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Josef Fares, founder of Hazelight Games and writer-director of It Takes Two, is a gamer at heart, passionate about creating engaging stories that immerse players in stories in new ways — very passionate. Fares started his career in the film industry, directing six features before transitioning to creating games, claiming the two worlds are quite different.

“If I want to go on vacation, I’m going to go back to make a movie again,” Fares tells Deep Dev co-hosts Patrick Shanley and Brittany Spurlin. “That’s how much easier it is to make a feature film.”

Fares is quick to back up his claim, citing the major differences between the two mediums. “In movies, you’re in control of the pacing and the story. In games, you don’t really know what the game will do so that makes it way harder. You have to create everything from the beginning, everything has been done and put together to give you the illusion of what’s going on,” he says.

It Takes Two — which launches on Friday on prior and next-gen PlayStation and Xbox consoles as well as PC — is the second title developed by Hazelight, the Swedish game studio Fares founded in 2014. Like it’s predecessor, 2018’s A Way Out, It Takes Two is a cooperative adventure, stressing collaboration and storytelling in its approach to game design.

It Takes Two Video Game Image

A strong, compelling story is Fares’ north star, and marrying that with gameplay experience is how It Takes Two came about. “I think in many games, it’s almost like the writers and designers are in two different games, in playing a game and experiencing a game in a cutscene,” he says. “What we’re good at is trying to combine this. Whatever happens in It Takes Two will be reflected in the gameplay to keep the experience fresh and different and also to let the mechanics be part of the storytelling.”

In It Takes Two, players control a couple on the verge of divorce who are magically transformed into dolls made by their daughter and forced to literally work through their issues. Providing a unique gaming experience was important to Fares, an avid gamer himself. Cody and May, the central characters in the story, are made of clay and wood, respectively, but Fares assures players the material doesn’t come into play during the story. They are, like the gameplay mechanics, a metaphor for who the characters are. Cody is more “soft and sensitive”, while May is the “family breadwinner who takes care of the family.”

“You know, a lot of people talk about your core mechanic, or whatever they call this gameplay loop — I get pissed off when I hear gameplay loop,” says Fares. “Should I have the same mechanic the whole game? No! The game mechanic should reflect what you’re doing. At the end of the day, Hazelight wants to be part of pushing the media forward, how to create stories in gaming.”

The idea of game mechanics feeding the story, and vice versa, is what allowed Hazelight to take the historically dark and unpleasant subject of divorce and create a colorful world inspired by the likes of Pixar and Nintendo.

It Takes Two Video Game Image

“We are doing a piece where this crazy book [Dr. Rankin] is putting [Cody and May] through a therapy session where they have to find each other again and then we connect the gameplay, even metaphorically,” says Fares. “Sometimes a level is about their attraction, and we use magnets to connect them, or it’s about the relationship to time and they have a mechanic that is connected to science. We have levels that are connected to their passion. Cody is a gardener and May loves music, so we had things that connected that.”

As the team at Hazelight developed It Takes Two, making sure players would want to finish the game’s story was a top priority. “You hear a lot about replayability, but I would focus more on why aren’t people finishing games. That should be our top priority,” says Fares. “So few people are [replaying games], so we need to start asking how do you make people finish all games. In A Way Out, 50 percent finished the game. I should be happy about that? Imagine if I had a movie and half the people walked out of the cinema.”

While Hazelight Studios is an indie studio, it does have a publishing deal with EA, which published both A Way Out and It Takes Two.

“It was actually a race between Microsoft and EA, but eventually we went with EA and that relationship has been great,” Fares says of the partnership. “I know EA has done a lot of shit and have a bad reputation, but not with us. They always respect the vision, they don’t interfere with anything we do and they know how it is.”

It Takes Two Video Game Image

Maintaining autonomy and creative control is of utmost importance to Fares at Hazelight. He says he would never consider selling his studio or merging with a AAA company, despite the recent trend in the industry.

“If it affects the creative vision, I don’t care if you give me $100 million, I won’t do it,” Fares states. “At the end of the day, I don’t think [big companies buying smaller companies] is a good thing. When a big company becomes bigger then it has bigger responsibilities, more shareholders, more blah blah blah. The possibility of you as a big company making a stupid decision is going to be bigger.”

Despite concerns with larger game companies interfering with creative work, Fares remains optimistic about the current state of the gaming industry.

“I see a lot of good stuff happening,” he says. “I just want to see what’s going to happen [with Game Pass or mobile gaming]. The only thing that scares me a little bit is if it starts affecting the games we love so much. However, I’m very optimistic on what’s happening in the industry. It’s going to be very interesting to see how Game Pass turns out as the Netflix of gaming. The only thing I really hope is that we keep playing the great games we want to play.”

You can hear the full conversation here:

Photo courtesy of EA Games