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Years after viral Game Awards rant, ‘It Takes Two’ director says he doesn’t hate the Oscars

(The Washington Post illustration; Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
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You can never accuse Josef Fares, director of the critically acclaimed, 2021 co-op action-adventure “It Takes Two,” of blowing his time in the spotlight. Even with just 30 seconds of allotted time to give his acceptance speech for winning game of the year at this month’s Game Awards in Los Angeles, he managed to make things memorably odd by telling everyone in the crowd: “If you don’t have children, go get them.”

It was something of a full-circle moment for Fares, who, as part of a promo spot at 2017′s Game Awards, transformed himself into a viral sensation with a colorful rant whose thesis was “F--- the Oscars.” Four years later, there he was taking home the biggest award at the gaming industry’s biggest show. Speaking to The Post, he reflected on both Game Awards moments, as well as his place in a rapidly changing industry.

Before the interview, conducted over Zoom, could even begin, Fares panned the camera over to his toddler daughter and showered her with affection.

“This is my daughter,” he said. “I f------ love her so much. … Of course, I don’t think everybody should get kids. That just came out of my mouth [onstage] because, like, it’s such a wild trip to have kids, and I really love it. These days I hear a lot of youngsters that don’t want kids, which is absolutely okay as well. But I’m just saying that you’re going to miss out on something, man.”

If there was any confusion as to why Fares used his precious handful of seconds on the Game Awards stage to encourage large-scale childbirth and/or adoption, he quickly dispelled it during the interview.

“I never plan a speech at all,” said Fares, who explained he wasn’t expecting “It Takes Two” to win game of the year. “The only thing I had in my head was that I needed to thank my team and my daughter.”

Fares’s ebullient attitude toward parenting does not match that of his game, which is about two bickering parents who are transformed into toys while their daughter braces for their impending divorce. From his perspective, however, “It Takes Two” is ultimately optimistic.

“The story isn’t really about how it is to be divorced,” he said. “It’s about these two people that should find each other again in this harsh situation. Then they realize how they forgot about their daughter.”

At the Game Awards, thanking his team and his daughter ended up being just about all Fares had time to do. The ceremony devotes a significant chunk of runtime to announcements and ad spots, more so than to the awards themselves. Fares, however, said he does not have an ax to grind with the Game Awards in the same way he does with the Oscars. In fact, contrary to what many believe, he doesn’t really hold a grudge against the Oscars, either.

“When I came to Game Awards 2017, everybody was talking like, ‘This is the Oscars of games,’ " Fares explained. “So onstage, me being me, instantly in my head I was like, ‘F--- the Oscars, we’re having a great time [here instead].’ That was where it came from. It wasn’t a statement that I think the Oscars are bad.”

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Fares remains glad he said it, though, because he believes games deserve more respect from Hollywood.

“As someone who’s been on both sides, doing six feature films and now four games, I’m telling you: When I go back and make a movie — which I will someday in the future — it’ll be like taking a vacation,” he said.

He then cited an example: the herculean task that was cramming “It Takes Two” full of far more than two game mechanics.

“We have an extreme amount of different mechanics, and we need to take them to a level where it makes sense, polish-wise,” he said. “Not only that, we had to create bosses, enemies and all that, and every boss takes around six to nine months to create. How it functions for the player is around five to six minutes of play, but it’s an extreme amount of stuff in the background.”

Fares clarified that he doesn’t think movies are easy to make, but with so many moving parts, he sees video game production as a more complex art.

“It’s interactive entertainment. You have your audience going loose, and you’re creating everything from the ground up,” he explained. “[With a movie], you have an actor, you have a human being, you have a voice, you have movement, you have environment, you have sound, you have over 100 years of how to plan a movie and do a script. … And it’s a much more controllable medium.”

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Despite the difficulty, Fares feels like he and his 65-person team at Swedish studio Hazelight have made significant progress since he directed his first game, “Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons,” back in 2013. “It Takes Two” regularly blurs genre lines, introducing mechanics as far-flung as “Diablo”-style, hack-and-slash action, third-person shooting and “Tony Hawk”-esque rail grinding, but Fares said development was relatively smooth sailing. Certainly the team had to omit some exciting ideas — including a section in which one player obtains a hammer and the other a nail, which would have allowed players to nail enemies to the ground — but, by and large, their meticulous planning paid off.

“The thing is, with this game we hardly did any crunch,” Fares said. “We managed to do it in a good way. We planned good. Sometimes, of course, [crunch] happened, but it was rare. That’s our approach to the next one as well, so hopefully we can keep doing that.”

Fares could not say what Hazelight’s next game is, but he was happy to elaborate on what it’s definitely not. While many video game publishers are diving into the deep ends of live-service games and NFTs — games that encourage players to spend money via endless updates and controversial “non-fungible tokens” that utilize the blockchain to confer ownership, respectively — Fares emphasized that the buzzword-laden zeitgeist is not for him.

“Live service? We’ll never have that,” he said. “People can work with that, and I’m not saying replayability is bad for every game. Some games are actually designed for it. I’m just saying [for] the games we do — story-based games, most single-player games — the focus on replayability shouldn’t be there because that’s not what it’s about. We already have a problem that people are not even finishing single-player experience games, so why focus on replayability?”

Fares had even harsher words for NFTs, saying that he’d rather get “shot in the knee” than include them in future games.

“Let me tell you this: Whatever decision you take in a game, where you have to adjust the design to make the player pay or do something that makes you want him to pay money, that is wrong, if you ask me. If you make a game [with the goal of telling] a story, I think it’s wrong,” Fares said. “Now, if you ask a big CEO that runs a company, he would say I’m stupid because companies are about making money. But I would still say no. For me, gaming is art.”

The aforementioned big CEOs were another major subject at this year’s Game Awards, with serious allegations against Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick buzzing on the lips of nearly everyone in attendance. Following an outcry over host Geoff Keighley’s initial response to the Activision Blizzard situation (a week before the Game Awards, Keighley told The Post he was still considering how to “navigate” the ceremony’s involvement with the publisher), the show opened with a call for support of game creators, saying that the industry “should not and will not tolerate any abuse, harassment or predatory practice by anyone.”

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Fares applauded the moment, which he hopes spurs growth for the industry.

“I think we need to mature like every other industry,” Fares said. “I think sometimes you need to go through some s--- to get to the other side. That’s what’s happening.”

As a resident of Sweden, a country where unions are far more common and centralized than in the U.S., Fares added that he believes unions and organizing efforts like walkouts are an important part of the solution. But he doesn’t believe they’re a silver bullet.

“Yeah, for sure [unions help]," Fares said. “But that’s just one of the things. I don’t think it solves everything. Education and knowledge, I think that’s most important. The gaming industry is not that old. We’re learning all the time. … If someone has done something bad, sure it’s bad, but I also want to see how we fix this.”

When it came to his own role in facilitating fixes, however, he said that as studio director, he prefers to focus on the creative side of things and leave workplace culture to other Hazelight team members — even though senior creatives have been accused of failing to prevent workplace discrimination at companies like Activision Blizzard and Ubisoft.

“I’m the head of creative. We have another guy who’s head of the studio,” Fares said. “People are happy at our place. And also the [other studio leaders] are still doing stuff and making changes, so people are getting more and more comfortable, but I don’t know in detail exactly because that’s not really what I do.”

On the whole, Fares is optimistic, even if prospects might look bleak for an industry that seems to surface a new worker mistreatment scandal every other week.

“You can become a bit pessimistic when you hear it’s happening everywhere,” Fares said, “but I think we’re going toward a brighter future.”