ES­CAP­ING EX­PEC­TA­TIONS

You’re forced to work to­gether in A WAY OUT, EA’s big­gest lit­tle game in years

XBox: The Official Magazine - - A WAY OUT - Ian Drans­field

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.

lim­ited means

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.

bet­ter to­gether

“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…

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