A Way Out

After Josef Fares’s emotionally stunning success with Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, I honestly wasn’t sure how his new team at Hazelight Studios could follow it up with their first game. Certainly there would have to be a solid story at its heart, but what else? As another story about two male co-lead characters, could A Way Out invent new and fresh co-op mechanics? Could it evoke emotional responses on par with those in Brothers without recycling too much material? Most importantly, could it — like Brothers — ask thematic questions that pierce beyond the screen and into reality?

The answer to all three of these questions is a resounding yes. In A Way Out, two players (either locally or online) each control one of Vincent and Leo, the story’s protagonists. At the story’s start, Vincent is going to jail while Leo has already been in for several months. As they slowly begin to trust one another, they learn that they both have it out for a crime boss named Harvey, the man who got them both canned. United by a desire to find their own justice, the pair hatch a plan to escape.

The story unfolds as our protagonists interact with one another and others in their environment, tasking players with surviving harrowing combat, pulling off pieces of an escape plan, and solving puzzles using their surroundings. But these elements can be found in many games; the differentiating factor for A Way Out is the way in which it demands cooperation from the players, even in the most mundane tasks. Especially in the first half of the game, every situation is an opportunity to synergize in new ways. As Vincent and Leo learn to trust one another and work together, so do the players controlling them.

It is worth mentioning, though not in any spoiler-revealing detail, that the gameplay is both surprisingly clever and spans many different game genres. Though most of the game takes place in a split-screen, third-person perspective, particular sequences play out like moments from Grand Theft Auto, Battlefield, Uncharted, Assassins' Creed, and even Street Fighter. Beyond the main game itself, many refreshing and somewhat odd mini-game experiences are scattered throughout the story: Leo and Vincent can challenge one another in brawn (in an arm-wrestling match), brains (in a game of Connect Four), and everything in between.

WARNING: This part of the review contains game-ruining spoilers.

But the glory of this game lies in its story’s false resolution. After brutally murdering Harvey in his safe house in Mexico and reclaiming the Orlov diamond whose sale Harvey sabotaged, Leo and Vincent land stateside. Perhaps we should have expected otherwise, but it felt like the game was coming to a close and both characters would go back to their wives and children happy, scores settled. Instead, a band of police storm the runway, and our protagonists have nowhere left to go. Instead of emerging victorious, the pointed guns and blue and red lights spell a return to where this adventure started.

If only, though, that were the only twist. In one painful blow, the writers destroy everything the players have learned to trust: the characters they control, and one another. When the supposed chief of police approaches to arrest the pair, a simple “Good work, Vincent” turns the entire game on its head. Everything following that point drives the pain of betraying a friend and being betrayed deeper and deeper until the players are forced to control Vincent and Leo in a 1v1 gunfight: the antithesis of every cooperative wall climb, every narrow escape, every emotional vulnerability.

Even with spoilers disclaimed, it feels wrong to give away the game’s final emotional gut-punch. Suffice it to say that it hits just as hard as the infamous sequence in Brothers where the little brother has to swim on his own. Even the way we’ve learned to control our characters and interact in this game’s world is questioned and systematically torn down.

Spoiler section over!

This game is everything you could want from an interactive story, and the masterful way that everything is built up around cooperation makes it even better. While it doesn’t fully achieve complete emotional synchronization between players and their characters (I found myself protesting loudly and angrily throughout the end sequence), the storytelling is among the finest I’ve had the pleasure to experience in a video game.

Bugs

Many of the character’s voice lines were not accurately timed, and would often trigger at irrelevant moments. This may not be a bug so much as a way the experience could be polished further.

Rating

Info

Type
Video Game
Developer
Release Date
March 23, 2018
Joshua J. Daymude
Joshua J. Daymude
Assistant Professor, Computer Science

I am a Christian and assistant professor in computer science studying collective emergent behavior and programmable matter through the lens of distributed computing, stochastic processes, and bio-inspired algorithms. I also love gaming and playing music.