. It would be like, ‘Okay, I’m going to do it even better next time.’ It’s like, what’s the problem of failing? I think the problem of being afraid that you’re failing, that’s a way bigger problem than actually failing, because that’s what holds you back.
“When people say hubris or stuff like that – no, I have super respect and humility towards the actual production staff. When we have a problem, I take it super seriously. No, I’m not the guy that wants my team to work overtime and I go home at three o’clock every day. No, I’m here at the office, I’m staying here, I’m with them all the time. We’re together on this one, you know? We are creating this.”
And if, despite all the effort, AWayOut is a failure? Well, to Fares at least, there’s no chance of that being the case. “I’m a passion-driven man,” he says. “This game is like... You know when you really are passionate about something, when you’re crazy passionate about something, when you’re insanely passionate about something? I’m beyond that. I breathe, live this game. Even if a thousand experts came to me now and said, ‘This is a shit game,’ I’ll tell them, ‘You’re wrong. This is a great game.’ This is how much I believe in it.
“You can call me delusional, but I just know, deep in my heart, what we’re doing here is great.”
Above Fares and his team suited up to record the motion-capture for the game.
above right We played through this gas station scene a few times to see what different choices could do to the story. Above left The prison section is only part of the game – much of it will take place outside of the slammer.
opp osite Each player may have a different perspective on what is happening, so communication is key.
Above Most of the time, you’ll see what the other character is doing in your portion of the screen.
opp osite The game is designed to encourage communication between players sitting next to each other.
below Depending on which character you’re using, NPCs will react to you differently. left You can see Fares’ original vision from his early sketches of the game. Above Will you be able to pop into the cinema for some popcorn? Probably not…