Hazelight Studios founder talks about A Way Out development, video games narrative and The Oscars
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There’s no doubt Josef Fares knows how valuable the time is. He’s made five feature films during a decade-long career in filmmaking industry before bursting into the video games with a fairy-tale adventure Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons in 2013. Critically acclaimed and commercially successful title had won multiple awards including BAFTA for innovative game design. In the fall of 2014 Josef Fares had founded Stockholm-based game development studio Hazelight and immediately started working on the next project, one of the first titles supported by Electronic Arts under the EA Originals label.
A Way Out — road-movie / crime-drama co-op exclusive title — has been released in digital stores on March, 23rd this year. The game has received positive reviews and in less than two weeks has been sold 1,000,000 copies globally to further strengthen Hazelight Studios’ reputation as a creator of innovative gaming experiences. Meanwhile, instead of taking long vacation which is almost a requirement in the industry notorious for prolonged crunch periods, Josef Fares has already announced that the new game is in the works at Hazelight.
In a conversation with Gameland magazine, game director and Hazelight founder discusses his design approach, A Way Out development process, Neil Druckmann’s influences and the prospects for the future.
GL: In less than two weeks since A Way Out release you’ve tweeted that the team has already started working on the next project. No vacation, no taking rest?
JF: I just love making video games. When you’re really passionate about something, you don’t get tired, you just wanna make more. We still have the weekends off and regular vacations, so that’s my spare time, but I have so many ideas that I want to try out. For Hazelight trying things out, telling different stories, doing something that hasn’t been done yet, taking risk — that’s what it’s all about. It’s just super exciting, and I don’t need any breaks.
GL: You’ve told before about the importance of having a clear vision from the very beginning. Do you have a sort of written documentation to share that vision with the rest of the team?
JF: The first thing, I have a vision of what the game is going to be and I feel it inside my heart. Once it feels good inside, then we can start working on it, and the rest of the details come as we progress. We’ve just started development on a new game, so as I did for A Way Out and Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons before, I’ve put together a kind of a storyboard for the whole game. Actually, if you look at these early storyboards — some of them have been posted on my Twitter account — and compare them to the final game, you would see the resemblance. Of course, a lot of things change during development, but still, the final game is very close to the original vision.
GL: So, does it mean you start without a screenplay?
JF: I normally begin designing narrative both with a storyboard and a screenplay. On the new game I have brought in a co-writer helping me because it’s a bigger project. We’ve just started working, writing the synopsis, creating the characters, doing some basic preparations. But I can say that we’re going to focus way more on the story and writing this time, because we have a little bigger budget.
GL: You had written screenplays for every single one of the films you’d made in the past and for both of your video games. Have you ever experienced writer’s block while working on the story?
Yes, but honestly, I don’t consider myself a good writer. I have many ideas and I know who’s gonna say what in dialogues, but my writing is not so fun, I think. I actually believe it’s quite boring, and it’s not my favorite part of game development. That’s why I’m taking in the co-writer for the next game.
GL: Can you tell about the writer you’re bringing in to this new project? Have you had a previous experience working together?
JF: Yes, she’s an old friend of mine, and she’s a very good writer. She didn’t work on video games before, but I’ve already told her what this new idea is about, and she loves it. So, we sit together working on the story for this new game now. The thing is you may have an idea, but if this idea doesn’t work, you have to adapt yourself, you have to be flexible, because from a production perspective even big studios still have obstacles, and things change all the time.
GL: Sometimes you can hear that even the most critically acclaimed projects felt like a mess four to six months before the release, and then they somehow came together in the very last moment. Have you ever been there with Brothers or A Way Out?
JF: On A Way Out we had some serious issues with the online play function. This feature has turned out to be way harder to implement than we expected. At one point we had a meeting within the team to decide how we’re going to pull this off. The game wasn’t working online because we did some early mistakes in the production. The main problem was that we had so many different gameplay mechanics, and it had pretty much doubled the amount of work for us requiring almost a unique code for every single element to make the game playable online. In the end we kind of figured it out anyway. The coders did a great job to get that working.
GL: You’ve spent your childhood in Beirut during Lebanese Civil War, the conflict that spanned fifteen years. Could you describe that experience, and what were you interested in as a kid?
JF: It’s not good for any child to grow up in an environment like that. It’s very harsh, and you see stuff that you’re not supposed to see. But I had Atari console then and I played it a lot. At the same time we were making some comic books, writing them longhand, telling stories. I was very interested in storytelling, as I remember. When we were in the basement hiding from the bombing, I was always drawing, or something. Maybe, that was my way of fleeing the war, I don’t know. But that was definitely the start of my creative life.
GL: How old were you when you’ve become acquainted with video games, and what was your first memorable gaming experience?
JF: I think I was five or six years old when I’ve played Pong on Atari for the first time. In A Way Out there’s a location called «Hangar» with an arcade machine which is almost like an homage to that title. Since then I’ve been playing video games through all my life, and I’ve never stopped loving them.
GL: Is there any video game that you’ve played multiple times, or the one that you’ve been playing for a very long period?
JF: I’m not the kind of person who plays video games multiple times. I usually play through a game only once. I was brought up with 8-bit and 16-bit consoles and I’ve owned pretty much every console, but I’m a big fan of SNES titles especially, and I have a lot of favorite games from that time. Those that meant a lot to me were top-down RPGs like Luthia, Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy series. I also remember Super Mario World and The Legend of Zelda: Link to the Past. Both of them had some great game design ideas that influenced a lot of other games.
GL: French filmmaker Francois Truffaut once said: ‘There is a way to see films that can teach you more than working as an assistant director’. How has your gaming experience helped you understand interactive medium and eventually led you to the path of becoming a game director?
JF: I’ve been playing so much, like every single title out there, and I’ve always had a dream to make my own video game. But I’ve worked in the movies, and it was very hard to get into the gaming industry because people thought I wouldn’t fit. But that’s the kind of person I am — when I really decide I wanna do something, it will happen one way or another. I was ready to do everything to make a game, and I think that from a storytelling perspective having movies background helped me a lot. And it also helped that I’m a huge gamer. Sometimes we see filmmakers coming into video games, but they don’t know much about this medium, and it doesn’t work so well because telling a story in a video game is different. The kind of stories you experience in games like Brothers or A Way Out can’t be told in a movie format. So, I’m super excited to explore the stories you can tell only through video games.
GL: It’s been a common notion that games narrative in general still has a long way to go to be compared to movies in terms of quality. Having a background in film-making do you share this notion, and how do you see the storytelling potential of the interactive medium?
JF: When we watch a movie, we can experience it together, and I don’t see why we can’t experience an interactive story together in a video game. That’s what A Way Out is about, basically. You can experience dramatic situations between you and your friend in a co-op format. I truly believe, from a narrative perspective, that we’ll have more things like that in the future. For me, A Way Out was just a start of how to tell such a story. I really love the narrative aspect in video games, and I also believe that in the future this interactive storytelling medium — the video games — will actually have a greater impact than a passive storytelling.
GL: Hazelight was founded in the beginning of triple-I movement. How big has your team grown since late 2014, and do you expect increasing the team size even more over the course of the current project?
JF: A Way Out development started with around ten people in the studio. And then we’ve been around twenty people, and now we have almost forty team members. The important thing is that it’s been the team of forty with over seventy percent of the staff being interns. So, it’s a very fresh team that’s made A Way Out, and we’ve done everything ourselves without any outsourcing. That’s flattering when people compare our game to AAA titles like Uncharted 4, but sometimes that’s also a bit unfair. With the budget that we had, I think, it’s super impressive what the team was able to put together. It’s been a lot of crazy work, but we’ve finally made it somehow. As for increasing the team size, I don’t think we’re going to grow so much for the next project. What’s important for me is to hold on to the vision, to keep taking creative risks and doing different stuff. And these things are easier to do when you don’t have a huge budget.
GL: Neil Druckmann provided feedback to you during A Way Out development. Can you recall any advice he gave you regarding game design, story or other aspects of the game?
JF: First of all, Neil is a super cool dude. He obviously has a lot of experience, and everyone knows the games he’s made at Naughty Dog. He wasn’t involved that much in A Way Out, but fortunately we had a couple of meetings and he’s been super helpful. I truly have a great respect for him. I think he’s actually made a huge impact on this industry. For instance, if you look at games like God of War, I think they exist largely because of what Neil Druckmann and Bruce Straley and the rest of the Naughty Dog team did on The Last Of Us. It’s such an honor to know a guy like him, just being able to discuss creative stuff with him. I can’t recall any specific things he’s told me, but I remember he had some really cool ideas about how the characters should talk to each other, how they should react. He is super cool, really nice, and really down to earth. I’m not surprised that he’s that good, actually.
GL: What do you think is the crucial part of being a strong creative leader in the video games industry and how do you approach leadership in your own team?
JF: I think being a strong creative leader is all about inspiring and making the team feel the energy that you feel yourself. I don’t have a plan, I just have my passion, and I think the team feels this passion. I joke a lot within the team, walking around, saying a lot of fun stuff, but at the same time when I really want something to happen, I go like «Okay, guys, we really need to do this». And I feel that they respect me, and I respect them a lot. So, it’s very playful, but it’s also taken in a very serious way. In general, I can say I believe in humble and inspiring creative leadership.
GL: Warren Spector once said that every game development team should define success for themselves. So, what is it for you and Hazelight?
JF: One thing I know for sure: Hazelight will never be about money. That’s actually why we allow the player to give a free copy of A Way Out to a friend so they could play the game online together. For me, it’s all about passion. We’ll always be pushing creative boundaries, trying to tell stories differently and to affect players in meaningful ways. I would say the same thing to every publisher I’d ever work with. There will be not a single decision based on sales at Hazelight Studios. Never. For instance, if someone would come and tell me «Here’s ten million dollars to make a single-player campaign for A Way Out on par with co-op». I would say: «No». That will never happen.
GL: In case a publisher wouldn’t grant a big enough budget to realize the concept you have in mind, would you ever consider investing your own money?
JF: You know, if A Way Out wouldn’t perform well in terms of sales, I would literally be on the street today. That’s how much I’ve invested in this game. I’ve risked everything from economical standpoint. But I’m not afraid of failure, because I think that being afraid of failure is way worse than failure itself. Look, when you’re afraid, you think about it all the time: «Oh shit, oh shit, oh no, what if I fail?» And these thoughts take so much of your energy. But if you actually fail, you can take it then. So, if I ended up homeless, I would have taken it then. But I don’t have failure on my mind.
GL: Hazelight has been working with Unreal Engine since the very beginning, and you’re going to use it again for the next game. What makes it the best choice for your team, and do you personally have a hands-on experience with the engine?
JF: We used Unreal Engine 3 on Brothers and Unreal Engine 4 on A Way Out. I don’t know the engine that well, actually. I’m able to use some of its basic functions, like putting the collision, moving blocks, controlling the camera and stuff like that. But I do not work with the engine on a daily basis. I think what’s good about this engine is that it’s got a great community, a very good support, well-done optimization. I’m not a coder or level designer myself, but it obviously has a lot of really great tools and a very capable editor to work with. Of course, it helps a lot to have the engine like Unreal, but for me it’s not really about the engine, but the game itself.
GL: Talking about the game, what was your personal goal when you’ve decided to create A Way Out, and have you achieved everything you wanted to with this game?
JF: Yes, absolutely. The whole idea of A Way Out was to create the feeling of trust between the players and then to tear it all apart. That’s why I’ve always said that the best way to experience our game would be sitting on a couch, playing it together with a friend. And all these scenes, all these moments were designed to create a bond between the players, and then to turn them against each other. That’s what I’ve set out to do, and seeing players’ reaction when the actual story twist happened felt like we’ve made a huge impact. The whole idea was that you had to kill your friend in the end, that’s why it was super important to have only two endings, so that you could not avoid this dramatic moment.
GL: You’ve spent three and a half years on A Way Out. What does the game director’s job involve during that prolonged period of time?
JF: On A Way Out I was writing the script, coming up with design together with our level designers, planning gameplay sequences, doing the motion capture, including all the stunts. In game development there’s no a single day when you don’t have anything to do, there’s so much work. I’ve figured it’s even more than I could handle, actually. Hopefully, on the next game I wouldn’t have to put on a mo-cap suit myself, so I could focus on directing.
GL: Your brother Fares Fares has done voice-over for one of the main characters, Leo, and you’ve played the same character during mo-cap sessions. Was that a sort of limitation you had to embrace so that one performance has been split between you and your brother?
JF: A Way Out was a super low-budget production. That’s why I had to put on a mo-cap suit myself. First, we’ve been recording the motion capture, and we put the voice-over afterwards. It’s not so good because it may feel like two separate things. My brother is a great actor — he’s in Westworld Season 2 now — and you could see that he had to adapt to my body language, and I’m not an actor really. I didn’t pay my brother any money, and he didn’t have time to come for every mo-cap session because we did a mo-cap shoot every week. As for Vincent character, sometimes we had five different actors doing his body. And I think you can even feel it, that it’s a different character all the time. But probably it’s covered in a good way, and people eventually believed that Vincent is Vincent. Hopefully, with this new project I’ll be able to have one actor for the same character to keep the same body language throughout the whole game, and a full performance capture, so it will make a huge difference for the acting in the next game.
GL: A Way Out is in part an action game featuring multiple adrenaline scenes, like a motorcycle chase or parachute jumping. In your life do you enjoy extreme things like that?
JF: Well, I’m an adventurous guy. I like nature, I like to do exciting stuff, but I’m not an adrenaline addict in that sense. My latest adventure experience was being in Sicily where I was walking and climbing around in mountains, jumping off high cliffs into the water and doing other things. I haven’t had so much time off because it’s been a lot of work with A Way Out, but I’m the kind of guy who likes parachute jumping or doing the stunts I did for the game. I like to be physical, if you know what I mean.
GL: You seem to be extremely confident when it comes to your vision, and there’s impression that you would do anything to defend your ideas, to do things the way you want them to be done…
JF: I never question the vision. However, I do a lot of respect for the production of the game. Here I do question everything, like «Is this gonna work? Is that the best way to do it?» I can change every single detail, I talk to people, I’m super open to the process, but I never lose trust on the vision. Even if players wouldn’t have loved A Way Out, I still know it’s a great game. And the audience would understand that at the end of the day.
GL: What is your approach to keep the team on the same page day-to-day?
JF: Well, I try to keep them hearing what’s going on all the time. It’s not like I write the script and then I say «Here’s the game», and then I go. I’m super involved in every detail, kind of a control freak almost. We’ve got a concept and then we grow it step by step talking about it with the team, trying things out, going back and forth until we find something that is really cool and different.
GL: How do you maintain that creative spirit? Do you have any specific habits that help you stay energized?
JF: I’m passionate about video games, and that’s something I can’t control. When I go on stage and things happen, like the «Fuck The Oscars» speech, I don’t control such things. It just happens, it’s just me being me. For people who work with me it’s not a surprise. «Oh, this is Josef…», they would say. So you just never know what happens when I’m up on stage.
GL: You’ve had quite a moment with that «Fuck The Oscars» rant at The Game Awards last year. But that controversy aside, do you watch the ceremony these days, and could you name the movies that caught your attention recently?
JF: «Three Billboards Outside Ebbings, Missouri», I think it’s a great movie. «Get Out» was another one that I thought was really good, and «The Shape of Water», of course. I’ve watched all of them, but I especially liked «Three Billboards…». It’s a touching movie and a really cool idea that works so well. But about my The Oscars rant, here’s the thing. When I came to The Game Awards, people were talking about The Oscars all the time. They were talking so much about it, and when I was up on stage, I was caught up in the moment, and I was like: «Who cares about The Oscars?» And the audience was really excited, so I just kept going. That’s why this «Fuck The Oscars» line has popped up, you know. But personally, I don’t really have anything against The Oscars. I just meant that we should be celebrating this interactive medium and stop comparing video games to movies all the time.
GL: It seems, though, that it’s worked well in terms of getting public attention to A Way Out…
JF: Yeah, it probably helped us somehow. But for me it wasn’t planned. It wasn’t scripted or something. That just happened. I know some people say this is a kind of a PR thing. No, it’s definitely not.
GL: Games are escapist in nature, and it’s typical to think of writers and creative people in general as dreamers living in their fantasies. Does it apply to you?
JF: I’m definitely a very social guy. I love games, I love making them and I play them a lot, but I do a lot of social things as well. I talk to people, I listen to their stories. Inspiration may come from everywhere — some of the best ideas have come from people around, so for me it’s super important to be involved in the world and to know what’s going on.
GL: To what degree you and Hazelight Studios are involved in the video games industry in Sweden? Do you feel this connection to the overall gaming community in your country?
JF: I think I know most of the guys in the games industry here in Sweden. We would meet at events like Nordic Games convention and talk, so there is stuff going on all the time, and when I have time I try to go to these events. I think having a collaboration like this is always super good. Because we all working towards the same goal. In general, when a game like God of War comes out and does something special, it’s so good for the whole industry because it helps everybody to keep pushing themselves and keep delivering really great games.
GL: Speaking of nordic games, do you think there’s a distinctive approach to game design that is unique to video games made by Scandinavian developers, like Japanese game design?
JF: That’s an interesting question, because there are so many really good Swedish game developers out there making the biggest games in the world. The Battlefield franchise, or Minecraft, or titles from Massive Entertainment, and Sweden is quite a small country, actually. I would say that Sweden definitely has passion for making video games, making different experiences, yet I don’t think there’s a special Nordic design or something like that. Japanese games, they’re connected more with the culture, I guess. What’s interesting about games created in Japan is that they get away with stuff the Western games wouldn’t. If you look at Yakuza 6 that I’m playing right now, it’s a game which has these extreme sexual scenes, and nobody’s really questioning that! If you would do it in a Western game, the reaction would be crazy. It’s almost like they have their own rules of how to make video games.
GL: By the way, new God of War you’ve mentioned is set in the Scandinavian region…
JF: Oh yeah! I think one of the reasons for this is that Corey’s [Barlog, God Of War creative director] wife is from Sweden. That might have been some inspiration, I guess.
GL: Cory Barlog recently said that without George Miller’s mentorship God of War might have been a different game in terms of dramatic aspects. If you had a chance to take a sabbatical and spent it being an apprentice to one of directors or game designers, who would that person be?
JF: I would actually choose to be an apprentice to Neil Druckmann. He’s a great inspiration, and I would learn a lot from him, I think. But from a storytelling perspective, as a director, I would have chosen James Cameron because the stories he tells resonate with me a lot. His movies hit me really deep.
GL: On the other hand, would you consider taking several years off from game creation to prepare the next generation of developers, like Warren Spector did recently? And what do you think is the best approach to education in the video games industry?
JF: I believe that the best schools are there to inspire, especially in this industry which is so young. If you start teaching people how to design a game, we may end up having titles that are very similar to one another, and I’d prefer to see more innovation in the video games instead. That’s why I think that a really great school is the one that gives you tools to go crazy and to do some stuff that you haven’t seen before. In that sense, I would definitely like to do some talks and inspire young developers, but I would not be an actual teacher.
GL: Your games are original IPs. But if you had an opportunity to work on a project in a big-budget franchise of your choice, what would that be?
JF: I’m not really too excited in taking someone else’s concept or making sequels. I really want to work on my own stuff. But if I could take just one game in totally different direction, I would’ve taken some big FPS, because I think that this genre is in a kind of stagnation and really needs a renewal. So I would do it with something like Call of Duty just to challenge ourselves and prove that we can do it our way. But, of course, that would never happen because it’s too much of a money machine.
GL: We live in the new Golden Age of TV as they call it. You’ve worked in movies as well as in video games already, but do you have any plans to try yourself in a TV drama one day?
JF: Actually, I have certain freedom and have some offers to make TV series and movies, but I really want to focus on making games. So, in my situation I could easily go and make a TV drama now, or a movie, but I don’t want to. I want to focus on games because that’s what my passion and that’s what I want to do right now. With that said, who knows, in the future I might do a TV project or a movie again. It depends on what I’d feel and what my passion is about.
GL: In Russia we used to wind up interview with a questionnaire a-la Marcel Proust, so now I want to suggest you to give brief answers to the following questions…
JF: Okay, let’s do it!
GL: What virtue do you appreciate most of all?
GL: What flaw is the easiest for you to forgive?
JF: People making mistakes…
GL: What is your main regret?
JF: That I haven’t made more games, I guess.
GL: Where would you like to live?
JF: In Sweden, actually.
GL: Name one game you would like to see a next-gen remake of…
GL: JRPG or Western RPG?
JF: Right now, Western RPG.
GL: When you meet Hideo Kojima (next time) what would you say to him?
JF: I would ask him this: «I know you know English — why don’t you speak?» I’m almost sure he understands and speaks English, but he doesn’t talk for some reason. It’s just a thought that I’ve had for a long time, because writing so much, working on so many games, it’s just impossible that he has not learned the language. So I want to ask him why.