Image courtesy of Hazelight

It Takes Two lovingly marries story and gameplay together

Jimmy Thang
Josef Fares made a name for himself as a game director when he led the development of Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons and A Way Out, which were two beloved cooperative games with engaging stories. As a result, he has been called a visionary and quickly became someone who has developed a passionate following.

Having founded Stockholm, Sweden-based developer Hazelight, he and his studio aim to pioneer co-op-only story-driven games. In our interview with Fares, he explains how upcoming co-op action-adventure platformer It Takes Two aims to push the boundaries of game design by more tightly marrying disparate gameplay mechanics with narrative in bold, immersive ways. He also offers inspiring pearls of wisdom for aspiring game makers. 
Having found success directing several films, what made you change course to get into game development? 

Fares: Well, the thing is, I've always been a huge, passionate gamer. I've been playing games since I was young. The first console I had was an old Atari when I was maybe six or seven and then continued from there. So, it's always been a dream. When the opportunity came up 10 years ago to actually make a demo for Brothers, I couldn't help but just dive in. And when I decide on something, it usually happens. 

What have you learned from developing Brothers and A Way Out that you're building upon for It Takes Two?

Fares: Well, we've learned a lot. Obviously, we have become better as a team. You understand how to make better games and how to technically work with the engine. But, most importantly, we also learned how to combine narrative with gameplay mechanics. Also, everybody on the team has become more experienced. 
Image courtesy of Hazelight
Thus far, all of your games have struck drastically different tones. Brothers presented a somber odyssey, A Way Out showcased a cinematic flair, and It Takes Two features a more colorful, playful aesthetic. Why was that tone right for the game, and is there an inherent desire within the studio to dramatically mix things up?

Fares: Well, here's the thing. We like to mix things up. I'm not a big fan of just doing sequels. I'm not saying it won’t ever happen, but, normally, it's fun to try something totally different. And we're working with a publisher that allows this, so whatever I want to do, we can do. And it's always fun to try something else. That's also what I like about this industry, about what we're doing. We can test something totally unique every time—something fresh, something new, both mechanically, tone-wise, and everything. And we will continue to do that as much as we can. However, I'm not saying a sequel will never happen, but right now, it's about changing everything up. It's more fun that way, to work like that. Otherwise, you get tired of making the same game over and over. 

What inspired you and the studio to make a romantic-comedy game?

Fares: Well, it didn't really start out like that, but it's a genre that hasn’t really been done yet. I mean, you don't have any real romantic comedies in the gaming world. So it was fun to try something new; however, making a rom-com, even in movie form, is very hard. But now, you're making an interactive game out of it. In general, telling a story in a game is much harder because it's an interactive medium, which means it’s way harder to control the story and the pacing compared to a movie, but I think we did a great job here. 
Image courtesy of Hazelight
You've stated that It Takes Two aims to blend gameplay and narrative elements together that push the boundaries of interactive storytelling. Can you elaborate on your approach to achieving that?

Fares: Sometimes writers and designers create two different games, but I strongly believe that we are focusing on making sure that whatever happens in the story should be reflected in the gameplay, which means that if the characters end up somewhere where they meet or see something, then you play that. You don't just have one [independent] mechanic. You know when people talk about, “What's the gameplay loop” or “What's the game mechanic of this game?” and “What's the fun?” We don’t ask those questions here. It's not all about being fun. Of course, games should be fun, but it's not everything. We should ask questions like, “Where's the story taking them?” and “What kind of design and mechanic can we create here to ensure that you’re actually playing the story?” So, we pretty much try to make a mechanic that fits the story better, and the opposite is also true. We try and tell a story that fits our gameplay mechanics. You will see those elements being married together in It Takes Two. This means that you’ll be participating in everything that happens in the game. 

What draws the studio to focus exclusively on co-op-only games?

Fares: First of all, I think telling stories and experiencing stories together is something you do when you go to a theater or when you tell a story. And co-op games today are mostly not story-focused. They are mostly about leveling up your character and so on. I think there's so much from a creative aspect that can be explored here. And there's so much that hasn't been tried yet. Hazelight is, really, the only studio in the world that’s focusing on making co-op-only story games. I mean, you do have obviously single-player games that have a co-op mode as well, but no game that actually starts off by designing two different characters with different personalities and different mechanics from the get-go. And that's something that Hazelight is actually exclusively working on. And we will continue doing that because there’s so much to be explored from a creative aspect. 
Image courtesy of Hazelight
Do you feel like making co-op-only games allows Hazelight to push the envelope in ways other optional co-op games can't?

Fares: In a sense, yes. Because we are making games with co-op from the beginning, which means we have to think about our design perspective differently. That already makes it something that people will feel is fresh and unique. Otherwise, you have to create a single-player game that you add co-op onto. Or you have your typical four-player co-op, where you level up a character, and you have your typical drop-in, drop-out system. So, yes, from that sense, it immediately creates a unique freshness.

For a story-driven game, It Takes Two features a staggering amount of genre-bending gameplay that includes platforming, shooting, puzzle-solving, dungeon crawling, and more. How important was it to incorporate so many disparate gameplay elements? 

Fares: Again, going back to the story, we didn’t want the gameplay to constantly change just for the sake of it. I mean, I do think that games can become very repetitive, so it's definitely one of the reasons, but again, going back to the story, and we're going to keep getting better at this, whatever happens in the story is something you should be playing. So you're actually interacting with the narrative, which is one of the reasons why our story is so dynamic. Take, for example, our previous game, A Way Out. When the characters find a boat in the game, you ride it. When they find a car, you drive it. It presents something that’s consistently new and fits well within the narrative experience because you want to be engaged in the story all of the time. 
Image courtesy of Hazelight
You've previously stated that the game will offer challenging gameplay. How do you approach presenting a challenge to players while also making the experience accessible to less-hardcore gamers who might be playing with their partners?

Fares: There’s a fine line here, but our games are, again, mostly about story and experiences. There will be challenges, but we're not talking about challenges that will make you throw your controller at the table, but it will be challenging enough to be exciting, engaging, and really feel like you’re on an adventure or a movie of some kind. But, of course, we do a lot of internal testing and test to make sure that players aren’t stuck for too long. Otherwise, that would affect the story. So, it's a fine line, but I think we've hit it perfectly. 

The game features varied environments with fantastical scenery that's often fueled by characters' on-screen emotions. Can you elaborate on your approach to crafting It Takes Two's world?

Fares: Well, I want to point out that our team is absolutely amazing. They are super. I often say that our games tell us where they want to go. And our team is so self-driven that they try so many different ideas and eventually find something that’s a really good fit for us. It’s a way we can keep the art varied and feeling fresh and unique every time you approach something new. But, obviously, doing a split-screen game, a lot of people forget that you have to think very differently about how to approach stuff. Otherwise, you're pretty much drawing two different games on the same screen. So, you have to think about all the technical aspects, so we don't have a game running at 10 frames-per-second, obviously. But it looks amazing considering it's a split-screen game.
How big is It Takes Two's development team, and how long did the game take to make?

Fares: Well, I would say we're now around 60-ish people. And it’s taken about two-and-a-half to three years to develop. So, we've had a good amount of time. There's been a huge amount of challenges, but I'm so happy that we get to create the games we really wanted to make. And we also give them the time to mature and let the games tell us where they want to go because that happens a lot.

With It Takes Two releasing on the current generation of consoles in addition to PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X, what excites you most about developing games for next-gen platforms?

Fares: To be honest with you, the only thing I'm happy about is that the next-generation consoles are more powerful. The games are what I really care about. I'm super happy that we have more powerful consoles right now. It makes me super happy because the consoles are what decides how much we can push the graphical fidelity of games. And, yes, I'm super happy with the next-gen consoles because I believe with more powerful consoles, we can create not only better-looking games but also more mechanically and more complex games that wouldn’t be possible on last-generation consoles. 
What advice can you give other aspiring game makers?

Fares: Do your thing. Don't listen too much to “How a game should be,” and blah, blah, blah. Don't get stuck with old design rules. I'm not saying to forget those rules, but just bend them a little bit and try something else. Don't just say stuff like, “All games should be fun,” and focus only on that. Don't just listen to what you’re told and then take it for granted. Try to find your tone. Try to find your voice. And, obviously, you can still listen to the old rules and everything, but listen to your heart. I know it sounds cliché, but it's important. And you will be surprised at how few people do that. 

Thanks for your time. Where can people learn more about It Takes Two?

Fares: Make sure to check out our gameplay trailer, which I narrated and explains the story and gameplay a bit more, and visit It Takes Two’s website.

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