A Way Out
Developed by: Hazelight
Published by: Electronic Arts
Available on: PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One

In terms of sheer storytelling moxie, one of the brightest lights in today’s video game industry is the brash Lebanese-born filmmaker turned video game designer Josef Fares. Fares, a writer and video game director, has led teams that have created games whose mechanics and themes operate together to evoke the dynamics of interpersonal relationships. His first game, 2013’s “Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons,” told a moving story about two siblings who go on a quest to find an elixir to heal their ailing father. One of my favorite games of the last console cycle, “Brothers” was noteworthy for its unique control setup which maps the movement of the two boys to the right and left thumbstick, respectively. Over the course of their adventure, the brothers must collaborate to meet challenges. At the end, they’re separated and the loss is unforgettably magnified by the tactile experience of no longer being able to coordinate both of their movements. Fares’s new game “A Way Out” is focused on another pair of characters who are also dependent on each other but it’s a co-op-only experience meaning that you’ll need another person to get through it as it was designed to be played. As far as narrative-driven games, it offers one of the best shareable experiences of its kind.

“A Way Out” can be played either online or locally with two people in the same room. For those looking to play online, the game offers a Friend Pass whereby the purchaser of the game can give a copy to another person who will then be able play through it with their benefactor. At the start of each play session players can choose to play either as Vincent, a 43-year old with a level-headed personality, or Leo, an impetuous 36 year-old who nurses a fear of heights. Conforming to our own 40-something and 30-something demographic, my younger cousin Maceo and I opted for the man closest to us in age range.

The game gets underway as Vincent is admitted to a prison where he is scheduled to spend fourteen years for embezzlement, fraud, and murder. As he goes through the induction of getting hosed down and picking up his prison uniform, Leo goes about his day as an inmate who has served six months of an eight-year stint for assault and armed robbery. The men first come into contact with each other in the prison yard when Vincent comes to Leo’s aide after the latter is attacked by another inmate. As fate would have it, Vincent is placed in a jail cell next to Leo’s. After the two realize that they share a common foe — a violent thief named Harvey whose actions led to both men being where they are — Leo reluctantly agrees to let Vincent in on his plan to break out of prison.

Most of the action on the screen plays out in horizontal and vertical windows so that we simultaneously see what Vincent and Leo are doing. The first incident that caused my cousin and me to address each other in tones of clipped excitability occurred when Leo and Vincent take turns standing lookout while the other uses a pilfered screwdriver to chip away at the wall behind their respective toilets. Hearing my cousin say, “don’t look at my screen just concentrate on the job, I’ll watch out for the guards” definitely put me in the moment.  The game does a fantastic job of dishing out other scenarios that emphasize teamwork while also offering up a variety of little activities from fishing to Connect Four to encourage partners to indulge in a little downtime and relish the would-be bromance.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given Fares’s background in film, the most extraordinary thing about “A Way Out” is its editing and camerawork. Though it helps to keep your eyes trained on your character’s particular screen, you’ll often want to feast on everything that’s happening. (During one memorable incident, Vincent and Leo are chased by a hit man and the action takes place from each of their perspectives; its intensity is like that of something directed by Johnnie To.) In the best, most cinematic sense, the game feels like a construction of scenes. Everything is precise and pared down so that one activity flows into the next. The camerawork accentuates the game’s excellent pacing. The size and shape of each player’s on-screen frame changes between certain scenes. Usually both players share an equal amount of television real estate but sometimes the frame will enlarge around one character to prioritize his story, or just cut to one of the two.

Up until a significant moment near the end of the game, Maceo and I considered a chase sequence in a hospital to be almost unsurpassable for its dramatic use of cutting between scenes. My cousin maintains that “A Way Out” is a perfect game. I think it’s a visually stunning, incredibly efficient feat of storytelling about men who are what they are, for better or worse.

Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer. His work has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, The New Yorker and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.

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