Cooperative Game Will Make Players Long for “A Way Out”

Editor’s note: This review contains light spoilers for Josef Fares’ A Way Out.

“If you don’t like it, you can break my legs.”

These were the words of Swedish game developer Josef Fares in anticipation of his new title, A Way Out. The two-player cooperative game requires players to work together to escape from prison as convicts named Leo and Vincent before hunting down the man who wronged them both. With its unique use of a split-screen mechanic that favors one player’s vision over the other depending on their current situation, A Way Out’s conceit is brilliant. One wonders, then, whether it’s a greater shame for players or for Fares himself that the game is a steaming pile of horse manure.

Fares’ belief in the quality of his own game is understandable, if misguided. Once a film director who fled the Lebanese Civil War with his family at the age of 10 — an experience that gave rise to his very personal, widely-praised film Zozo — he surged into the spotlight of the gaming industry with his breakout indie hit Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, one of the greatest story-based game experiences ever created. Brothers puts players in control of two boys — each controlled with one stick of a gamepad — and tasks them with solving puzzles while on an emotional journey to find a magical elixir that could cure their ailing father. After all the well-earned praise leveled at the game, Fares found success that he never dreamed of as a filmmaker. “The Oscars should f**k themselves up, this is the s**t,” he famously said on-stage at last year’s Game Awards. He tackled his next game A Way Out, then, with all the confidence expected of an M. Night Shyamalan-like figure under the impression that he can do no wrong. Yet just a few minutes into his new title, a pit might sink in a player’s stomach as they realize the folly of Fares’ attempt to write what is essentially a screenplay, making his successful stint as a filmmaker all the more perplexing — Brothers was completely wordless.

Though A Way Out’s problems certainly do not end with its writing, the script is the rotten core of this worm-filled apple. One could place good money on a bet that every single line of dialogue was plagiarized from the lexicon of generic action movie shlock that most directors with an ounce of taste abandoned decades ago — it’s lucky, at the very least, that the game is set in the ’70s, though the director neither knows nor cares which specific year or place. Had Fares committed to making the corny period crime drama that the game accidentally becomes, the dialogue might at least have retained a sense of charm. Yet its self-seriousness betrays itself line after line, making the outlandish situations in which the characters find themselves come off as unintentionally comical instead of fun. In one sequence, players — occupying adjacent cells, in a coincidence only justified much later — must watch one another’s backs as they alternately use a screwdriver to loudly remove the toilet from the wall in order to escape, even as guards pass by them. In another, the two escape a police blockade and a helicopter via a plainly-visible rowboat without so much as a downriver chase.

The insistence of A Way Out to forgo a sense of danger in favor of dream logic is worsened by its complete lack of compelling characters. A game centered around the relationship between two protagonists should, at bare minimum, inspire players to connect with them on some level, and it certainly makes an attempt to do just that. Yet in this realm, Brothers is almost retroactively worsened by A Way Out’s reliance on the mere existence of family as a tool to dredge up emotional weight. In the case of Brothers, that worked, as the player was free to express the wordless brothers’ bond through their actions. However, the family dynamics of A Way Out are nothing short of laughable in their bluntness, coming close to Tommy Wiseau’s The Room in terms of their inability to capture the way humans think and act. One scene has Leo attempting to console his son, who has just learned of his father’s criminal status. This scene is cut short with little Timmy scrambling out the window to avoid a conversation. All is well just minutes later, though, once Leo repairs a “Keep Out” sign stationed at the kid’s treehouse. Cue a completely unearned swell of strings.

The characters of Leo’s and Vincent’s wives are underdrawn and completely contingent on their husbands. In over five hours of gameplay, they are the only female characters except for the brief appearance of an untrustworthy arms dealer. Near the end, a scene involving one of the wives comes close to being emotionally compelling. Then, the camera pans out of a window, cutting the dialogue audio completely and leaving players to conclude that Fares couldn’t be bothered to write the reaction of someone in a state of grief. The already abysmal script is worsened by hollow performances — in an industry where even low-budget games are often lauded for the quality of their voice acting, there’s no real excuse for how phoned-in our protagonists’ voices sound, even as the story itself reaches the point of melodrama.

A Way Out is such a complete failure that the central conceit itself is wasted. Player choice was supposed to figure heavily at key points in the narrative, allowing co-op partners to choose either Leo’s brash and violent path, or Vincent’s methodical and cautious path. Not only are there just a handful of opportunities for such decisions, but the consequences only affect the next few minutes of gameplay, if they make any difference at all; in one case, the choice to go with Leo’s plan and knock a police officer out cold in an elevator results in no repercussions whatsoever. Further, each decision requires both players to reach a consensus, meaning that choosing either way seems out of character for whichever of the two concedes. The game could mine gold by fostering some actual tension between the two players, but it instead gives them no reason to distrust each other until the inevitable, painfully obvious final half hour.

Credit should be given where it’s due: Fares, given his otherwise-impressive track record, is at the helm of a talented group of developers, and his vision is admirable. A Way Out has a level of polish and technical proficiency that consistently elevates the experience, and the visual style is a logical, pleasing progression from the painterly storybook quality of Brothers. The ever-shifting split-screen mechanics are implemented well; it’s apparent that a sizeable amount of genuine effort was put into the game’s every moment, and few games try so hard as A Way Out to break the mold. Unfortunately, it’s all the more disappointing that both Fares’ ambition and his team’s skills were thrown away. The most interesting uses of the co-op dynamics were all shown in gameplay previews before release — one player sneaking another through security via laundry basket, for example — and are stuffed in the opening few hours of the game. By the third act, the game takes a surprising and completely unwelcome turn into a pale imitation of Naughty Dog and Sony Interactive Entertainment’s popular action-adventure series Uncharted, complete with subpar vehicle chases through an anonymous jungle and mediocre cover-based shooting galleries that serve only to pad an already-lean running time.

Besides the chops of its developers, A Way Out finds its only redemption in delivering exactly the twist it desperately needs. Some might consider the plot point genius, but unlike the legitimately unpredictable left turns delivered by Shyamalan, this one will be guessed by all but the most engaged players, as there’s really no other way to end a game that forces two players to cooperate than by inverting that central dynamic. Qualms about spoilers be damned; A Way Out continually spoils itself time and time again.

“If you play this game all the way through from beginning to end, and see it for what it is, it’s impossible not to like it,” Fares once asserted of A Way Out. Ironically, the game is ruined by his own refusal to see it for what it is: a cheap ’70s crime thriller knockoff with no sense of humanity or humor. Yet his confidence has been validated by the cesspool of gaming journalism, pulling in positive reviews very nearly across the board from reviewers whose only metric for narrative quality is a game’s belief in its own brilliance. It’s all too likely, then, that Fares won’t learn from this mistake and continue to take on bolder and bolder projects that display the same fundamental lack of a soul — if this is the case, then the industry would have failed him. His past work was, by most accounts, promising in its empathy. It’s tough to see Fares’ creative passion and fraught past and not root for him to succeed. But looking at A Way Out, it’s even harder not to gain a sense of cynicism for the future of narrative-based games. If this is considered a compelling story, then what constitutes a bad one? Perhaps, in time, Fares himself will provide the answer.