Swedish film director Josef Fares broke into the video game scene in 2013, and boy did he make a splash.
Starbreeze Studios’ Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons wowed everyone with a beautiful, haunting fairytale that used its very means of interaction - a single player controlling a pair of brothers simultaneously - as a way to connect players to its core relationship. Brothers spent its entire wordless duration developing its core mechanic, only to completely upend it in its third act, creating one of modern gaming's most elegantly memorable moments. Few games since have managed to match Brothers’ disarmingly simple game design acrobatics - let alone with as much visual aplomb.
Miraculously, Fares has done it again. Hazelight’s co-operative prison escape drama A Way Out is a far more ambitious offering that, while it doesn’t quite live up to its own lofty goals, offers innovative twists on co-op gameplay, and cements Fares as an interactive storyteller who truly tells stories with interactivity. If you can forgive a few sticking points, it's one of the cleverer games to come out from a major publisher recently, and an at-times magical two-player experience.
Easily the weakest element of A Way Out is its story. Unlike Brothers, this is a fully-voiced drama set in the "real" world. It charts the tale of Leo and Vincent - two men who find themselves in prison together, escape, then seek revenge on a crime boss named Harvey. One of them has a kid; the other, a pregnant wife - they've both got something to lose, and something to gain, in the form of a newfound brotherhood, et cetera. Fares’ script, though rich in delightful incidental moments, leans too heavily on Hollywood cliches and references to wield its desired emotional heft. References to Scarface, Heat, Point Break, and The Shawshank Redemption in particular stick out like sore thumbs, though I have to admit to enjoying a rather meta visual reference to Oldboy. The story as a whole sags, barely held up by a boring villain and trite, used-up character archetypes.
The gameplay, however, is the drawcard here. A Way Out can only be played with two players, either locally or online - which, thankfully, works even if your partner doesn't own a copy of the game. Loosely speaking, it's a third-person adventure game, but the range of gameplay is gratifyingly diverse, with Leo and Vincent's escape and revenge taking them through a wide array of situations. You’ll distract guards while your partner steals things; navigate a brutal prison system; engage in Uncharted-style setpieces; solve puzzles together; and more. Only once does it turn into a traditional third-person shooter, and that sequence is the blandest in the game. Incredibly, A Way Out never repeats a mechanic - it's deftly paced, always giving you something new to do.
A Way Out's brilliance is best expressed in its quieter moments. On numerous occasions, Leo and Vincent are allowed to simply explore their surroundings, engaging with a generous range of environmental interactivity and optional dialogue. In many instances, they get to play minigames together - arcade machines, baseball, a rhythm-based musical duet, even a game of Connect Four - which help build a real feeling of connection and friendship. One scene sees the pair occupy a farmhouse for a brief while, taking a moment to savour the tiny joys of domesticity non-inmates take for granted. It's a beautiful bit of game design that's completely optional, but displays care and thought beyond the norm.
What's remarkable too is how smoothly all this stuff is presented. The two leads are well-acted by Eric Krogh and Fares Fares, uncanny soundalikes of Sean Penn and Michael Douglas, making the most of occasionally risible dialogue. Graphically, the game strikes an attractive balance between the stylised world of Brothers and a more realistic AAA look, with many scenes packed with detail (lookin’ at you, Big Shark Magazine). But it's Fares’ camera direction and split-screen editing that truly shine. Bringing a filmmaker's eye to the game medium even more comprehensively than before, Fares uses split-screen - often just a necessary tool for enabling multiplayer - as a storytelling device. Depending on the situation, the game will move the split-screen divider to prioritise one character over the other; at key moments, one side of the screen will completely take over. One bravura action sequence plays out as a single, unbroken take, with control shifting fluidly between players. Another adds a third screen, creating suspense and tension as you have to pay attention to multiple actions at once. The camerawork and blocking on display here is breathtaking.
Any veteran of Brothers will expect a third-act gameplay twist, and A Way Out doesn't disappoint - although its Big Idea isn't quite as earth-shattering as it'd like to think. Without spoiling any specifics, the game turns from cooperative to competitive in its third act, making for a taut dramatic climax indeed. This particular twist wouldn't work as well in any other medium - it relies on players having spent hours working together and building a sense of camaraderie alongside the characters. If only those characters had been a little more original and three-dimensional, the twist would be a lot more effective.
A Way Out is, like its spiritual predecessor, an ambitious game, driven by innovative design. As a crime story, it’s an unoriginal tale told with panache it doesn't deserve; as a two-player game, it's a terrific bonding experience. Writer-director Josef Fares has comprehensively demonstrated the benefits of artists from other disciplines crossing over into video games - and he's delivered two great games in the process. Bring on Game #3.