How Co-Op Changes the Game: A Conversation With It Takes Two‘s Josef Fares

Games Features hazelight studios
How Co-Op Changes the Game: A Conversation With It Takes Two‘s Josef Fares

In the last few years, Hazelight Studios has rapidly made a name for itself by creating a pair of games with a unique twist: mandatory co-op. A Way Out and It Takes Two are narrative-oriented experiences that can only be played with a companion, each using this format to explore the relationships between their two protagonists. While co-op has been a mainstay for almost as long as the medium has existed, Hazelight’s games are relatively unique because their stories and mechanics are designed knowing someone else will always share your screen. In the case of A Way Out, this manifests in constant tensions with your frenemy prison escape partner, while It Takes Two foregrounds a couple trying to reconcile their failing marriage through a series of fantastical challenges orchestrated by a malicious love guru.

Coming off the success of Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, an indie outing that used mechanics to double down on its crushing ending, creative director Josef Fares and several key figures from its development left Starbreeze Studios to found Hazelight. While Fares was initially best known for his headline-grabbing anti-Oscar speech at the 2017 Game Awards, his teams’ subsequent successes have quickly earned him a reputation for heading one of the more promising studios in the industry. In light of It Takes Two coming to the Nintendo Switch this Friday, I got a chance to talk with Fares and Scott Cromie, a producer for the team handling the port, about why Hazelight is interested in co-op only games, the porting business, and the medium in general.

Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Paste Magazine: Scott, I understand you folks at Turn Me Up Games are working with Hazelight Studios to bring It Takes Two to the Nintendo Switch. Turn Me Up Games has worked on several Switch ports at this point, but considering some of the technical limitations with the system compared to other modern platforms, was porting It Takes Two a difficult task?

Scott Cromie: I think anytime we port a product to hardware that’s seven years old, it’s definitely not easy. At the same point, as you mentioned with our past experience, that’s what we leverage to make sure that we’re doing the project justice. Having worked on the Switch for five years, we were able to apply everything that we’ve learned up to now on It Takes Two, and we’re all really happy with the result. And I think players will be too.

Paste Magazine: When it comes to porting a game to the Switch or any other console, what are your main goals and priorities, technical or otherwise?

Scott Cromie: Meeting player expectations. Especially with a game of the year winner like It Takes Two, player expectations are really high. And there’s been a lot of ports to Switch from other developers throughout the industry, and some of those are received really well, some of them aren’t. And, you know, the fans are relying on us to deliver something that’s going to meet and hopefully exceed expectations. There’s a lot of pressure there, especially because there are people that have real love and affection for games like It Takes Two, and we want to make sure that we’re rising to the occasion.

Paste Magazine: I imagine when porting a game made by a different studio, your developers spent a lot of time working with a codebase written by someone else. What are some of the difficulties that come with this? And what was the process of collaboration like with you and Hazelight?

Scott Cromie: Yeah, that’s a great question. So diving into another developer’s codebase can be tricky, which is part of our evaluation process of what projects we want to get into because some codebases are better organized than others. I can say that jumping into the It Takes Two codebase, the project was really well organized. A lot of the code was documented according to what you’d hope for when getting a project, but there’s always stuff that’s different. Specifically, there’s back-end implementations in It Takes Two we knew we were going to need to write custom solutions for, and thankfully, the guys at Hazelight were extremely helpful in helping us navigate through anything that might have been proprietary on their end.

Paste Magazine: What are the biggest lessons Turn Me Up Games has taken from porting games over the last decade, both for the Switch and more broadly?

Scott Cromie: I would say it’s exposure. Our team is not as big as Hazelight or some of the other developers we’ve done ports for. We definitely haven’t been around as long, so exposure to their codebase is so invaluable for our team to see what a game of the year looks like, what a AAA game looks like, how these projects are organized, and what the tools are used to optimize certain aspects of the game. Exposure to stuff like that uplifts our team and really elevates them so much.

Paste Magazine: Having played It Takes Two, one element that really stood out to me and a lot of others is the variety of what you’re doing from moment to moment compared to many other games. How did you go about dreaming up all these distinct sequences and bringing them to life?

Josef Fares: Well, the variety of mechanics is something that I’ve been focusing on since I started in the industry in 2010. And often I heard the argument that we can’t do it, it’s too expensive, that it’s not how you do games. But for me, it was very important. I think that’s one of the things I brought in from my movie background. For pacing, I think it’s very important. Not only for pacing, but I think it’s also important that what happens in the story is being reflected in the gameplay. I mean, if you look at our games, Brothers, A Way Out and It Takes Two, what you’re experiencing in the story, you’re playing. If you get to a scene where a specific thing happened, the story is actually playing it. So that’s the whole idea. But early in development, I didn’t know that kind of thing cost a lot of money. Obviously, making a mechanic costs a lot and is a big, big risk.

And that is one of the key things we have here, when we make our games, that we do know when something could cost a lot because we won’t have time to polish it. Because obviously, you can quickly prototype something to convey what the mechanic is, but to polish it to a level where it feels good takes more time. There’s a reason why most games have one mechanic they focus on and make really nice. And that is also the risk with a Hazelight game, we do so many different ones.

But I think we’ve become better and better at assessing, will this be too hard or too challenging? So we need to polish all of them to a level where they feel really nice. Because the worst-case example is if you make a game with different mechanics, and everything feels bad. But that’s something I’ve always pushed for because I think some games out there reuse too much. It affects the pacing, and I’m really a big fan of having a huge variety of mechanics. Obviously, you can see it in all our games. And it’s becoming, in a sense, worse and worse, because I want more in the game. I think it’s important, but we have a good approach to it, how to work with it and how to manage it. But I can understand other developers. I hear other fellow developers talking about this, where they’re like, “You are fucking crazy. How can you do this?” But Hazelight are fucking crazy. And we are fucked up. So we have found a way to kind of calculate how many mechanics we add while making sure they still feel good and are polished. But it’s scary.

Paste Magazine: Building on that, were there any concepts for mechanics you really liked, but ended up having to cut for whatever reason, such as time constraints? And if so, what did those look like?

Josef Fares: None that we really liked, but there were mechanics that we were supposed to use and have in the game that didn’t fit. Some of them we felt would take too much time to polish because you need to take them all to a certain level. And to be specific, for the ending of , we had a mechanic that, even if we changed the variety of the mechanic, still needed to feel like it actually fit in the actual game world. And for the ending, we tried something that we thought was going to work, but we realized quite early that it wasn’t. We’re quite good at realizing that before we polish them.

Paste Magazine: One element I think a lot of people appreciate about It Takes Two is with the Friend Pass feature, someone who owns the game can play online with someone who hasn’t purchased it. Was it difficult to convince certain parties, such as those funding the game, that this was a good idea?

Josef Fares: So I’ve been seeing other developers using it, and I’m really happy about that. What people sometimes say, “Oh, you’re so good at negotiating.” I’m like, no, it’s reasonable, Friends Pass is reasonable. Because if you sit on a couch and play co-op with your friend, your friend doesn’t pay extra, right? And if you play online with your friend, you shouldn’t pay extra just because you’re not sitting with them. It should be the same thing. That’s why the Friends Pass thing came up. And it became kind of a goodwill thing. But for me, it’s reasonable, and it makes sense. It should be this way I think, and I see some developers actually doing this. It’s different if you’re making a multiplayer game, because then you own your own game.

But yes, it was a bit back and forth. I think, at the end of the day, it actually was a good thing, and it helped. I mean, I’m not a marketing guy, but I can imagine that helps sales a lot. That’s probably one of the reasons people are using it and calling it Friends Pass. I mean, it’s kind of well-known now, the Friends Pass thing.

Paste Magazine: Speaking more broadly about the games Hazelight Studios has worked on, what drives you all to continue making story-focused co-op experiences? And what do you think can only be communicated through this specific format?

Josef Fares: Well, I think that there’s so much to be discovered in co-op, there’s so much untapped potential there. First of all, I think we love to hear stories together. We experience watching movies together, we go to the theater, we’ll listen to stories together. I think it’s more fun to experience stories together. And I think there’s so much more potential to be discovered here. And that’s the uniqueness of making a co-op game. Without spoiling A Way Out and It Takes Two, the story itself doesn’t only happen on the screen, it happens on the couch. It’s almost like the people on the couch are part of the story, the way they communicate, talk to each other, and what’s going on between them.

I mean, there are very specific examples in both A Way Out and It Takes Two. Without going into it too much, there is a thing in A Way Out about trust, and It Takes Two is all about collaboration and communication as you talk to your friend or girlfriend or boyfriend or whoever. So that is something that’s totally unique for co-op games only. However, it’s harder in many ways, not only with what we talked about with mechanics. Storywise, it’s very much harder to tell a story in co-op because the focus is not the same as a single player. You have two different characters that you need to relate to, and if you’re unlucky, maybe the players chose a character they don’t relate to. You have to adapt a little bit. I mean, when we write the cutscenes, the parts, and design the game, we think about how the players won’t have as much focus as when you play a single-player game.

Paste Magazine: From an outside perspective, it can often seem like games need to fall into specific marketable archetypes to get greenlit by a lot of the big publishers. How have you gone about getting your games, which are co-op only and based around storytelling, funded in this landscape?

Josef Fares: Let me ask you this, what do you think? [Laughter] I mean, the way I speak now is the way I talk all the time, right? When I say look, this is the game we’re doing, period, nobody questioned it. Nobody says no. Okay, look, I’m very cocky, but we deliver. I’m the one that would react if we at Hazelight aren’t progressing in our games. But we have 100% control. And actually, to be honest, sometimes EA has been asking about the game. I say just don’t ask. It’s gonna be great, it’s gonna be good. And now they really don’t ask anything, they never interrupt. They know this.

I mean, they would never say, “Joseph, can you change this color to this?” They know it, they’re so used to how we work. And it’s not only EA because I remember with Brothers, I remember this so clearly where I had the same attitude like, “No, this is the way it’s going to be.” I mean, it was a bit harder before. Now it’s easier because after , A Way Out, and It Takes Two, it’s easier when you have a pedigree. But at that time, I remember we had a producer who said, “You know what, if you work with a publisher like EA, they will never let you do what you want. It will all be controlled.” I’m like, “Yeah, sure, whatever.” And now I am with EA, and I can say whatever the fuck I want, and I mean, we can do whatever the fuck we want. And I’m not saying anything bad about EA, they’ve been treating us really well, but I’m just saying that their support division has never interfered, and I hope more publishers can support developers and their visions.

However, on the other side, I think some developers tend to blame everything on the publisher. Maybe it’s actually that they lack vision or a leader that helps them. So it’s a yin-yang here, they both have a responsibility to find. It’s not always the publisher’s fault or the developer’s fault. It’s a combination. And I think what you need to have are strong leadership and a strong vision, and also support from a publisher because you cannot just blame it on publishers. It’s not as simple as that. That’s the easy way. That’s like seeing the world in a black-and-white, simplistic way. So, I think it takes responsibility from both.

I mean, a good example is Naughty Dog and Sony; they have a very good collaboration there. I’ve had a good talk with Neil [Druckmann] about this. They have a good relationship with Sony, they can do whatever they want. They make them great stuff. There’s a reason why they make a Game of the Year title every time they make a game, because Sony trusts them, and they trust Sony. So this combination is possible. I think, in general, the studios that I’ve met, without naming any, sometimes they lack leadership with a clear creative vision. I think that’s more important than one thinks. It doesn’t necessarily mean everyone has to do exactly what this person says, but there needs to be someone leading the train or the vision. I mean, it’s still a very collaborative work, obviously, but I think it’s important.

Paste Magazine: It’s been about a year and a half since It Takes Two was originally released. How is the next project that Hazelight Studios is working on coming along, and is there anything you can share about it?

Josef Fares: Really well. On my Twitter, I’ve released a picture there, and that’s pretty much the only thing I can share. It’s going really well. Now obviously, we had a bit of a struggle with Corona, with working from home. But now most people are back, and I kind of, you know, want people around me. So no real problems, we’re doing really well, and I’m super excited. But I mean, we’re definitely not ready to show anything yet.

Elijah Gonzalez is the games intern for Paste Magazine. In addition to playing the latest indies and AAAs, he also loves film, anime, lit, and creating large lists of media he’ll probably never actually get to. You can follow him on Twitter @eli_gonzalez11.

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