Hazelight announced a release date for its next game, It Takes Two, during The Game Awards 2020. The co-op platforming adventure game tells the story of a couple in the midst of a divorce when a magical book intervenes. The new game seems infused with the DNA of Hazelight founder and game director Josef Fares–from its uncompromising focus on cooperative gameplay to the hyper-energized narration of the magical Dr. Hakim, who hopes to bring the couple back together.
GameSpot spoke with Fares about his inspirations, how he deals with criticism, and how his next game will save your marriage. (He was kidding about that last one. Probably.)
It Takes Two looks like a continuation of some themes that you’ve been exploring throughout your career. What makes you so interested in cooperative play or the theme of togetherness more broadly?
I think for my background coming from movies–when we experience a movie or whatever narrative, we like to experience them together. I just feel that co-op experience, it’s a very underestimated genre. You can do a lot of great narrative stories in co-op. I think we’re missing out on something. And we as a studio, at Hazelight, we’re actually unique that there’s no one in the world doing this, just the unique co-op experience tailored, and I mean done from the ground up as it.
Because there’s so much in the storytelling and the mechanics you can play. We can even take this story to the actual player playing the game and mess with their mind. There’s something about that that really intrigues me. I do believe also, we’ve seen [A Way Out] become a huge success. We’re like at 3.5 million units now, which is madness for a small game like that.
So there’s definitely a need for exploring or playing stories together. You know what I mean? Because other co-ops are pretty much about shooting and leveling up, but what we’re doing at Hazelight is totally unique. We don’t have any competitors, to be honest.
When you were introducing A Way Out, there was a concern that the co-op only restriction might end up hurting it, and it doesn’t seem like that happened.
No, no, no, the opposite. At that time, I wasn’t so good at speaking about Friend Pass, but that’s definitely something that helps a lot. The success of A Way Out is only proof of that. And also to be honest, I know many people, even people at EA, they didn’t believe this would sell so well, but it doesn’t matter because when the vision is there and you believe in it, just go on with it and push for it. And that’s how it’s always going to be at Hazelight. No one will interfere or change whatever we’re doing here.
So what lessons or feedback from A Way Out did you bring into the new game, It Takes Two?
After [Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons] and A Way Out, and now It Takes Two, you learn a lot. And you have to understand, we didn’t have a big budget on A Way Out, and many of the developers were beginners. They were interns, but those interns are now bad motherf***ers. They really know how to make a game way better, which means that we can push the mechanics, polish more, work more on the screen. Everything becomes better. We can push that even further, even further, and we’ve become better and better in creating these tailored co-op experiences.
A Way Out was an adventure puzzle-y narrative game. This is much more of a traditional platformer, from the looks of it. What were your inspirations?
Let me tell you this. “Traditional,” that word will stop existing in your brain after you play this. Trust me, I know what you mean when you look at it. But the thing with It Takes Two–sometimes the writers and designers are in two different games, and I believe in narrative games, that the mechanics have to adapt to what goes on in the story. And that’s what we do in It Takes Two. Everything that goes on in the story should be reflected in the mechanics.
But this game is literally changing all the time. Whatever happens in the story, it will be reflected in the mechanics as well. There are even places where we actually have metaphors that are connected to the mechanics as well. I mean, it is a romantic comedy, this story. Because this couple is about to divorce, and they have this crazy book that their daughter found. You saw in the trailer. It’s kind of a crazy lovey, cheesy kind of a guy, and he is the one that’s trying to pull them together.
And one of the things, for example, that they’re going to work on is their attraction, because they have lost their attraction in their relationship, and there you have a piece of magnet that cracks in two pieces. [We’re] trying to marry the gameplay and the story and make it the metaphor between those two. That’s so super important for this game.
And you called it a romantic comedy. Comedy in games is kind of rare, and I think it’s because it’s very hard to get the pace and the timing right. How do you approach comedy in this medium?
Well actually, what you can do is use the mechanics again. I guarantee you, there will be points in the game where you will start laughing, like, “What the f*** is going on?” So it’s a different way than a movie. Obviously you can’t treat it as a normal movie because the players are controlling the pace and everything. We’re doing everything we can to create these crazy moments to set the players in a moment where it’s like, “Oh s***, what’s going on?” And we’ve already done a lot of testing obviously, and we see people laughing when they play this game because of its fun, because of the craziness that goes on.
It’s impossible to second guess what’s going to happen in this game. I’m telling you, I think we’re breaking some kind of world record in the variety of games it has. But again, it’s very important that it’s connected to the story. That’s what we’re going to push for every game we do.
A lot of co-op games are basically a single-player game, and if a second person joins, they can help, or it gets a little tougher. And you’re doing the exact opposite of that.
Yes, yes. For sure. We don’t have any drop-in, drop-out. This game, you have to play with someone you know, and if you’re going to play it online, which you can, talk to the person you’re playing it with. This is not a Destiny game where you just jump in, jump out, and level up. No, no, no. They have to be someone that you hopefully like and enjoy being with, a friend, a parent, or a kid, or a boyfriend, girlfriend, whatever you’d like, you know what I mean?
Or a spouse that you’re considering divorcing.
Exactly. Write that as the headline. Write that Josef Fares promises that you will fall in love again.
“This game will fix your marriage.”
Exactly. Say that. You know, I do the Dr. Hakim guy, the mo-cap, everything. It’s actually based on me, full of love and cheesiness. That’s me.
That makes sense. I saw some of his mannerisms and thought, “I bet that was at least inspired.”
He’s kind of an edgy, like a new-age kind of a book, but it’s all love. He thinks that everything is love.
Speaking of which, you’ve become known for this larger-than-life personality. How much are you leaning into that persona both as a public figure and also through the game itself?
I don’t have any persona. This is me, you know what I mean? I am that kind of a guy. And the thing is like, I don’t have any filters. Sometimes people tell me, “How can you be like this?” I’m like, “Isn’t it more weird to think of what you say than to say what you have to say?” I mean, I don’t care if people don’t like what I say, but I just say what I say. I try to be as nice as possible, but this is what I am.
And with this Dr. Hakim guy, it just felt natural. I’m one of the writers as well, so obviously the guy who made his voice said to me, “You know what? I don’t think anyone could have mo-capped this guy except you,” because he is based a little bit on me. And I have a crazy type of personality. So I don’t have a problem. I don’t think about it. It’s not that I’m planning on what to say and how to say it. I just say what I want to say, and I passionately believe in what I do, and that’s it.
Has it ever gotten you in trouble? Are you a “don’t read the comments” kind of guy?
Even if I see a comment, it doesn’t matter to me. But look, here’s the thing. If I was giving advice, I’d be like, if you want to do yourself a disservice, then you make a life where you’re dependent to what others think of you. That’s a guaranteed way of having a f***ed up life. That doesn’t mean that you don’t care, you don’t take care of your surroundings. Of course you have to be respectful and kind to the people around you, but there’s a huge difference between that and being too dependent.
You know, I think the sad part is that a lot of the creativity is in a very dangerous position if you’re too dependent upon your surroundings. It’s very dangerous to start listening too much. This is what I say. When we do our testing of our games, we take in players and adapt the experience we want to make so they can play it, not the experience that the players want to have. You see the difference there.
That is super important. I always push the designers to make these crazy ideas and realize them, and it’s super important all the time to think outside the box. There are many things in the gaming industry that we just do on a repeat and we don’t stop to think about it. The mechanics should reflect what goes on in the story or whatever goes on, and what you need in the game.
So I think here at Hazelight, we try to push everything. I think it’s super important that you trust yourself and go with it.
You’re doing the Friend Pass again. Did you do surveys or have in-game analytic data for how it was used? How did you gauge the success and decide to do it again?
The only thing I’ve seen is the sale numbers, and we’re at 3.5 million units now, so obviously it’s done something. What I do know is that the messaging was a bit mixed. That’s why I hope people really get what Friends Pass is really about. If you buy this game, you can play with your friend for free. You don’t need two copies. So I hope that messaging gets out better.
It’s the virtual version of inviting somebody to your house to play with you.
Yeah, it should work as the couch co-op, you know? It would be like punishing the player, if you want to play it on the couch, it shouldn’t be more expensive to play it online than on a couch.
I think in A Way Out, we had a 50% couch, 50% online, but I do believe the most important is to talk to each other. This is not the game you should experience with someone you don’t know, you don’t talk to. It’s super important you talk to each other, obviously.
Your other games have dealt with duality in more serious ways. It sounds like this is trying to blend a lighter overall tone with still having something to say.
Yeah, definitely. It is a lighter tone, but there’s definitely some emotions. I would say it’s emotional as well, but it’s definitely a different kind of tone.
Looking back on my movie career, most of their tones are more similar to what these games are, but I’ve done actually everything, both from drama and comedy. It’s just that this story felt like it worked for this game. I don’t know why. It just happens. It’s hard sometimes to put the inspiration. People ask me sometimes where the inspiration is. I mean, it’s my love for games. I’m a huge Nintendo fan, obviously. I’m a huge fan of games. So this is also a love letter for all of those things. It’s hard to say why, and there’s no plan or anything behind it. It just happened to be that way this time. Who knows what the next one will be?
I mean, I know what the next game is, which is going to kick ass.