Josef Fares sounds off on how the cookie crumbles.
Josef Fares is a passionate man. That’s the first thing that strikes you about him as you speak to him, and a thing that he himself will reiterate in conversation with you, multiple times. Indeed, many GamingBolt readers are, at this point, presumably already familiar with Fares and his antics, thanks to his memorable turn during this year’s Game Awards- but Fares is so much more than that.
He is a passion driven game creator who truly wants to explore the bounds of video games as a storytelling medium. Having already done so with Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, he now seeks to do it again with his upcoming prison break game A Way Out. We had a chance to speak with him about it, and many other things- this is what he had to say.
Note: This interview was conducted in late August of this year.
A Way Out was, I think, the biggest, one of the biggest highlights of E3 this year; and I mean, I want to say that in terms of reaction, in terms of audience response, in terms of outreach, it basically ended up, you know, outperforming most other games at most shows including EA’s own. Is this the kind of reaction that you expected? How do you feel about the reaction that the got?
Josef: Of course, I’m super happy. The thing is, I always knew we had something special. I always knew we had a great game, I didn’t expect this to be this big, but I always knew we would have something special.
Okay, so what inspired the concept for this game, and how long has it been in development?
Josef: The inspirations pretty much… look, the thing is this, I’m a passion driven man. I always like doing games that I want to play. I really don’t care about what sells, or what does not sell. The thing is, I’m always trying to play a co-op game with my friend that meant something, that wasn’t just drop in and drop out. I’m not against drop in and drop out, it’s just that I feel that I want to care about my character, I want to feel that I’m part of a story. It’s actually quite an unexplored area where you explore a story together. That was a big part of the original idea, so everything really started with me and a friend trying to find a co-op game!
So what do you say that those are the kinds of games that you personally like? Story-driven games and co-op games?
Josef: Yeah not necessarily… I like all types of games. I mean, I like The Last of Us, I like to play FIFA, I like to play everything. But I would say that the possibility of telling a strong story in games is huge because of the interactivity. So there is a lot of potential there. It doesn’t necessarily have to be co-op game either, it could be single player too.
"Developers always make choices based on what the game’s vision is."
Okay. I’ve heard that you gave up on directing a feature film to work on this game.
Okay. That’s actually inspiring, honestly. Why did this project- I mean, I’m sure like you said, there’s possibilities for storytelling, and of course, this the kind of game you want to play- but apart from that, creatively, what was it about this project and this concept that drew you so deeply to it?
Josef: The thing is, I’ve done six feature movies before, and I’ve always been a huge gamer. I’ve always loved games. And after I did Brothers, I just felt that that there’s a lot more to do in games. And that’s why I started doing more games, because I love making games. I’ve always loved making games, and I think at the end of the day, there’s a huge amount of potential that’s not really being explored, that I would like to explore myself.
Okay, so what games would you say have so far that been the best in terms of exploiting the potential that games having storytelling?
Josef: I would say definitely the Naughty Dog guys have like really touched on that matter, definitely.
Okay. Brothers is essentially a really wordless narrative so to say. I mean, it tells a story, it tells a good story, but it tells its story without much in the way of dialogue. Meanwhile, you’re moving towards a communication heavy story in A Way Out. How did you approach these two different approaches to storytelling in game? What were the challenges? What are the benefits of both approaches?
Josef: The thing is, A Way Out is totally different, because this is co-op. Brothers was really a single player experience. And the way to tell the story… I mean, obviously, the graphics are more advanced in this game, and it’s way more detailed compared to Brothers. So that’s why, from day one, the way it’s told and written was supposed to be like this. And also, because I wanted to do something differently, if you want to get the nuances of the characters, you need to have language and the way they talk. But we have a lot of stuff.
What gets me going is the interactivity for the characters. So for instance, we try to give the player control all the time- even when one player is in a cutscene, the other one can walk around. Now I know that could mean that some people might miss details in the story, but I would rather give the players control. So it’s up to them if they want to look at the other player’s cut scene, or if they want to run around and do something else.
So speaking specifically about this where, you know, one player maintains control over the cutscenes, during the cutscenes anyway, is there any possibility where the second player does something that interrupts the first cutscene and leads to a different sequence of story events?
Josef: In a way, you will have choices, but they will not affect the story, they will affect the gameplay scenario. For instance, you can… I want players to explore, because all NPCs in the game, all scenarios in the game, have different reactions, depending on what character you go with. So that’s important to understand- if you talk to NPCs, all NPCs in the games are uniquely animated and say unique stuff to every player. So there’s a huge amount of content for every player- you can do this or that, you can do that or this, you know.
Josef: So there’s a crazy amount of stuff. But you cannot affect the actual cutscene. You will have choices that affect the gameplay, though.
Okay, so in terms of these choices essentially, are there different plots for escaping the prison? Not plots, plans for escaping prison?
Josef: No, the story is what it is, but there are differences like, as I said, ways of escaping. And I don’t want to go into detail, but it’s not only about different ways of escaping, it’s different ways of solving the scenario you’re dealt with; you know what I mean?
Okay. I understand. So essentially it’s more of emergence in the gameplay.
Josef: The idea is to get me and you playing, to get us talking, you know? The choices all have to do with the players sitting on the couch. Don’t forget we are a small indie team, so everything we do takes a huge amount of time, because we don’t outsource anything- and I mean anything. We do everything in-house, the voice, the recording, the mocap, it’s quite crazy for the amount of money we have.
"Don’t get me wrong, but I don’t really give a f**k about the market."
Oh yeah. Yeah, I mean, it’s already hugely ambitious in scope and in concept.
Josef: Yeah, it’s crazy ambitious. That’s why we are working hard to finish it .
One of the things I wanted to talk to you about- I know why you wanted, you know, a game that is enjoyed in co-op- but one of the unusual things that you did was make this co-op only, so it’s impossible to play this by yourself. Also, you emphasize local co-op. I mean, you have online co-op support, but you emphasize local co-op and these are unusual moves for the state of today’s market.
Josef: You’ve already pretty much answered the question. Don’t get me wrong, but I don’t really give a f**k about the market. (laughs) I’m a passion driven man, and if this feels right, this is what it’s going to be. Even if someone tells me, ‘you will sell five million units more if you do this’, I will say ‘no, I don’t care.’ This is the vision; this is what the game is. It’s about a split screen experience, the vision is about that story for two players. That’s what it’s designed to be from the get-go, from day one. It was never a single player game. So, that pretty much makes it very unique, it hasn’t really been done before. Most games are single player and then go to split screen. For me it was important to say, ‘no, split screen from day one. That’s it.’
Yeah, because that’s what the game is.
Josef: Yeah. And developers always make choices based on what the game’s vision is, and never based on economics or stuff like that. I’m not saying I don’t care about money. Of course we need money to make a game. But I’m just saying, for me it’s important to follow what you believe in.
Okay and how has the support from EA been for this game?
Josef: Super good. They have only been supportive, they haven’t, they don’t even go in and tell me, ‘can you change that color from blue to red on that box?’ They don’t even do that. We have full creative control. I’ve only got good things to say.
I know you said that the plot itself will not change, the emergence is in the gameplay itself, the dynamism is in the gameplay itself. But are there any fail states in this game?
Josef: Yeah, of course.
So the game can end early, for instance, because you failed a prison escape?
Josef: No, no, no, you will have regular fail state, like all other games.
Okay, so there’s a game over kind of thing?
Josef: If you fail a scenario, you will have that. But this is a game about an experience, it’s not a game that’s very challenging or hard. Because it’s a story based game, so we want you to feel that you’re immersed. It’s not like Dark Souls where you get challenged, no, it’s more like, get the pace going, and move forward, you know?
Okay, how long would you say a typical play through is, is this like a- have you, because you approach this with the angle of local co-op- made this something that can be finished in one sitting?
Josef: It’s hard to say, but I will say that it’s going to be long enough for what it is. The variation is huge. Let me give you an example. For instance if you…you know, you can take down guards, for instance. Like a normal game, you take down hundreds, and that’s a mechanic. In our game, you will maybe take down half a dozen people each, and that’s it, because you’ll always be moving on to doing something else. So everything is always varied, there’s something new all the time.
So basically, each kill matters more.
Josef: Yeah, the idea is that you don’t kill someone for no reason. We have shooting in the game, but it’s only when it makes sense in the story.
Okay and just to be clear, there is no solo play whatsoever at all
Josef: Oh no, no, no, it will never be in the game, not even if everybody screamed and cried, it will never be in there.
"We have shooting in the game, but it’s only when it makes sense in the story."
Honestly, that kind of resolve to stick with that kind of creative decision is admirable. And, to be clear, you will have no random match making either, you have to play this with friends.
Josef: I mean, look, I’ve been asked the question like, “what if I play half the game, and my friend only joins in in the second half?” My answer is, what would you do if this was a movie? You tell your friend, “Let’s watch this movie, but we’ll start from the middle.” That’s stupid! So of course you could do it, but it would be terrible. So random match making- you could do it, but it will destroy the experience plus the idea that you and your friends need to talk to each other.
Okay, so have you considered the possibility where for instance, let’s say two people are playing, either local or online, and either one player fails or one player disconnects and drops out… what happens then, does the game continue single-playe,r or do we have to wait until the other person joins?
Josef: No, then it quits for you. You have to do it with some else. I mean, I know it sounds very cocky, but you have to be with someone else. I prefer that you play it on the couch, but if if you are playing online and it disconnects, then you wait till you fix your network stuff. Then you better call your network guy! (laughs)
Yeah, honestly, I don’t want my game disconnecting if I’m paying that much.
Josef: But play it local co-op. It’s a better experience, I would say. And I think, also, split screen, it’s been so long. I mean, yes, there has never been a split-screen game like this, but I miss split-screen gaming so much. Who doesn’t want to play on the couch with their friends? That’s the best experience!
No, I agree, I personally always prefer local play over online play myself, and I think outside of Nintendo, no one does it anymore, which is a bit sad.
So I want to now talk about the level design of the game. You’ve said that there is lots of variation, there’s lots of scope for emergence and dynamism, but let’s say me and my friend played through this game once, and then we play through this again. Is there a chance that the game now plays are completely differently because we do different things each time, in a different sequence as well?
Josef: I would say there will definitely be different experience for different character. These are… let me do another comparison, when you play a normal split screen game, you have pretty much two similar characters. In our game, you have two unique personalities, which means they will also end up in unique cut scenes, unique situations, and sometimes unique gameplay. So if you’re asking me about the way if you replay the game, normally I wouldn’t replay it, but if you want to replay it, yes, you can change characters, you’ll have different stuff you experience, and you also have a lot of stuff to discover in the game. Like for instance, there’s a lot of details, like a lot of minigames hidden in the game that I think a lot of people will actually miss.
Yeah because a lot of people are too focused on just trying to get the story done.
Josef: But off the top of my head, you can throw darts, play arcades, basketball, baseball, you know, there’s all this stuff going on in the game all the time.
Okay, so also specifically what I remember from the E3 trailer: I know that a large part of the game is concentrating on the prison escape, but is there any gameplay once we escape from the prison, or is the prison escape still the point?
Josef: Oh yeah, the prison I would say, without spoiling the time, is around two hours, and then you have a lot more outside. That’s only a small portion of the game.
Okay. I know you said that you can’t program for multiple dynamic possibilities, but are you trying to go for multiple endings, or will it be just the one story and that’s it?
Josef: I can’t talk about it. You will have to play the game! I don’t want to spoil anything.
Josef: Let me just tell you this, play A Way Out from the beginning to end, and you will have an experience unlike any other. That is also what made me happy, because when people saw the game at E3, everybody felt the freshness and uniqueness of it. And that’s exactly what I want them to feel.
Yeah, I can only like speak for myself here, but when I saw it I just felt that this was somehow an idea that literally no one has done so far: it’s a story-driven game that you’re playing with your friend, and that’s not something that happens a lot. So it definitely stands out.
"We are supporting every console out there."
Now this game I think I believe it’s due out next year, so it’s still in development. And you did mention that you’re approaching the “end crunch”, which, I hope it’s not a crunch, I really hope it’s not a crunch. But you’re approaching the end of development. I wanted to ask you, are you supporting the PlayStation 4 Pro and Xbox One X?
Josef: Oh yeah, of course. We are supporting every console out there.
So will they have visual enhancements, for instance?
Josef: Yeah, that will of course be the case, because… I mean, they are better consoles so it would obviously look better. The exact details, I don’t know about yet, but they will definitely be better.
Okay, and so now I want to discuss this co-op thing again. I wanted to go back to that. The vision of it is multiplayer communication, having players talk to each other. This is the kind of game that would, for example, be ideal for cross-platform local, cross-platform online multiplayer. So if I have a PlayStation, and my friend has an Xbox, will we still be able to play together?
Josef: I don’t think we are going to support that, no. Don’t forget that we are a very small team, it’s hard to just get the game working online. It’s very hard to make a game work on a network to begin with, especially when you add the problem of this game always being online. So when you write network code, just to give you an idea, it’s extremely complicated, since we have so many different mechanics, and every mechanic needs a different network code. And that means our network is in split-screen. And how often do you see a game you play online in split screen anymore? So you get a lot of problems with the latency, which, how do you solve that? So just typical network implementation is taking up a lot of time- we’re working very hard over here! (laughs)
Sometimes like I hear, like right now, The Lost Legacy came out. And someone asked the question, “why is the game not co-op?” Let me tell you this without going into detail, if you want to go in and make that game a co-op game, you must start from the beginning, you must redo the whole game. There’s a whole other ball-game when you want to make co-op. Like how do you pace the player, you can’t use triggers as you’re doing single player, there’s so much work behind it! I know some people think it’s just the equivalent of writing co-op into the computer and just pressing enter, but it’s not like that, it’s way more complicated.
Yeah, it makes sense. It has its own design paradigms, because two players.
Josef: Oh yeah. Like in Uncharted, when Nathan Drake gets to a point, you make sure there’s a trigger. What do you do in co-op? One player reached the trigger point, the other player is on the other side. How do you solve that? That’s one little example, out of of thousands. Now players, of course, won’t realize this, but when we let developers play the game, they go, “how the hell did you do this?” I’m just saying, making co-op has been a hell of a challenge!
Oh, I completely understand. And you know, like you said, the players might not realize it, but that’s a good magic trick: nobody knows how it happened.
Josef: Exactly. Still, today, when a game gets bad reception, I feel pain in my body, because I know the amount of work you put in for years and years and years, and then you get bad reception… in a way, it’s good, because we should only praise the good games, but sometimes I feel sorry.
Yeah. I mean, yeah, you have to feel bad for the other developers who, even if the game ended up being subpar, they worked hard on it so I completely feel you there. Okay, so this is, I mean you saw sort of touched on it in this answer, but I wanted to talk about the game’s engine. Now you said, I’m assuming that because you said you have to approach co-op from the beginning, this is, is this a new engine is it basically designed for co-op?
Josef: No, no. It’s Unreal Engine 4. But we had to write a lot of our own stuff to make it work.
So what kinds of technologies, custom or new, did you have to go for?
Josef: Oh, I mean, all this with the dynamic split screen and how it goes on, especially the network… it’s has been a big problem. But I mean, actually all the technical details, I can’t really like go into details for that, it would just be like boring. And I don’t know all the technical details.
Okay. I did want to ask you, recently you said, and I mean, this caused a bit of an uproar when you did- recently you said that the base PlayStation 4 is not really all that powerful, it’s closer to a five-year-old PC
Josef: Yeah, like that’s so taken out of context. And I don’t even want to comment on that. It’s so… I mean, the people who wrote that, it’s so silly it’s not even worth commenting on. And if I meet this journalist, I would ask them, like what the f**k were you trying to do here?
Look, here’s the fact. Let me make this one thing straight: I’m a passion driven man. I don’t care about hardware. I don’t care about console war, that’s all bullshit, okay? That was really, extremely, extremely taken out of context. It’s not even worth commenting on, because it’s so silly, you know. I own every single console, I don’t even care about that. I care about games– who cares about consoles, and if they are good or not good?
Yeah, I think the hardware is just there to enable the games, with the games being the point in the end. I agree with you.
Josef: But people seem to like this console war, and so some journalist wanted to have some clicks on his page.
I think it was a misconstrued quote because you were saying- a lot of people thought you were talking about the PS4 Pro, and not the PS4. And from there, it just spiralled out of control.
Josef: Yeah, extremely.
Okay, so I know you don’t want to talk about hardware, but will the game be running at 1080p and 60 frames on all systems or have you not decided that yet?
Josef: We are working very hard right now, so I don’t know yet.
"We haven’t really explored the Switch, so I’m not saying it’s not going to happen. But it’s just that we are a small team and we’re doing everything in-house, which makes it very hard for us to have the time… but I’m not saying it will never happen."
Okay. Now, I wanted to talk to you not necessarily as a developer but… like you said, you are a passionate player of video games. So I wanted to approach some things with you, you know, from that angle. It’s absolutely been an exciting time for video games of late. We have VR coming up, that’s an exciting technology, we had Sony launch the PS4 Pro. Microsoft’s launching Xbox One X, and Nintendo had the Switch. Just as a player, not necessarily as a developer, what are your thoughts on these things?
Josef: I’m a big fan of VR and AR. I just think it needs a couple of more years until it’s ready. I think in four or five years, it’ll definitely be part of our future, because it’s not only going to be there for games. There’s going to be situations for education, especially with AR changing how we interact with the world. I think that’s the next big thing.
Okay and what about those like say, the Switch, and the Xbox One X? New hardware releases.
Josef: Very exciting, but again, hardware for me is- yeah, sure, but I’m more about the games. That’s what sells me, hardware is just a box. What good is it? That’s also, you know what’s so silly when you compare PS4 and Xbox? They pretty much have the same components inside! Like, comparing a PC to a PS4, it’s so weird, because a PC could be like a million different things, depending on what you put inside it. How do you even compare those two? It’s not even fair. So who cares about hardware? What is hardware, if you don’t have games? What are you going to do with the hardware without the games, look at it?
Yeah, like the Switch would have just, for example, failed without Breath of the Wild- that was what sold it.
Josef: Yeah! That’s what I’m saying, you need games.
Okay, so one of the things again I’m going to go back to is communication between players. Co-op, talking between friends, that kind of thing. And I do want to talk about, in this case, the Switch, which is essentially a system that also focuses on multiplayer, local multiplayer, and communication and talking. Why is this game not on the switch? Was it because of technical issues like power and network functionality?
Josef: First of all, this is a third person game, which means that you need to control the camera… and on the Switch, if you want to play it on the Joycons, you can’t have the camera controls, because the Switch only has one stick on each controller. But there’s… we haven’t really explored the Switch, so I’m not saying it’s not going to happen. But it’s just that we are a small team and we’re doing everything in-house, which makes it very hard for us to have the time… but I’m not saying it will never happen.
So realistically, you could see a Switch version maybe after the PS4, Xbox One, and PC versions are out.
Josef: Maybe, if we have the time. But it’s crazy and we have so much to do. It’s really hard. I wonder sometimes at how much work it is, you know, I get surprised when a game even gets released.
Yeah, but honestly, you know I think a lot of players don’t understand the effort that goes in but, like you said, with a good magic trick, you never know what went into it, you just know the trick yeah. And honestly, A Way Out looks exciting enough.
Josef: You will love it.
Okay, so I guess one last question for you is, I mean, we talked about the games you like to play and you said you like everything, but what other influences were there for this game? TV, movies, books…?
Josef: I don’t have any favorite stuff like that. I mean, I try to look at all the stuff, I play as many games that I can, but yes, if I had to say I favor one, I would say that the story driven games are the ones that get me intrigued
And movies and TV?
Josef: Not necessarily, no. I mean, it’s a combination of everything. The influences come from life, and from stuff you see.
Okay, so I guess this was all the questions I had. And is there anything you want to say to our readers and to potential future players?
Josef: I hope you play the game, and you’ll see what I mean.
Okay, well thank you and good luck with the development, and I hope to play it soon
Josef: Okay, thank you.