A Way Out uses creative split-screen and filmmaking techniques, and the result is a cooperative experience that isn’t quite like anything else. Two players control the main characters, Leo and Vincent. The men share a common enemy and are trying to break out of prison and bring him down.
What follows is a heartwarming and action-packed romp. It swings between those poles in a way that can feel unbalanced.
So how does the game reconcile those moods in the last act?
[Warning: This article contains detailed spoilers for the end of A Way Out. Like, seriously, all of the spoilers. You have been warned.]
Simone: Jenna, you and I streamed all of A Way Out on our YouTube channel. I was alternately dazzled, amused, and mystified. The action sequences — like a motorcycle chase in Mexico — were incredibly fun and silly.
The game’s heart rests in the portrayals of Vincent and Leo’s families, as well as their growing friendship. They go from strangers who meet in prison, to friends who risk their lives for each other. Vincent meets Leo’s wife and kid. Leo gives Vincent serious relationship advice. Their friendship is incredibly sweet and compelling.
And then in the third act, after all is said and done, it’s revealed that Vincent is an undercover cop. After hours of cooperative play, the characters — and the players — are pitted against each other in an extended shoot-out. At the end, one character lives, and one character dies.
And that’s the game.
For the purposes of this article, in our playthrough Vincent (my character) killed Leo. Either character can win the shoot-out, but the plot point of Vincent turning on Leo is static.
At one point during the game, I mentioned that if the game took a dark turn, I would feel betrayed. Jenna, did this ending feel like a betrayal to you?
Jenna: It felt like a literal betrayal in that you shot me to death. In a broader sense, the game relies on cinematic tropes and visual style, but doesn’t pay them off in the end. Because if this were a movie, it wouldn’t have ended this way.
The plotline pays off on its action-movie premise with the twist, but fails to bring home the thematic story of their friendship, which crumbles immediately in the most action-spectacular way. If A Way Out were a movie, Leo and Vincent would have found some way to reconcile, even if one died in the other’s arms.
We spent the whole game not only seeing their friendship build, but also enacting the building of that friendship. We were working together to build our real-life friendship. To force Simone to betray that by betraying me felt... wrong. It felt wrong not have an option to choose to stay together.
I can’t shake the feeling that if there had been a third option, my enjoyment would have been way higher. How would you feel if there were an alternate ending?
Simone: That’s a really good point — every action we took over the course of this game brought us closer together. When Vincent was revealed as a traitor, it wasn’t a choice that I had made, as a player. Suddenly I had no control. I shot you because I wanted to be good at the game, but I hated that I was being forced to destroy this friendship with my own two hands.
If there had been a third option, I would absolutely have taken it. If you remember, I actually did try not to kill you! But there’s a point where the “winning” character picks up a gun, and can no longer put it down. You’re stuck on this one-way track where all you can do is aim a gun and shoot your friend in the chest.
Had it been a hidden-role game where I knew I would betray you, I think the emotional pay-off would have been greater. As it is, I thought we were building something wonderful together. And we both found out that it was a lie.
You’re right in saying this was very action movie-esque. Would you say the game fell into a cinematic trap?
Jenna: I DO remember you trying not to kill me, and it meant a lot to me! Overall I’d say A Way Out does a great job of deploying cinematic tropes to make a better game, like in the first half when Leo and Vincent are recounting their break-out. Being able to cut between the framing narration and the action allowed us to skip a lot of backtracking and really focus on the interesting parts of the story. Plus the slow-motion action scenes —like when we both jumped our motorbikes over ramps and got the cars chasing us to collide in mid-air? That felt good, and the fact that Hazelight Studios was able to time the gameplay to make that feel natural is remarkable.
On the other hand, once we escaped the prison, there were a lot more “wander around picking things up” segments. They weren’t puzzles, really, just areas with items we could interact with, without purpose. These were fun in their own right — playing a piano/banjo-duet minigame with you was delightful! — but it didn’t contribute much to the story and sometimes felt like a weird digression.
In a game where Leo and Vincent remain friends, these minigames have more pay-off because they’re thematically establishing their emotional connection. It’s not all shoot-outs and car chases! They have real moments of relationship-building! But if one was always fated to kill the other, what purpose do those moments serve? Did the ending change your enjoyment of the rest of the game at all?
Simone: I look back on A Way Out with a lot of fondness. Despite the issues I have with how it ends, I don’t regret playing it, and I appreciate its creative storytelling, excellent character writing, and just the pure fun that I had.
The interactive moments that you’re describing already made no narrative sense. We played two fugitives whose faces are plastered all over newspapers, who are being chased by cops. And we stopped to play a game of Connect 4 in the hospital? Okay. It was ridiculous but it was also hilarious and cute, so I sought out those interactions wherever I could.
The comparative darkness of the ending just makes those moments stick out more. It left me wondering what kind of story this was supposed to be. Is it a ‘70s-throwback action movie romp? Is it a heartwarming story of two flawed men trying to do right by their families? Is it a tongue-in-cheek commentary on interactivity in games?
I think narrative rules can always be broken, but in this case I don’t think it was worth it to break them. The third act twist didn’t make the game’s story more satisfying. Instead it muddled an already complex mixture of tones, and made the narrative weaker as a whole.
Jenna: Yes, and also you did kill me.
Simone: I did do that. Sorry.