Josef Fares interview
If you’ve have had the opportunity to play Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons since its release in 2013, there is a good chance that its emotional impact has stuck with you for a long time. The game happens to be the brainchild of Josef Fares, who was already an acclaimed film director by the time that he and Starbreeze Studios started collaborating on Brothers. For his next gaming project, Josef and his newly-founded company Hazelight are working on a story-driven co-op game named A Way Out, which is to be published by EA and released for PC, PS4, and Xbox One in early 2018. Recently, I had the opportunity to conduct a lengthy Skype interview with Josef to have a look back on Brothers, discuss what to expect from A Way Out, and talk about his game development and filmmaking experiences. As you’re about to find out, Josef Fares is indeed a man with many talents.
Ingmar Böke: Hi Josef, it’s great talking to you!
Josef Fares: Great talking to you too, man!
Ingmar: I’m a film fan, and some time before I had played Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, I had bought the movie Jalla! Jalla! and loved it. However, I didn’t have any idea that the director of the movie was the same person who was responsible for Brothers, and didn’t know until right after I finished the game. That was a pretty awesome discovery!
Josef: (laughs) Cool! I’m happy to hear that! It was a long time ago that I did Jalla! Jalla!, actually, but it was a lot of fun. It was a great time!
Ingmar: Your personal story is a very interesting one. Please tell our readers a bit more about your background, and your family’s origins.
Josef: I come from Lebanon. I was born in Beirut during the civil war, so we pretty much had to escape to Sweden when I was 10 years old. It was quite rough in the beginning to start over in a new country, but when I was 15, I bought a camera from a friend’s father, and then started making these short movies. Shortly after that, I knew that I was gonna work with that.
During the shooting of my first (full-length) movie Jalla! Jalla! I was 22, so I was quite young when I made it, and it became a big hit. That went on for quite some time, but during that time I always loved to play video games. At some point, a friend of mine asked me if I wanted to make a demo with some of his students for six weeks in the summer. I instantly said, “yes!”, and here we are today. I made actually two demos, and I made Brothers. We have started the company Hazelight with the original team of Brothers, and now we’re making A Way Out.
Ingmar: I saw an interview with Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen not too long ago. In that interview, he talked about how his life changed when he first saw Robert de Niro in Taxi Driver, and realized he wanted to become an actor. Did you have such any such defining moments when it comes to your filmmaking?
Josef: I was really interested in martial arts. One of my biggest heroes until this day is Bruce Lee, and I loved his movies. The first short movies that I did were kind of kung-fu inspired, you know, martial arts movies, but I can’t remember moments where it was like, “alright, this is the defining moment of what I want.”
Ingmar: You didn’t turn into a game designer overnight. Please talk about games that shaped your interest in development.
Josef: Well, first of all, my perspective on making games is that I want to make games that I want to play. And, also, I feel that there is so much innovation that can be done from a creative perspective. I always want to try to go outside the box – not go all crazy; I still want to make appealing games that people want to play, but give them a different twist, a different way of playing them, and so on.
But for Brothers, I mean, all of the top-down RPGs I really love would be one of the inspirations, Zelda: A Link to the Past, Chrono Trigger, Secrets of Mana – at least when it comes to the top-down perspective. But the other thing is my urge for innovation, trying to do something different. That’s something I’ll always do with Hazelight, and everything I’ll do in the future, actually. I truly believe that there’s a lot of stuff that hasn’t been discovered yet, and it’s a very exciting industry we’re living in. I’m a passion-driven man; it’s the passion that keeps me going, so it’s very important that I believe in what I do.
Ingmar: Regarding Brothers, at what point during the creative process did you come up with the decision to use a non-verbal language?
Josef: The focus for me was the interactivity in games, and that was a game where I quite quickly realized that, you know, we don’t need voices to understand what’s going on. Through body language, it’s almost like the language itself becomes an interactive aspect of the game. It’s almost like you have to look even closer and read their body language, and you’re more involved in the cut-scenes. That’s pretty much one of the reasons. It’s more of a fairy tale story, and I think that a good story is a good story even if you can’t understand what’s going on. It’s almost like when my parents watch a movie, and they don’t understand it, but they still think it’s exciting. Another reason was also that budget-wise we couldn’t afford to have voices. But I didn’t want that anyway because it was decided quite early not to have voices.
Ingmar: That approach also left room for me to fill things in my mind.
Josef: Yeah! It’s interesting because a lot of people have reacted to the story in Brothers, and there is really nothing said in Brothers. I mean, I have a story, obviously, but there is not a language that anybody understands.
Ingmar: You mentioned your focus on interactivity. That approach is particularly interesting for someone with a background in filmmaking.
Josef: Oh yeah, yeah, yeah! Also in A Way Out, I try to give one player control, while the other one has a cut-scene. I mean, of course, you’ll also have regular cut-scenes, but we try to give players as much control as we can. I believe that when you have the controller on the table, not in your hands, that’s a problem. It’s the interactivity that makes games great, not the passive mode.
Ingmar: Your movies and games touch upon a palette of very different emotions that we all know from our individual lives. Is this something you think about during the creative process or does it happen by itself?
Josef: I think it happens by itself. I’m kind of like that as a personality. I mean, I like to have fun and joke around, but I also have a very serious side. But I think it is also what life is. Life isn’t just about seriousness and hard times. Even if you’re in the worst stages of war, you have moments of fun. I think the comedy aspect is part of our life in general. It’s gonna be the same with A Way Out. I would say there is definitely a humoristic tone to it as well.
Ingmar: You mentioned how passion-driven you are. I wasn’t surprised when I heard that you couldn’t sleep the night you came up with the ending for Brothers.
Josef: Definitely! It was a crazy moment. I remember I couldn’t sleep at all, and went to the team the next day. That’s also one of the most defining moments of Brothers. I think that’s mainly one of the major successes of Brothers as well – I mean, with everything else obviously, but that was a big moment.
Ingmar: That aspect is probably going to stick with a lot of players for a long time.
Josef: I still – until this day – get fan mail from people who have played Brothers for the first time, and it has kind of become almost a classic. There are a lot of developers which I admire, and we pretty much have this contact now. It’s great when you truly believe in something, and people get it and feel it.
Ingmar: What has the experience of working on Brothers taught you about the game industry as well as game design?
Josef: Well, I never read books on how to design a game. In general, when people tell me, “this is how you make a game,” I see it as a warning sign in a sense. Obviously, there are some rules to follow here and there, but when someone tells me, “ok, here’s this typical design thing,” “I’ll teach you a mechanic,” “this or that feels better,” etc., I’m like, “thank you and goodbye.” It’s definitely too early to say, “this is the way you make games”!
Something I miss in the industry is more innovation. I don’t mean innovation in the sense that everything has to be super-unique, super-weird indie projects. I mean innovation from a AAA perspective as well. I would call a game like The Last of Us innovative from a perspective of what they did with the emotional aspect of the characters and how they grow. I’d also say that Uncharted 2 was innovative with its cinematic gameplay experience that was very different and new at the time. You know, as long as there is something different, something that is appealing, something that makes me care, and makes me want to play the game. I sense today that it’s not so often I get surprised by games, sadly. Obviously, it’s also because there is a lot of money involved, but I don’t think that money should be a problem because you could still make unique and cool games, but with a lot of financial success as well.
Ingmar: What we know so far about A Way Out is that it’s the story of two strangers, Leo and Vincent, who meet in jail and must learn to cooperate in order to first escape and then survive on the outside. The game will also include a variety of different gameplay elements, such as car chases, fistfights, stealth sections and more. And perhaps most importantly, it’s been designed from the ground up as a story-driven co-operative game. That doesn’t sound much like Brothers, and yet you stated a few months back that “although the two games are very different, they have the same values at heart. A Way Out is – at its core – an emotional journey.” Please tell us more about your upcoming game.
Josef: Everything started very simple. As always it was like, “what do I want to play?” One thing that me and a friend were trying to find was a co-op game that wasn’t just “drop in, drop out.” It’s not that I have something against it – sometimes I enjoy drop in, drop out – but I think that experiencing a story together is underestimated. Just because it’s co-op, that doesn’t mean that you can’t experience a story together. When you watch a movie together, you experience it together, so my initial thought was, “how do I make a co-op story that makes my characters be unique?” Not unique from a perspective that I have different levels, different weapons and so on, but unique from a perspective of personality; that I control one, and my friend controls another, and what does that mean for our journey? How is my character, how is your character? You know, it’s not just that you have different colors or different hair styles, you have totally different personalities.
That’s pretty much how the idea came up, and the reason why I chose it to be in a prison was that, first of all, it’s an environment that you don’t see too often in games, and the times you do see it, it’s very simple to get out of there. It’s also an environment that makes it very appealing for co-op. The game almost starts like a single-player experience for both players. The characters don’t know each other at first, and they’re very different. The easiest way to describe it is that one of them is very aggressive and emotional and short-sighted, where the other one is very relaxed, laid-back, and more of a thoughtful character. So the characters and their approach are very different. And also, all the NPCs [non-playable characters] in the game are unique; everyone has unique animations, and unique stuff they say to the players. I hope people interact with them because that’s also a way to get to know your characters. It’s not like a generic system that we generate different animations; everyone is motion-captured uniquely – the amount of content that we have in A Way Out is quite insane. That’s all to get you on your journey, and make your character believable, but it’s also up to you pretty much; the more you interact with stuff in the world and with people, the more you’ll get to know what kind of character you really are.
Ingmar: How do you manage to tell two different stories on screen at the same time without it getting confusing for both players?
Josef: The split-screen becomes an integral part of the storytelling. For example, the cut-scene for one player may be playable for the other. Sometimes there will even be three screens visible, and at other times only one. It’s still a co-op game at all times, just done in a different way. It’s hard to be more specific than that, because the approach depends entirely on the circumstances of a particular level.
Ingmar: How important are choices that players can make within the story, and what kind of impact can players have on how their characters change/develop throughout the game?
Josef: Player choice does not impact the story, but it can have an effect on the gameplay, and it’s intended mainly to get players talking to each other about how to approach new obstacles. For example, there is a scene where Leo and Vincent are robbing a gas station but they only have one gun. The players have to decide who will carry the gun. As a result of that decision, one player is able to be more aggressive while the other will have to be calmer with no weapon to protect himself.
Ingmar: Based on what I have seen, I’m under the impression that there is kind of a co-op puzzle element involved. Something like, you want to progress to a certain room or area, but there is an obstacle in the way, so one player distracts certain NPCs, while the other character is performing another action in the background. How much of a role does this type of element play?
Josef: I would more describe it as “challenges” than puzzles because there are not really any traditional puzzles. Every challenge is made so that you and the other player have to talk. We want you to co-operate all of the time, and that’s why I urge people to play it on the couch. I mean, you will be able to play it online, but the actual dialogue between players is important. It’s almost like it’s part of the design that they talk and communicate, and stuff like that. You cannot progress forward if you don’t co-operate with your partner – you have to; you’re dependent on your partner. That’s what I mean by saying it’s not a “drop in, drop out” game. You have to be with your partner, otherwise you can’t continue the game, and that’s why it doesn’t have a single-player mode.
Ingmar: What particular obstacles arise from developing a split-screen game?
Josef: I didn’t realize how hard it was to make a split-screen co-op game. If you look at why people don’t do it so much today, just to render two screens at the same time is crazy. Also, from a design perspective, how do you pace the players? What do you do when one player is here? Where is the other player going to stand? We can’t make any cuts because then the other player can look at you, etc. There were a lot of challenges I didn’t really expect. There hasn’t really been a split-screen story game like this before. You know, you have games with split-screen like Gears of War or Resident Evil, but they pretty much have the same mechanic over and over. Here it’s like, sometimes one character has a cut-scene, we have story moments, story chapters; it’s like a full-fledged story experience told in split-screen, and it’s hard to figure everything out, but it’s a lot of fun as well. I truly believe that when you play A Way Out, you’ll experience something that you haven’t experienced before.
Ingmar: What different types of interactive elements does A Way Out have?
Josef: A lot of stuff! I mean, there’s both a huge variety of game mechanics, and you can interact with a lot of different stuff. You can work out, you can play darts, you can play basketball, you can play a lot of mini-games. It’s set in the ‘70s, so you can even play an arcade game. There’s a lot of stuff, and it’s crazy how much we packed in there. From a production perspective, we have a shooting mechanic – regular third-person cover and everything – but we only use it pretty much once in the game because that’s where it makes sense. You know how sometimes a developer can say, “we have done this mechanic, we have to use it a lot,” but I don’t see it that way even though we have done the mechanic. I’d rather have a game that feels fresh and unique instead of doing the same thing. Also, I have no problem with the length of games. A game can be one hour or a hundred hours, but I feel sometimes that when games are very long, it’s impossible for them not to be repetitive, and that takes me away from the experience. I’d rather have a shorter diverse game than a longer repetitive game.
Ingmar: Right, I remember reading that you said something about Brothers, which was along the lines of, “it’s just as long as it needs to be,” and that was exactly what I felt when I played it.
Josef: Exactly! It’s the same with A Way Out. It’s a way longer game than Brothers, but it’s definitely as long as it needs to be. It’s almost like it tells you how long it wants to be, you know?
Ingmar: On A Way Out, you’re once again collaborating with your brother Fares, who is doing very well as an actor.
Josef: Yeah! He’s in L.A. now. He’s going to be in Westworld; he got a big part there.
Ingmar: That’s awesome! It was also very cool to see his cameo in the last Star Wars movie Rogue One. I recognized him right away.
Josef: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah! That was really nice!
Ingmar: So the face of one of the protagonists in A Way Out belongs to your brother. Please tell me a bit more about his involvement.
It's no coincidence that one of A Way Out's protagonists looks like Josef's brother Fares
Josef: Right, it’s him, and it’s his voice! He doesn’t make video games, but he loves them. He has a PS4, an Xbox One, a Nintendo Switch, a PC, he is a gamer! He’s very much into dig-deep RPGs, while I’m more into adventure-type RPGS like Zelda, but we kind of like similar games except for that. So, yeah, he is a huge gamer, so for him this is a lot of fun. I mean, one of the reasons I have him in A Way Out is also because we have a very limited budget. When we announced A Way Out, I think people looked at it like, “oh, it’s EA, okay!”, but let me tell you, I think we’re breaking some kind of a world record with what we’re doing here. We’re doing everything in-house; we started out with 12 people, and people are actually comparing us to Naughty Dog and Uncharted. If you knew the differences between their big budget and ours, it’s crazy, I’m telling you. We’re doing everything – we’re even cleaning our own mo-cap data; we can’t afford to outsource anything. Sure, EA supports us; we’re getting a lot of help from them when it comes to the attention on press conferences and stuff like that, of course, but we’re doing everything on the game itself. I’m doing all the mo-cap stuff, I’m running around with a mo-cap suit. You do what you have to do to make it, you know, and I’m very happy with it!
Ingmar: What can you say about the estimated release timeframe?
Josef: It’s going to be early 2018 for sure. It’s not gonna be later than that, guaranteed! It’s not so far away; we’re working our asses off here. Every minute is precious time. Right now, we’re trying to take away all the bugs, and let me tell you, I get surprised that games even come out today. It’s crazy. Just think of something like Grand Theft Auto 5; I mean, “oh my god”! (both laugh) Or the Rocksteady games. Ok, they’re not bug-free, but they’re very polished for an open world with so much stuff going on. I mean, in these games you have the NPCs reacting in audio to what you’re doing in the story.
Ingmar: Yeah, it’ pretty insane!
Josef: It is insane! Imagine that someone has to write that, someone has to record that, someone has to make a system for that, and on top of that, you have to take care of all the bugs on all the consoles and on the PC; it’s a huge amount of work, it’s crazy! (laughs) I know that some people said after we showed A Way Out, “hey, why doesn’t Uncharted do split-screen if [A Way Out] can do it?” If you’re gonna make a new Uncharted in split-screen, I can guarantee that you’ll have to start from zero again to make it. There is so much stuff you can’t do if you’re going to make Uncharted with split-screen. If you understand how to make games, you will see what they do, and what they can do because it’s not split-screen. I’m not saying it’s a game that can’t be made; I’m just saying that it’s way harder than you think just to split it up. I mean, some people might think you just type split-screen, and it happens. (both laugh)
Ingmar: Well, that would be pretty awesome!
Josef: Trust me, the developers would be the happiest ones! Sometimes you hear gamers say stuff, and you’re like, “oh my god, if they only knew.” (laughs) But that’s also what’s fun with it. I mean, I love making games!
Ingmar: There is a lot of talk about virtual reality and augmented reality in the industry right now. What’s your take on these subjects?
Josef: I guarantee you that VR and AR, especially, are gonna be a part of our lives. I think it’s a bit too early now because I have the Oculus Rift, and the resolution is still too low, there’s too much equipment, and it’s too heavy. But in five years when it’s wireless and stable, I see it as a major, huge part of our lives. I know that some people say that VR is just a gimmick, but there are so many places for it: in school, education, at doctors’, whatever. Sure, the Wii was a gimmick, but not this. AR, it’s like, put some glasses on, play a game, find your map or whatever, it’s crazy to believe that’s a gimmick if you ask me. But it’s definitely too early because I played some VR games, and after a while you get a little tired. But wait five years until they figure out all of this stuff.
Ingmar: So I guess this is also something that you’d like to tackle as a developer once the technology is ready?
Josef: Definitely! I have some VR ideas. I think it’s limited from a hardware perspective right now, but it’ll be much better!
Ingmar: What current and/or recent games have impressed you when it comes to interactive storytelling?
Josef's team is responsible for every part of its ambitious but modestly-budgeted title, including motion capture
Josef: What Remains of Edith Finch I really liked. I thought that it was a great evolution of what you call the walking simulator genre today. I think Dear Esther was one of the first, and I really enjoyed that, mostly because of the environments, and it felt unique and fresh. I wasn’t really too fond of Gone Home, but I liked Firewatch a lot. It felt like another step forward for walking simulators, but for me, What Remains of Edith Finch took it a step even further. They made a walking simulator with a lot of gameplay mechanics, a lot of different stuff to experience, and I love how they didn’t use the HUD [head-up display]. I’m a fan of Ninja Theory, and I’m looking forward now to playing Hellblade, and I hope that it does something different. I mean, I like all types of games. I’m currently playing Ghost Recon with my friends online, and I think it’s fun, but it’s not something that I would play alone. You know, it’s not like I only like a typical game; I like everything!
Ingmar: Actually, I just started playing Hellblade last night, and happen to be a big fan of Ninja Theory as well. Their Devil May Cry reboot must have been one of the games that I spent the most time with ever.
Josef: Yes, I loved it, I loved it! I thought it was awesome! I liked the story, I liked the gameplay, I’m really a fan of their work!
Ingmar: We have talked about recent games that left an impression on you. What about movies and TV?
Josef: To be honest with you, I don’t watch as much as before. I don’t know. I mean, I watch some series on TV. That animated series Rick and Morty, I watch a lot of South Park, I love MMA/UFC, and I look forward to the McGregor / Mayweather fight. Then I have my girlfriend to hang out with, you know, so I don’t have a lot of time. At times I watch movies at the cinema. I have seen Dunkirk, and I really liked that movie, but I thought it was a movie more for the intellectual brain than for the heart. For me, Saving Private Ryan I feel more in my heart. I’m more of a heart kind of person. I want to feel a movie more than be impressed by it. Dunkirk is very impressive from a technical aspect, and from a storytelling aspect, but you don’t feel it in your heart. I’m more of a James Cameron fan than a Christopher Nolan fan. I still think that he’s an amazing director, but you know…
What more have I seen…? I Iiked Narcos, the series about Pablo Escobar, and Breaking Bad, obviously, but that was a long time ago. I’m gonna watch Baby Driver tonight, and I think that it’s probably a good movie, but it’s rare that you see good stuff right now. That’s what I’m saying: in movies it’s rare to see something that really sticks out, but in games, the opportunity to make creative, unique stuff is so vast. That’s why I’m sometimes surprised that I don’t see more unique games today. We see some, but not as much as I would hope.
Ingmar: Netflix has started offering interactive content for kids that has kind of a choose-your-own-adventure approach. The company has also stated that “the technology is there for producers to apply it more widely.” Several other official statements sound like this experiment could eventually also lead to interactive content for older audiences. What do you think about this?
Josef: Great! Let me try it out. I mean everything that makes people creative I love, everything that’s evolving, and everything that’s fresh and unique. I’m open to seeing what people come up with. It sounds awesome; interactivity is the future if you ask me.
Ingmar: You have talked about all the potential you see in interactive storytelling, and you founded Hazelight not too long ago. It doesn’t seem like you’re planning to leave this path anytime soon. What does that mean for potential movie projects in the future?
Josef: I have not quit making movies, and I really want to make another movie, but I just need to find the time. Sometime at the beginning of a project or in a period of a project where I can get away for two or three months for the shooting, but it’s hard because I’m so hands-on in my games. Hopefully I’ll be able to make another movie soon!
Ingmar: Once you find time for a new movie, do you think it’s likely you’ll do the next one outside of Sweden?
Josef: Yeah, that could happen. I mean, if you’re asking me about Hollywood, I have a lot of friends there. If you know how it works there, it’s a very, very chaotic industry. You have a lot of really talented people, but also a lot of talkers. When I go there to make a movie, it’s gonna be on my terms, that’s for sure!
Ingmar: Thanks a lot for your time Josef. It’s been a great pleasure speaking to you, and I hope to talk again when your next game is in production!
Josef: Definitely, man – it’s coming! It’s been great talking to you, too. Have a good one!