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Josef Fares
Josef Fares, founder of Hazelight Studios
Photo: Electronic Arts

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Josef Fares might love co-op ‘too much’

The games industry wild card on It Takes Two and why everyone should ‘stop talking about replayability’

Take our mittened hand and let Polygon’s Winter Games package for 2021 guide you through the playground of wintertime games — what’s great, what’s not, and what exciting features await you in the games coming out in February and March.

Most new parents will tell you that taking care of an infant is the most exhausting thing you can possibly do. But that doesn’t seem to be the case for Josef Fares, the director of the popular co-op game A Way Out and the man who once yelled, “Fuck the Oscars,” at The Game Awards. Fares, who is the newly minted father of a 4-month-old daughter, is fairly brimming with energy as he sits in a conference room at his studio in Sweden.

Fares has just completed work on It Takes Two, a co-op adventure that he alternately refers to as a “romantic comedy” and “fucking nuts.” Despite that, he’s already talking about his next project. The gameplay is already set, he says, and he’s nailed the story down as well. He’s not stopping.

“I love what I do. That’s the trick, you know?” says Fares on a call with Polygon. “If you love what you do, I don’t think you get tired of it. Some people can take more, some people do one project. You’re born with different things, you know? We’re wired very differently. What works for me? It doesn’t work for everybody else.”

Such energy is surpassingly rare in a business known for rampant burnout, but Fares is not your typical game developer. While he’s always loved games — likening a home without a console or a PC to a house without a toilet — Fares took an unusual route to the games industry. He got his start making films in Sweden, where he grew up after fleeing the Lebanese Civil War at the age of 10. Other developers, like Death Stranding and Metal Gear Solid director Hideo Kojima, dream of becoming filmmakers, but Fares has been there, done that.

The two heroes of Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons look out over a woodsy landscape Image: Starbreeze Studios/505 Games

Fares first burst onto the game development scene in 2013, when Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons won acclaim for its unique depiction of the bond between siblings through gameplay. He later gained notoriety when he stood alongside a bemused Geoff Keighley at The Game Awards and flipped his middle-finger at the camera. To hold a conversation with Fares is to mainly ride the waves and hold on tight. You never know when a discussion about, say, the effect of the pandemic on co-op games will morph into a broadside against mobile games.

To wit: “I think because people have been so much at home, they’re actually, you know, discovering games, different things. That’s what I hope at least, that more people play games,” Fares says. “And I don’t mean mobile shit games. I mean like the real video games where they’re not just about to push a button. You know, like Candy Crush or something like that.”

Opinions like these have a way of just sort of tumbling out when talking to Fares, to the point that it can occasionally be difficult to keep up. Nevertheless, it’s an approach that seems to work for him. His mid-sized narrative games, which might otherwise get lost in the mix amid the continual torrent of releases, invariably get attention just because Fares is such an entertaining interview. Apparently sensing this, Fares hams it up a bit for the benefit of the press while Electronic Arts’ PR rep offers a half-amused, half-exhausted chuckle in the background.

the two brothers in A Way Out standing in a prison yard at night in the rain Image: Hazelight Studios/Electronic Arts

It’s hard to argue with results. Fares claims that A Way Out sold some 3.5 million copies — an extremely impressive figure for a narrative game that can only be played with a friend — and at least some of that success can be chalked up to Fares’ bit on The Game Awards turning him into a meme. Either way, Fares says there’s nothing he regrets about his past eight years, calling it a “very successful journey.”

“I trust my instincts and what I believe in a lot. And A Way Out was never any doubt, even if many people were concerned. Like, what about the market, will people play this if it’s only co-op ... I’m like, No, this what we’re going to do. And we’re seeing that there is a market for it,” Fares says. “I mean, obviously it’s sad that some people can’t play because they’re alone. But I mean, you have forums, and maybe in the future we might make a matchmaking system.”

But his brand of co-op isn’t about simply grinding levels. “No, you’re actually playing a story together. That’s the difference. You need to talk to that person.”

Fares goes on to compare A Way Out and It Takes Two with shooters like Apex Legends, which in recent years have been praised for innovative systems that allow players to direct teammates without needing a mic: “You can’t just have a ping system. Shoot that, take that. I mean, it’s not your typical co-op shooter or something. This is a game where you have to have someone else. You have to experience it together with someone, that’s the whole idea, you know?”

The two protagonists of It Takes Two, both shrunk down into tiny dolls, have to operate game joysticks together Image: Hazelight Studios/Electronic Arts

‘Stop talking about replayability’

Fares’ instincts will once again be put to the test with It Takes Two, his most unconventional project to date. He describes It Takes Two as a romantic comedy featuring a couple who are turned into a pair of dolls by their daughter. Fares doesn’t have as big an acting role as he did in A Way Out, where he provided all of the mo-cap for Leo. But he does provide the motion capture for Dr. Hakim, taking the form of an anthropomorphic book of love that Fares describes as “crazy and cheesy, like myself.”

An inveterate showman, Fares gets to hyping up It Takes Two, promising that he is “ready to give anyone one thousand bucks if they truly get tired of this game,” and that he will give them the money in person. He gestures in the general direction of the EA representative on the Zoom call, “[Jino Talens] here is proof of that, right Jino?” Talens laughs but doesn’t say anything.

This is the precursor to a vintage rant by Fares. In talking about how It Takes Two will purportedly never have the same gameplay twice, he turns to his current pet issue: replayability.

It’s “madness” that people aren’t finishing games, he says. He can’t accept that he should be happy with 51% of players finishing A Way Out, even though it’s “actually pretty high supposedly.” He likens it to someone going to see one of his films and then leaving when it’s only half-finished. (For comparison’s sake, PlayStation trophy data shows only about 28% of players finishing Red Dead Redemption 2, while The Last of Us Part 2 can claim a robust 60% completion rate).

He only gets more emphatic as he presses forward: “Even reviewers, what is going on? One of the things they talk about is the replayability factor. Who cares! Who cares when it’s ... listen to me, percentage-wise 30% of people might finish the game, and we have maybe 2% of people who replay. Are you kidding me? Do you know how much time people put in to make these games that people don’t even finish? And everybody’s in the industry right now going like, Crunch, blah, blah, blah. Well, stop talking about replayability!”

It Takes Two features split-screen co-operative play Image: Hazelight Studios/Electronic Arts

Fares’ solution to the problem of players losing interest is to cater as hard as possible to their diminished attention spans. It Takes Two will have around 25 different minigames across 15 hours, he says, with gameplay that “twists and shifts and then goes upside down.” It’s aided by a larger budget, a product of the success of A Way Out.

It Takes Two’s development hasn’t been impacted too badly by the COVID-19 pandemic, says Fares, since the team was already on to polishing on bug-fixing by the time quarantine hit. Fares admits that he misses the energy of having everyone in the office. “I mean, it’s been OK, but I miss it, because I really am a people’s person. I’m at the office all the time,” he says with a hint of wistfulness. “I just hope we can go back to normal so we can sit together under the same roof.”

It’s in moments like these that you realize that it’s not all an act, that Fares just enjoys interacting with other people. He’s a live-wire of a human being, seemingly never tiring of taking on new challenges and sharing strong takes about the industry. His continued success has further emboldened him, encouraging him to take more risks in a notoriously risk-averse business.

The protagonists of It Takes Two run down a hallway together, evading environmental hazards Image: Hazelight Studios/Electronic Arts

Fares has imbued his studio with a similar mentality. “The culture here is that every day I say, ‘Let’s fuck shit up creatively.’ And we definitely have fucked shit up. I mean, the team is amazing. I’m super happy. But we will become better. We’re not there yet. We’ll become better. This is only the start,” he says. “I’m not going to say we’re done. No, we need to like, boom, boom, boom, boom. Keep pushing, keep pushing where we haven’t reached it yet.”

With It Takes Two now complete, Hazelight Studios has already pushed on to the next game, developing prototypes as it works to solidify the gameplay ideas. Fares says that there’s still so much in co-op that intrigues him, noting that A Way Out sold better than some triple-A titles, but that he would be willing to take on other genres. An open world game? Maybe, but “not the way you normally see.” An RPG? Maybe in the future. Right now, it’s co-op, Fares says. “I love it too much.”

‘I’m not really sure if the Netflix system will work with games’

As for the latest consoles like PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X — the latter of which he recently lambasted for having a confusing name — he mostly shrugs. He likes having more powerful consoles that allow him to continue pushing boundaries from a creative perspective, but otherwise “it’s just hardware with components inside.” Fares is a game developer, and consoles are nothing without games.

He’s more ambivalent about Xbox Game Pass. “I’m not really sure if the Netflix system will work with games, I’m not sure how that’s going to work in the long-term [...] The only thing that scares me a little bit is that if you have a system where... How do you get paid? I’m not sure. Let’s say you have a Netflix model and you get paid for the amount of time people play your game. And if you have a shorter game, a narrative game, then you will obviously get less cash for that. [...] I’m super open to more playing games. But if it affects how we make games, then we have a problem.”

It’s a question that Microsoft itself has yet to fully address, because it doesn’t really seem to know the answer itself. In a November interview with The Verge, Xbox boss Phil Spencer admitted that Microsoft is still experimenting with payment models “because we don’t think we have it figured out.” Worth noting is that A Way Out arrived on Game Pass last year, alongside the rest of the EA Play catalog.

One of the levels in It Takes Two Image: Hazelight Studios/Electronic Arts

It Takes Two may join Game Pass at some point, but for now Fares is working to drive interest in other ways. One of its most intriguing features is the Friend’s Pass, which will make it possible to invite a friend to play for free. It will also be possible to play the first hour free, which Fares hopes will show players “how good it feels to play the game.” He’s confident that his team has matured and says that it has a bigger budget and better tools, which will be apparent in the final game.

As for Fares himself, he just keeps going, pandemic or no pandemic. Eight years hasn’t been nearly enough to make him tired of game development. If anything, it’s the opposite. “I mean, if you would ask me to never ever listen to another song, or look at a movie, or never play a game, it’s an easy choice. I would take away movies and music like this. Like I wouldn’t even think of it [...] That’s how much I love it.”

Will being a dad be enough to eventually slow Fares down? He shrugs, “[My daughter’s] only 4 months old. Maybe if you asked me in a year or two I could give you a better answer.” He pauses for dramatic effect, then leans forward. “But she will definitely become a gamer, that’s for sure.”

It Takes Two will be released March 26 on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Windows PC, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X.