Two years ago at E3 we saw a demo on stage of something called Hazelight. Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons director and creator Josef Fares was there and announced that he had started a new studio to create a new game. The teaser was very short and featured two characters sitting in a freight train, presumably having jumped the train. Hazelight was the name of the studio, and the game was revealed as A Way Out, an exclusively co-operative narrative-driven game. "We did that trailer having just worked for three weeks", revealed Josef Fares to us at this year's E3. There's not much about what the game is in that teaser, but according to there's some hint hidden there that's in the game.
At the press conference, we were introduced to Vincent and Leo, the seemingly unlikely duo who find themselves in prison, who have to work together in order to escape. Perhaps having seen this first reveal you'd think it's a game about escaping incarceration, but that's just the beginning of their adventure. A Way Out isn't just about escaping from that prison, it speaks to all manners of situations while the duo are on the run. Exactly what their motivation is to stick together is unknown, and Josef Fares is reluctant to reveal anything about the overarching plot as that would spoil the game in his opinion. It is clear, however, that Vincent and Leo have different backgrounds and motivations, which makes for a dynamic relationship.
Being a co-op only game with a focus on narrative, there's no drop in, drop out, but you can play either online or on the couch, but you'll see the same split-screen regardless as it is important to experience the game from both perspectives. "If you want that sort of experience, play Destiny", says Josef Fares. That's not the vision for this game, and in a way, the limitations of A Way Out are what makes it stand out. It's a singular well-defined vision, not a vision meant to speak to as many players as possible and provide as small a barrier to entry as possible.
In some cases there will even be a third perspective (not a third player, but perhaps something happens that's relevant even if neither Leo nor Vincent is there to see it), and during one scene in a hospital that's early in development (Fares showed it off on his laptop), players took turns making their escape down a building while being chased by cops, enjoying the full screen as they went. Each scene offers unique gameplay and scenarios, nothing is repeated, and so there's no filler here, and the hospital scene ends with what amounted to a side-scrolling beat 'em up scene (with 300 animations) with Leo, something that you'll only do that one time in the game. It's also interesting to note that while one player is locked in a cutscene, the other can move around and interact with things, appearing in the cutscene portion of the scene as he does so.
Behind closed doors at EA Play a brief demo set at a gas station was playable. The gas station (called Roy & Roger's - a nice little Easter egg referencing a classic '80s comedy show called Macken) has to be robbed as Vincent and Leo need money. There is only one gun so players will need to decide who gets to hold it, and in doing so they'll also pick an approach to solving the unfolding situation. Leo suggests a direct approach, while Vincent wants to play it smart. During our demo we played it smart and handed Vincent the gun. You may think that this means a branching game, but that's not really true, it's more that you have the freedom to experience and play the game differently, so there are different ways out of situations.
Vincent and Leo enter the gas station, interact with customers, perhaps threaten them to have them leave, making for less risk of the cops being called. There's a phone you can disable. There's beer you can drink, gum you can chew. These seemingly unimportant details are there to help you get to know the characters better, how they interact with things, and it expands their characters. Finally, you trigger the robbery, threatening the cashier. As with all interactions with characters we saw, you have two options. It turns out the money is in a safe in the backroom, as Leo enters he is ambushed by an employee and Vincent needs to run in and save the situation, giving the clerk a chance to reach for a gun of her own. Leo quickly reaches back behind the counter and grabs it. This isn't a game about killing innocents, so firing the gun (even with the reticule trained on a victim) just has you fire it into the air. Clearly, this isn't a story about two mass murders, and it's refreshing once more to be limited in terms of what you can do.
Josef Fares started his career as a very successful movie director (Jalla! Jalla!, Kopps) in Sweden, gaining a lot of recognition while also achieving commercial success. But he's always been a gamer. His older brother Fares Fares, who you may have seen recently as Senator Vaspar in Rogue One, but who is perhaps best known to an international audience for his parts in Zero Dark Thirty and Safe House, voices Leo in the game, and lends his likeness. "We have a small budget and he was free", says Josef on the choice to include his brother. But it is actually Josef himself who does the motion capture work for Leo, so in a way, the character is a brotherly collaboration.
The hospital scene saw Vincent holding a newborn baby in his arms, hinting at some of his motivations, with Leo urging him to leave as, clearly, the cops would know they'd be there. Josef Fares estimated the gas station scene (which took three months to create) to be about three hours into the game, with the hospital scene somewhere at five hours. He didn't provide an estimate for the overall length though, as it will be "as long as the vision requires".
During the session, a somewhat fired out Josef Fares repeats a couple of times to the journalists in the room that if the game turns out like something they've played before the can come to Sweden and "knock him out". When that gets worn out he takes it a bit further and says that we can "chop his leg off".
A Way Out is a game that you certainly wouldn't have expected EA to bankroll a few years ago, and in many ways Hazelight is in a position many studios would envy. They have complete creative freedom, yet the backing of a giant like EA. The studio has grown from the original founding team of 12 people (made up of the core team behind Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons at Starbreeze), to a team of 40 people today. With Brothers Josef Fares proved capable of delivering a one of a kind video game experience, and while completely different, A Way Out looks to follow suit. If it doesn't we'd have to go to Stockholm and chop off a leg, and that would be a real shame...
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