Most of the games from Electronic Arts’ E3 2017 slate emphasize story, but A Way Out is the publisher’s most narrative-driven project, and its most experimental.
The upcoming game from Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons developer Hazelight is a mandatory two-player experience. It tells two stories simultaneously, delivered in splitscreen and played cooperatively. Even when players sync up online, each player sees both characters’ points of view all the time — so they can see what’s happening to the other.
One player controls Vincent, and the other Leo — two very different men working to break out of prison, then evade police on the outside. At EA Play 2017, we played a brief scenario from 3-4 hours into the game, in which Leo and Vincent are already free and trying to stay ahead of police. The pair plan to rob a gas station in the middle of the 1970s gas crisis, hoping to get the funds they need to continue their getaway.
“That’s fine, I like it. I don’t care if it’s only five minutes. The team is like, ‘How much work and we’re only going to use it once?’ and I’m like ‘Yes, that’s the point of it.'”
Fans of story-focused games from developers like Telltale will feel right at home: Almost all the mechanics in A Way Out are contextual and specific to the moment in which you play. There are a few dedicated controls in the game, such as sprinting with a click of the left thumbstick or interacting with objects with a button, but most of the controls change constantly. As Director and Writer Jospeh Fares explained during the session, the Hazelight team specifically tried to keep A Way Out fresh constantly, by using fresh mechanics and ideas in every scene.
“The gas station scene was three months of work for us, just to get it running, and it’s over in five minutes,” Fares explained. “That’s fine, I like it. I don’t care if it’s only five minutes. The team is like, ‘How much work and we’re only going to use it once?’ and I’m like ‘Yes, that’s the point of it.’ There is, for instance, games where you play something and like, ‘Oh, that’s really cool.’ Then you do it again, and you’re like, ‘Agh,’ and then again, and again, and again. It takes away the ‘cool’ of it. One time doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing. I’d rather have one time of really good sex, than a hundred times that’s like, ‘eh.'”
The gas station heist starts with Leo and Vincent in their car, thinking about the situation about to unfold. They have one gun between them, and players have to make a decision from the outset about who carries it.
This kind of cooperation is key to A Way Out, Fares said, and why, as he said during the EA Play 2017 press conference, the preferred way to play it is with two people on a couch together. The decision also factors in the kind of characters the game’s two protagonists are: Vincent tends to try to talk his way out of situations and keep a low profile. Leo has a hotter head and is more prone to violence.
“I didn’t want just a drop-in, drop-out experience. I wanted something you have a connection with,” Fares said. “Your character is Vince, your character is Leo. You feel with them, their unique personalities, their unique goals. They react differently to different things. They talk differently. All the emphasis in the game is unique — you talk with people and they all have a choice. It’s all about the control for the player.”
We decide between us that Vincent, the character I’m controlling, should be the gunman. Seconds later, we’re walking into the gas station, and already options are popping up. Players can engage the people at the station in conversation, so Vincent starts by speaking to a man at the pump trying to fill a gas can. The conversation kicks off a couple of options, and Vincent chooses to lie to the man, telling him about cheaper gas somewhere down the road. The hope is to get as many people away from the station as possible before the robbery starts.
Inside, there are more options. Leo and Vincent speak with the patrons, convincing one to head to a grocery store down the road to lessen the number of people hanging around, and sabotaging a nearby payphone so no one can call for help. With as many people out of the station as possible, the robbery begins, with Vincent quietly threatening the cashier.
“For me, a lot of games are too passive. When the controller is more on the table than in my hand, I have a problem with it.”
There’s no money in the register, but Vincent thinks there’s a safe in the back of the store. Leo heads into the back room — where he’s immediately ambushed by another man the pair didn’t know was there. As Vincent, I sprint into the room and use the contextual controls to knock the guy out and free Leo.
A Way Out uses its split-screen presentation to give players information about the story as it’s unfolding. On a third cut in the screen, the cashier grabs a gun from beneath the counter and starts to load it. Acting quickly, Vincent is able to get back and grab the gun before the cashier has a chance to retaliate — but another man from in the store runs out the door, and a second later, finds a cop.
Leo convinces the cashier to give him the code to the safe and heads back to unlock it as the split screen shows a local cop responding to the robbery. As soon as Leo grabs the money, the two head back to the car and escape, just barely evading the cop before he crashes his car in the chase.
Fares said each situation is full of potential variations. Fail to break the payphone, for instance, and one of the patrons might call for help earlier in the robbery. Miss the gun with the cashier, and one of the robbers could be killed. Fares said A Way Out contains a number of fail states, where players could be killed or caught, forcing them to replay the section again. The idea is to get players thinking about what they could have done differently, and talking about what to change, and who should change it. But the robbery is also about handling the situation the way the players choose — you could use violence to get the patrons to lie down on the floor, for instance, or shoot the man who ran out the door before he can reach the police.
One of the more striking elements of A Way Out is its cinematic quality. The split-screen presentation means that one player can be in a cutscene, while the other player is still wandering around. The presentation not only allows for a division of labor, it lets the story unfold from two different points of view at the same time — and both players can always see both.
Fares also showed a video of another section of the game, which he said is the only portion that’s presented as a single screen. In it, Vincent and Leo go to a hospital, where Vincent visits a character who is presumably his wife, and his newborn daughter. While Leo is waiting for Vincent to finish up, the cops arrive, triggering an escape sequence where the two men independently try to get away.
In a striking single shot, the camera follows Vincent as he hops out a window onto a fire escape to make for the roof, then flows through a grate to catch up with Leo, and then back to Vincent, alternating between playable portions for each character as they face different challenges.
“I won’t be like ‘I need it to be longer, let’s put in some amazing mechanic’ — that’s not interesting to me.”
Like other scenes in the game, each section also has its own mechanics. Leo punches his way through a few cops while Vincent dodges boxes and shoulders through doors. One section even moved to a side-scrolling, fighting-game style battle for Leo against cops in his path. And as Fares noted, that’s the only time those mechanics, and the motion capture animations that go with them, will be featured in the game.
Fares said the point is to keep the story constantly engaging for players.
“For me, a lot of games are too passive,” he said, discussing games that emphasize their stories but at the expensive of interactivity. “When the controller is more on the table than in my hand, I have a problem with it. I have a movie background, but I do everything to get away. That’s why I have the cutscenes with walking around. I want you to feel like as the player, you’re in control. Movies are movies and games are games. I think those games that try too much to be movies and you’re just standing, pushing a button and then waiting — that’s not a game to me.”
While inventive, the co-op requirement in A Way Out that mat give players pause. The reality of co-op is that getting a second player to play an entire game with can be tough. A Way Out lessens the strain a bit by allowing for online play as well as couch co-op, but it still means that to finish it, players need a friend who’s available to get through hours of content.
Fares said staying true to the vision is more important than the sales A Way Out might lose because players balk at its lack of a single-player option.
“I think it’s kind of a bold move to do a game like this, but I love it,” he said. “If you say ‘I don’t have a friend,’ well, I’m sorry to hear that. Maybe you need another game. If you don’t have the time, I’m sorry to hear that. I say, make it happen, and I promise it’ll be worth it — trust me. But it is what it is. I’m sure some people will be like, ‘Oh, no single player?’ Okay — goodbye, thank you.
“We have to believe in the game and go with it. That’s my motto at Hazelight, and what I tell my team every day: ‘Let’s fuck shit up.'”
A Way Out is slated to launch in early 2018.