A Way Out Director Josef Fares On Designing Games As Their Own Medium
When Josef Fares and Starbreeze released Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons in 2013, fans and critics alike praised the game, but expressed bafflement at the strange story of a rising star in the film industry suddenly pivoting to design video games. The Lebanese-born director has a compelling biography both behind and ahead of him, having fled the Lebanese Civil War as a child and winning film awards alongside his brother, Fares Fares. After winning the Nordic Council Film Prize for his 2005 film Zozo, Josef Fares directed his attention to a narrative game about controlling two brothers with separate analog sticks with Starbreeze, which we described as "akin in spirit to arthouse games."
Now, Fares and his studio Hazelight are working with Electronic Arts on A Way Out, a story of two men meeting up in and subsequently escaping from prison. It is, in many ways, a ridiculous experiment in narrative gaming, forcing players to only play it co-op in either local or online permutations, to the point where the game comes with extra copies to gift to a friend. You can read our brand new impressions of the game here.
Those who watched The Game Awards in 2017 might remember Fares holding the microphone next to host Geoff Keighley, ostensibly to announce the extra copy feature of the game, launching into a swear-filled rant about the Oscars, which Fares reflects back on as "s--- happens."
Fares is charmingly eccentric in a way that defies description. Thoroughly an auteur, he talks about his vision for his games in such glowing terms that you feel less like he's trying to sell you on it and more that he wants to convince you of how cool it all is. Through the admittedly thick veneer of wild hand gestures and profanity, an unbridled enthusiasm and optimism for A Way Out shines through.
GI: Brothers had two characters controlled by one controller, and A Way Out is the exact opposite. It's two characters controlled by two people and only two people no matter what. What inspired that idea?
Fares: It actually started with me and a friend trying to find a co-op game that wasn't a drop-in drop-out. I'm not against those games, but it's just that I feel that I want to play something with my friend that means something. I want to have a character that is not just about leveling up or something like that; I want to play a real character. I think people underestimate the power of telling stories when you're together. If you look at a movie you can experience a great story together. Why can't you do that in a game, as well? So that's the idea with this. Can you make a story-heavy co-op game that you experience together with your own character and your own personality that you feel connected to? That was the starting point, and then we started making it and realized that all the s--- and f---ing problems that could come up. It's a lot of work and so much fun, and since day one 'till now I feel absolutely sure of the vision and the passion has been there all the time. We've [the development team] grown. We started as 10 people and we're ending up with actual developers almost up to 40, but that's a small studio for this type of game. I'm not going to go into details about the budget, but if I told the developers this is the money we did this for they would laugh at me. We have no outsourcing, no nothing, so we've done everything in-house. I mean, I put the mo-cap suit on me. I have a video on my phone where go and fight and everything. But that was the original idea, how to make a co-op game that wasn't just the drop-in drop-out. We wanted something else, you know?
Were there any games you were inspired by?
Not really, no. I love making games, and I'm very passionate about this. I feel like games can be so much more than they are today. I like the evolution, I like the creative aspect. There are so [many] things that are unexplored now, and I think it's going to be such an interesting period onward now because there's going to be so much stuff, I think.
Do you think it's harder to make a narrative in a game than it is a movie?
I don't think so. It always depends on how you do it. With A Way Out, we even try to give you control during cutscenes, but I think with a strong story, of course, you have moments where you can't really talk to your loved ones. The question here should be why is gameplay looked at as always shooting or jumping or solving puzzles? Gameplay could be actually making love with someone depending on how you do it. I'm not talking about X and just following a button set of quick-time events. That is possible to make it, I'm really interested in that.
What are the technical differences? You've mentioned a couple of times how painstaking it is to do all this animation. Do you think that part is harder?
It's a lot of stuff, because we didn't have a similar game that we could compare it to. First of all, a game like this hasn't really been done. Normally, you have a mechanic you go with, and most of the time people are not doing split-screen games today. They do it as an arcade mode where you go around and shoot or something. The hardest thing has been how do you pace the story and how you tell the story for two players. In a single-player game you could easily put out triggers and cutscenes wherever you want because you know where you are, but right now we need to figure out where both players are. We need to make them focus when the cutscene happens, but that's what I'm so happy about when we make tests. People are really engaged. They're like oh s--- they're a part of the story, they're living these characters, and that was the biggest accomplishment I would say, but that was also the hardest thing. How do you balance that? How do you make a fishing scene interesting? I didn't want to make a game again where you just do the same thing over and over. I think you lose the relation to your character, you know what I mean? This is a game where you don't level up or do something like that. It's nothing like oh, I'm going to have this gun, now you take this one. We have guns in the game, but it's only allowed when the story allows you to. But that's definitely the hardest thing, how to make a co-op game story heavy like this.
You're partnering with EA on A Way Out. How did they react when you told them it had to be a co-op game only?
Super good. Look, here's the thing with EA. I've been having all the support I had all the time. I know there's been a lot of s--- about that. This is thing about publishers; all publisher f--- up sometimes, that's how it is, but they have been super supportive only, like only. Not a single time they have gone to this game and said – they can't even go in and change the color of a skirt. That's what I'm saying, this is super supportive. Don't forget with these [EA] Originals deal is that 100 percent is for the developer. They're not even making a single dollar on this game, and they're still out helping me with everything, with the PR, with everything, with the support, with everything, so I'm super happy.
Was it your idea to have the thing where you buy one copy and it goes to a buddy?
Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. That wasn't a problem. It was supposed to be announced at The Game Awards, but I'm a passionate guy so s--- happens. The whole idea is that you this for, what does it cost, like $29 or something like that? It's because you have to play with somebody and for me it makes sense that why buy two copies when you're forced to play together with someone? Trust me, if it were up to me I'd give it for free. I don't care, I'm telling you, but we need to pay our bills, you know what I mean? But I think it's fair to have it like this, yeah?
Are there any movies that you were particularly inspired by, because the vibe I got from before was Shawshank Redemption or O' Brother Where Art Thou.
Oh, of course, there are different movies, but there's not a particular one.
So just the prison-break genre?
Prison is a part of the game, it's a portion of the game, but you would continue outside, obviously. The game almost starts – because the characters don't know each other – like a single-player experience for both players. Then they get to know each other and build up their relationship. That was also hard. How do you do that as a co-op split-screen? I would say in the first 20 minutes you're not in contact with each other. How do you pace that s---? There's a lot of challenges we have to solve along the way, but I'm so happy because it happens so naturally. I'm really happy about how we accomplished that. I'm super proud of this.
You said during the demo earlier that the game has accidental replayability. Do you think that's what people should aim for?
No, no, no, no. You know what they should aim for? What they feel in their heart. Don't care about what is this, what sells, what doesn't. I follow my heart and that's it. This is how I am, and everybody who works with me knows this. If someone told me take $100 million and this I would tell them go f--- yourself. It's not going to happen. This is the vision, this is going to stick with it, this is it. I think with replayability, sure. If people want to replay the game, be my guests, but I also think gamers are changing. You have gamers that are very young that have a lot of time, but we have gamers that have families and appreciate maybe a shorter experience that could really touch us. That doesn't necessarily mean you have to put in 100 hours. I rarely have time to play a big, open-world game today, you know? Sometimes most of the open-world ones I would say are open-repetition instead of open-world because you are doing the same thing over and over again, but at the same time it's exciting what's happening in the industry. This evolution for stuff like, for instance, the shooter genre. I love that this battle royale thing is getting big and huge, I love these changes that happen all the time. That's what's good about this industry. From a creative perspective, there are forces that push us to be creative. People are very hard. That's a good thing and a bad thing. The bad thing would be come on, don't you know the actual work behind everything? The good thing is we all push the boundaries of creativity, what we can do, and I think we just scratch the surface.
By that same token, have you ever thought about making a game that's not narrative based, like something like Battlegrounds?
It depends on what I feel for next. The one that I wake up and feel passionate about, that's the one it's going to be. That's how I roll, you know?
Is gaming now your main thing, then? Are you ever tempted to go back to movies?
I mean, I now have Hazelight as a company, and I'm not saying I'll never make movies again because I keep getting these offers still, but right now it's focused on games. I love it so much and it's so much fun. It's a pain in the a-- because for me if I make a movie it's going to be like taking a vacation. It's a passive experience. I'm not saying it's that easy to make a movie, but it's definitely way easier to make than a game. Making a game, because of the interactivity of it, makes it way more complex. You don't really know what the gamers will do. It's almost like releasing your audience on the set to let them play with the actors and cameras. It's kind of a scary thing. Even sitting down with you playing the game done now, I've seen it in such s--- ways. I'm just so happy it actually works and I'm so proud of the team, that we pulled it off because the amount of s--- that we put into this one is crazy. I didn't show it to you, but we have, like, a lot of small minigames here that are for the players. We have an arcade, you throw darts, you play baseball, you play basketball. It's crammed with stuff.
Based on the two games so far, Brothers and A Way Out, it seems like interpersonal relationships are the main thrust of your games, like how your character deals with other people or deals with the other characters. Do you think that's your main theme or just the way it happens to work out when telling a story?
I want to tell strong stories in games, but make them as playable as possible. That's my hope. I know that there have been games more toward storytelling, but they tend to be more of a passive experience. I love the interactivity of gaming, and that's what I want to keep pushing. If you play through Brothers, for instance, you know the ending when you have physically push something to grow as a brother. That's the thing I'm very proud of also. How do you mechanically use this stuff to make it playable? That's what interests me.
A Way Out releases on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC on March 23.