Josef Fares and Hazelight Studios have carved out a niche for themselves in the games industry that no one else really occupies. Fares’ emphatic personality might have something to do with that, but more importantly, the studio’s co-op action-adventure title, A Way Out, delivered an experience that was very different from what you usually see in major releases.
That focus on storytelling, marriage of gameplay and narrative, and co-op is something that Hazelight are taking into their next game, It Takes Two, as well, and it seems like the developer is ready to kick things up a notch with pretty much every aspect of the experience. We recently got the change to talk to Fares, Hazelight boss and It Takes Two’s director, about the game, and ended up learning a lot about it in the process. You can read our conversation below.
"I mean, every time we make a new game, we try to push, you know, the narrative and the mechanics as much as we can. But yes- you will feel it’s a Hazelight game, but it’s a totally different game."
It Takes Two looks like a drastically different game from A Way Out, tonally and visually speaking, but at the same time, with its focus on co-op and a character-driven story, it seems to be driven by many of the same philosophies as Hazelight’s previous game. Was it a conscious decision to craft an experience that was simultaneously familiar but still offered something radically different from your first game?
Yes, of course, it was. I mean, every time we make a new game, we try to push, you know, the narrative and the mechanics as much as we can. But yes- you will feel it’s a Hazelight game, but it’s a totally different game. But it’s also because we’d like to do something different, not do the same thing. I mean, I’m not going to say I will never do it, but I don’t see myself doing a sequel for the moment. I want to try something new with different rules, a different thing. I mean, I don’t know, it’s just way more exciting to create a totally new IP. I mean, we have actually a publisher that allows that, so why not? And I love it. So, it’s perfect.
It Takes Two has been described as a romantic comedy, and its very premise makes it clear that the story is going to have a lot of strong, personal narrative beats. Has it been a challenge to strike a balance between such heartfelt moments and well-done comedy?
I mean, I haven’t really played a rom-com yet. I mean, yes, sure, it was definitely hard, as always- as every game you do, pretty much. But with this tone, it was even harder. But I would say the hardest thing with It Takes Two is to combine the gameplay, and the narrative- that was our main focus. I mean, there are many examples. Like one example could be that we are trying to, you know, have situations where, for instance, where our like main characters are going through, you know, I mean, the divorce and they’ve lost attraction for each other. Then you have this crazy, cheesy book that like, you know, throws out a magnet, it breaks into two and it’s like, this is- this is about your attraction. That’s actually your mechanic that you play these, you know, these broken magnets and, and actually gameplay-wise, the further you go along in that level, the stronger, you will attract to each other. So again, like we really are trying to, like, you know, combine the mechanics and the narrative. That was the hardest part, I would say. But also, like, emotionally… I mean, it’s hard to say exactly, but I mean, the emotional points weren’t really the hardest one, I would say, the hard point was the gameplay narrative.
After the success of A Way Out, what are the biggest lessons you’ve taken into It Takes Two as far as crafting both gameplay and story are concerned?
As a team, we have grown, we have become more mature, we have grown to have better budgets, you know. You have to remember, the A Way Out team- I mean, many of the team members were interns, and now those interns are like kickass developers. So, we are better in all aspects. But one of the things I think we really wanted to push is that to make the game mechanics feel more responsive and feel more fresh and fun and interesting. I mean I don’t like to use the word fun all the time, but it’s definitely part of making the mechanic. That I think is a lot that we learned from A Way Out, like how to actually make these kinds of things. So we’re definitely more experienced.
We don’t get a lot of games that are as singularly focused on co-op as It Takes Two is (and A Way Out was), and it seems like Hazelight is one of the only major studios out there that’s making games like these. What drives you as developers to keep pursuing experiences like these? What would you say an exclusively co-op adventure adds to gameplay and story that a solo game cannot achieve?
You never get [anything like that]. I mean, A Way Out was the first one. I mean, there is no other- Hazelight has pretty much come up with the genre, co-op story only.
The thing is, it’s always more interesting to have two characters, story-wise, the dynamic between them and what goes on. It’s also like, you know, when we look at a movie or like when we tell stories to each other, we often do it in a group or a bigger group. So, I think this is an underestimated thing to tell stories in co-op. I mean, there are definitely great ways to experience stories together. I mean, we have seen like this really strong reaction when people are playing A Way Out, and how people are reacting to each other. And you can like, [mess] with the player’s mind a little bit more when there are two people like that- especially A Way Out does that, without spoiling anything. And it’s also a genre where there’s way more left to discover from a creative perspective. How to narratively tell a cool, great, interesting, unique story in co-op. So that’s something that’s really intriguing for us.
"Let me say this- I think this game take the world record in actually how much variation is in game."
Based on everything that we’ve seen of it so far, variety seems to be the name of the game in It Takes Two, with a number of what are looking like vastly unique set-piece moments, gameplay sections, locations, and more. Is that constant variety something the game will attempt to deliver from beginning to end? How challenging is it for you as developers to keep changing things up that way?
Let me say this- I think this game take the world record in actually how much variation is in game. And there are many reasons for that. One of the things is that I personally believe that narrative games can become very repetitive, I do believe that we need to get away from finding one mechanic and then just repeating it over and over again. It doesn’t fit the narrative experience if you ask me. So in It Takes Two, what we’re trying to do is that every situation the characters are in, you’re playing it.
So, the gameplay should reflect what goes on the narrative, but also to keep the players invested in the story and keep the game fresh and unique. I mean, my hope is that players finish the game. I mean it bothers me that the statistics we on games, people don’t even finish them. It’s crazy how the statistics look like. And I think one of the reasons is that the games are too repetitive. I don’t know, it’s an old design rule. I mean, it’s fine if you’re doing this looter shooter stuff, when you shoot and you level up and blah blah blah, but not in narrative games. I really do believe that you have to have a varied experience.
And I mean, I can guarantee you, I’m ready to give you $1,000 if someone genuinely think that they get tired of It Takes Two. It’s impossible, because there will be something new around every corner for a story reason, or for what they go through. So, whatever happens, or whatever they meet, you’re playing it, which I think is awesome. And yes, from a production perspective- you know, my team is not always happy about this, but they’ve gotten used to this because I love variation. And of course, it takes time. However, we’ve used it, and we love it. This is the kind of game that we want to do.
Something that’s been greatly emphasized in all that’s been said and shown of It Takes Two so far is how it merges gameplay and narrative. Can you talk a bit more about that, and what the driving philosophies are behind that cohesion between the two elements?
Yes. So again, like I mean, I pretty much answered this before. So that’s what we’re trying to do all the time with the games we do. Can we make a mechanic that makes sense to the story? Whatever it is, it could be just a simple thing like, they’ve got to go through this tree to get their house, and what’s in that tree? Is that a squirrel? You meet that squirrel? What are they doing? But also, like I explained before, in this case, these parents, they have a relationship problem? And this cheesy book is trying to fix it. Like the example I said before with the magnets, I mean, he breaks the magnets into half. I know, that’s not how a magnet works, but then he explains to them that that’s their attraction. And later in that particular level, you get a strong attraction. So, you can actually attach to each other. You’ll see what I mean when you play it.
I’ve also had examples where, for instance, the couple are having a hard time in their relationship. So, Cody is one of the characters who feels that, you know, time is limitless. And May, who’s the female character, she thinks she doesn’t have enough time and she wishes there were two of her. And that’s actually the mechanic you have in that level when you’re playing. She wishes there were two of her, and that’s her mechanic, and he feels that time can go very slow and very fast, and that’s his mechanic, of controlling time. So again, like in a metaphoric way, we’re trying to marry those two so you’re not playing just a mechanic, you’re playing a mechanic that can make sense for your characters’ emotions. That’s something we’re going to keep pushing for in every game we do.
Roughly how long will an average playthrough of It Takes Two be?
I would say between 14-15 hours. There’s a lot to discover. No collectibles and s**t. That’s not something we want. So instead of you go around, you can interact with stuff. You will have lots of minigames, like 25 minigames spread out in the world they can play around, side content and s**t. We want the world to be alive, so you’ll have a lot of fun discovering that weird s**t. There’s a lot of secrets as well, I hope people find them. They’re going to love it.
"We want the world to be alive, so you’ll have a lot of fun discovering that weird s**t. There’s a lot of secrets as well, I hope people find them. They’re going to love it."
Do you have any plans to eventually bring the game to the Switch?
No, we don’t have any plans. Not sure we can do it actually. I’m not sure, because people forget sometimes, we do split screen games with a lot of s**t in it. Like, there’s a lot of s**t going on. Trust me, it takes a lot of effort to make this work on the old-gen consoles, because there’s so much going on.
What kind of enhancements will the PS5 and Xbox Series X/S versions have?
I don’t know, I mean they will run better. I have been seeing them running here, they obviously run way better. It’s better tech, so they’re going to run better, have super high frame rates. But actually, the game will be 60 FPS on PS4 and Xbox One. It will run good on all consoles.
You recently lambasted Microsoft for their naming conventions for the Xbox Series X/S. Do you have any suggestions for what a better name for the consoles would be?
Ah, lambasted means like I talked s**t. [Laughs] Yes. What about Xbox Serious Mess? That’s a good name. [Laughs] Yeah, write that up. I like it. Xbox Serious Mess. I love it.
What are your thoughts on the different approaches that Microsoft and Sony have taken, with the former focusing more on Game Pass and the latter focusing on traditional consoles?
I don’t really care about consoles, for me it’s always been focused on games, games, games, game. I mean, right now I’m much more a fan of Sony’s strategy, because they make more unique IPs and focus more on games that I really enjoy that are story-heavy. So I hope Microsoft goes that way. I mean, with Game Pass, I’m not sure what that’s going to give. I mean, if there’s no games that makes no sense. Doesn’t matter, you know? Another thing, I don’t see it as a war as well. Like looking at how [Xbox boss] Phil Spencer talks about this, it seems more that he wants Game Pass to get on PS5 also. But at the end of the day it’s about games.
However, this, like, Netflix of gaming is interesting because I don’t really see how it’s going to go in the future. It’s hard to tell, it’s not like movies, you know? Games are a bit different, but it’s going to be interesting to follow to see what goes on there. But I sure hope that Sony continues with what they’re doing. You know, making great games like The Last of Us and Spider-Man and all that they do.
"I’m so sure this game will be a success. Trust me, play it, and you will understand what I mean. You have never played anything like it. It will blow your mind away."
What PS5 and Xbox Series X/S features are you most excited about?
Nothing, really. I mean, it’s a way better console. The haptic feedback is kind of cool. I’m just happy that we have new consoles, because consoles are what are driving the graphical fidelity forward. That’s the thing I’m happy about. And it’s not necessarily PS5- I would say I’m happy with what Sony is doing, that they’re pushing the single player experience with games like God of War and The Last of Us. Like I said, that the thing I love, and I hope they continue with that and with better hardware. It’s about better games and higher graphic fidelity and more unique different experiences because, you know, from a technical aspect you could do way more stuff. But, I mean, the console is pretty much- it’s so silly, everything with consoles and PCs, blah blah, it’s all the same. It’s just the box in a different name. Doesn’t really matter, the game is what’s important. But again, I’m happy with the new console generation, because that’s what pushes it forward.
Is there anything else you want to tell us about It Takes Two?
You know, what we’ve made sure is that when the game when the game comes out, you will be able to play pretty much like a big chunk of like a demo of the game. Trust me, when you play this game, you will understand, you will have great fun. You will love it. There’s going to be friend passes- you only buy one copy. So, I’m so sure this game will be a success. Trust me, play it, and you will understand what I mean. You have never played anything like it. It will blow your mind away. What about that?