LOS ANGELES—Maybe it was the lingering excitement of the EA press conference a few hours earlier. It could have been the long day, the jet lag from his home in Sweden, or the mug of beer on the conference room table that kept being refilled.
Whatever the reason, film and video game director Josef Fares was thrilled. After a softball question was asked, “when did you partner with EA to release your upcoming game?” A way out– Fares somehow closes eyes with all four writers in the room at once.
“Let me tell you this: Working with EA is amazing. They never tell me what to do. Super supportive. The shit people say about EA? I’ve never seen anything like it.” Fares took a sip. “If someone comes up to me and says, ‘If you do this, you’ll sell a million more copies,’ my answer would be, ‘Go fuck yourself.'”
Fares pointed to his eyes. “The vision decides. The only way something goes in it” A way out is when my heart goes…” and he made a pulsating motion with his hand.
“This is not Heavy rain!”
I might have laughed at so much bravado if I hadn’t seen the stunning trailer of the co-op game’s world premiere earlier that day, or if I hadn’t put the game into practice shortly before its release. Fares and his small team at Hazelight Games are on track for co-op with A way outand this game from 2018 may well surpass their last co-op adventure, 2013 Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons.
In A way out, two unlikely allies, Leo and Vincent, must commit crimes and other villains to exact revenge on someone. That’s as much as Fares has explained about the game’s plot thus far, and you won’t get much further in terms of plot if you simply link the events from the game’s trailer together. That’s fine, because for now it allows us to focus on the game’s dramatic split-screen presentation.
By default, each character is given half the screen, during which time they can walk around, initiate conversations, interact with marked objects and, if applicable, use an equipped object such as a gun. Should one of the players choose to do something dramatic – in my demo that meant a gas station robbery – half of that player’s screen swells as a short cutscene plays. During that time, the other player can still walk and interact with his or her environment on the other half of the screen.
In my demo, this split screen mechanic proved revealing. I noticed some movement in the other player’s larger, dramatically framed window. After pointing this out, the other player walked in the direction of the movement and revealed people in the gas station trying to leave. If we hadn’t caught him, the police would have arrived and sent us to jail. The two-perspective trickery helped us spot other potential heist glitches, and it kept us on our toes, breaking up the “put your controller down” moments in modern storytelling games.
Or, as Fares put it, “This is not” Heavy rain! Anytime you’re more passive than interactive, I don’t like it. I want you to be in control.”
Plus, Fares says Vincent and Leo’s different personalities, and your choice of preference, have a big impact on how each scene plays out. The former is calmer and almost hippie-like, while the latter prefers confrontation and combativeness. When two players walk into a new situation, they must come up with a plan. Which of them is going to talk to which people? What could trigger that? In my gas station scenario, each lead man had to convince customers to skate before the heist happened.
That was complicated by a unique demo start: we only had one weapon and as a cooperative gaming duo had to decide who packed it under their own shirts before we could walk in. Until my gameplay partner and I simultaneously selected a single person in the game’s “conversation wheel” system, we were stuck in our car.
This added surprising suspense to a decision that would be much easier in a single-player game, and Fares says the full, final game will have a lot more of those “unanimous decision moments.” (He also confirmed a lack of random online matchmaking. If you want to play A way out online, your partner must be on your friends list and both players will see the same split screen action. Otherwise, A way out is all about local banking.)
A rare case of a gaming “long shot”
I saw another closed-door demo of a gameplay portion that EA didn’t include in the game’s reveal trailer, and I’m surprised Hazelight didn’t include it.
The mission begins with Vincent having a tender exchange with a loved one in a hospital, while Leo interacts with objects in a nearby waiting room. Police sirens interrupt the moment and both men start running. But this is not a split screen sequence.
Instead, Hazelight first focuses the full-screen camera on Vincent as players control his climb out a window and up a fire escape. When the police show up, he’s the only one actively walking around. Once he climbs into a hidden vent, the camera passes Vincent’s body and moves quickly through the vent until it settles behind Leo. The other player must be prepared, because Leo must be controlled as he runs away from another ambush of cops on the other side of the hospital.
The scene played out this way for a few minutes, with the controls and camera angles switching back and forth between the two players of the game, while the camera held a fixed image. Fares didn’t describe it as such, but I couldn’t resist comparing this “long shot” moment to similar dramatic uninterrupted sequences in film, TV and music video history. It really looked like nothing I’d seen in a game before (and I’m very wary of saying that, especially with narrative games).
As impressive as the demo was, I wonder how substantial the final game will feel. Some of the conversation wheel options I saw were disappointing, and the gas station order contained so few interactive elements that I felt unchallenged. As long as my partner and I walked to and tapped the few shiny objects in the room, we would win. Hazelight must carefully weigh the options and choices they give their two-player teams when solving each crime-related challenge.
But the emotional rush I felt from that hospital sequence gave me hope that even if… A way out launches with a handful of disappointing moments, it’s likely to blow players away with the coolest highlights – and Fares suggested how those will play out in dramatic co-operative fashion.
“When you’re done [the game] from start to finish you play something you’ve never played before. In the last part of the game it will fuck with your mind, but in a good way! I can’t talk about it because it’s the essence of the game. What I say to my team every time I come to the office: ‘Let’s screw it up!’ I say that all the time. What the fuck, we have short lives.”