The next narrative co-op game from Hazelight is a romantic comedy, but its director says that a lot of the story might play out on your couch.
The next game from Hazelight Studios, It Takes Two, is a pretty big departure from its first game. The developer found success with A Way Out, its co-op-only crime drama about two men who work together to break out of prison, and which sported choice-based narrative branches. You wouldn't expect its next game, then, to be a puzzle-platformer romantic comedy about a couple on the outs who find themselves magically transformed into dolls, forced to navigate the shrunken worlds of their messy garage and vast backyard.
But It Takes Two handles the change of pace with surprising grace. Hazelight showed off the game with a hands-on preview session, which gave us a chance to try it first-hand. Like A Way Out, the game is presented wholly in split-screen, requiring two players to work together and rely on each other. But even through the first few hours, It Takes Two is a funny, well-acted narrative game with a surprising amount of cooperative depth and variety.
The game centers on May and Cody, two parents who have just told their daughter Rose that they're planning to divorce. Rose immediately leaves her parents to go play, but instead, makes a wish on a relationship self-help book that her parents might work out their differences. In a scenario straight out of a movie like Liar Liar or Freaky Friday, Rose's wish, coupled with a few tears, turns out to have magical powers, and May and Cody find themselves transported into the bodies of Rose's dolls. As they struggle to try to catch up with Rose to get the wish undone, they're constantly hounded by Dr. Hakim, the cheesy self-help book fixated on forcing the two parents to find common ground once again.
Co-op works exceedingly well with that premise, as one might expect, since while Cody and May bicker back and forth, they're also forced to work together to succeed. As it turns out, the romantic comedy genre seems like a perfect fit for the kind of co-op game Hazelight creates.
"How many games are actually in the rom-com genre? Some, but not so many," said Josef Fares, Hazelight's founder and game director. "Even in movies, it's a pretty hard genre to really wrap your head around, but eventually we ended up with something really cool where we can create this super cool scenario with these two parents."
In our hands-on time, playing as two tiny dolls, my co-op partner and I had to make our way through the couple's garage, where May and Cody met more than just a talking book with a Casanova swagger. In the game's first level, they encountered an antagonistic broken vacuum cleaner Cody had pledged to fix and never got around to dealing with; in the next, May's decrepit tools needed help escaping a rusting toolbox. The whole game carries something of a Toy Story meets sitcom vibe--most of the problems revolve around the everyday problems of a couple whose relationship has deteriorated, but with elements like a talking hammer and an angry, giant boss vacuum.
Each of the levels is significantly different from the last. In the vacuum level, puzzles constantly had to do with the flow of air, with one player jumping into a vacuum hose, only to be launched out the other end. The second player was often tasked with grabbing the launching end and aiming it to make sure the first didn't immediately plummet to their death. At other points, May might activate and reverse fans to keep Cody floating over a deadly pit until he could clear a gap, before Cody had to repeat the process.
Once we got to the level with the tools, however, just about everything had changed. May gets ahold of the head of a talking hammer, which can be used to bash objects, while Cody gets a set of nails he can throw at targets and recall with a whistle. Cody's nails provide anchor points that May can swing from using the hammer, so a lot of the puzzles had Cody providing May with a path across a gap so that she could then provide him a way forward.
Fares said It Takes Two never repeats a major mechanic from level to level--it's unified through its platforming controls, but it's constantly throwing something new at you to go with them--and that variety is a key sticking point of the game. Those mechanics are all created in concert with the storytelling, ensuring the gameplay feels like it's essential to the story, and vice versa.
"Sometimes I have a sense that it's almost like the writers and the designers are on two different games, if you know what I mean," Fares said. "So what we're doing is trying to combine those, trying to make use of gameplay, even if we use it as a metaphor."
The cooperative aspect of the game plays into that approach as well. Fares said he gravitates to making co-op games because of the drama inherent in having two characters on screen at the same time instead of just one.
"When you have two characters that are very different, and even mechanically play different, the dynamic between them creates a way more interesting story," he said. "I mean, you see that in all stories. So that's definitely a reason [I keep making co-op games]. It's also, I like to f--k with the player's mind a little bit. It's kind of fun to twist and turn and do stuff that's not expected. Sometimes it's even more interesting what goes on on the couch, or with the attraction between the players and characters, because people actually connect to the characters they are playing more than I expected, even. So from that perspective, you can do a lot with the story."
But telling a story through a cooperative game can be tough because, by its nature, the game is designed to get players talking to one another, rather than listening to a story. Fares said that's one of the challenges he deals with as a writer, but he tries not to be too precious about the writing--as long as the players get the gist, he said, he's happy. It Takes Two accomplishes that by putting its major narrative beats in cutscenes that players can watch, while adding characterization through banter between May and Cody as you play. Even if you don't catch every line of dialogue between the characters, their conversations quickly give you a sense of their relationship.
And as mentioned, what plays out on the couch is part of the storytelling experience too, Fares said.
"Sometimes the game becomes a game when the audience starts to play it," he explained. "In A Way Out, it was very clear--without going into spoilers--we really created some intense moments for the players sitting on the couch. I still, till today, can get very pissed-off people that contact me and say, 'You son of a bitch, what did you do?'" Like really angry. And it's a true compliment for me. I'm like, 'Wow, we really did something.'"
There could be a fair number of those moments in It Takes Two, just judging by its size. Fares said It Takes Two is around 12 to 14 hours long, but it also contains a lot of opportunities for May and Cody to take a break and just play together. There are several points where you can find minigames on short side paths, allowing you and your co-op partner to compete with one another. Fares said there are something like 25 of those extra minigames, in addition to everything you'll encounter as part of the narrative, with each logging wins and losses so you can see who's coming out on top.
In the portion we played, it was pretty impressive how many inventive puzzles It Takes Two presented, culminating in giant boss fights. But things never got overwhelming--if one character died, they almost immediately respawned, and in tougher moments, like boss fights, the dead player could hammer a button to speed up their respawn. Fares explained that Hazelight worked hard to make sure puzzles were just challenging enough to maintain the pacing of It Takes Two, without becoming frustrating. It also seems that, like A Way Out before it, even players who aren't diehard gamers should have a fun time; It Takes Two isn't so easy that even inexperienced players will be able pick it up with no issue, but it's also not especially hardcore, either.
Over the course of the first couple hours of the game, It Takes Two nailed its cooperative gameplay with fun mechanics and intuitive puzzles, while also delivering on its rom-com promise, as well. What remains to be seen is just how Fares plans to f--k with players' minds; you can find out for yourself when It Takes Two launches on Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, and PC on March 26.