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Interactive storytelling a top priority at new studio from Brothers designer

We talk to Hazelight's writer and director Josef Fares about the transition from Starbreeze to forming an independent studio, as well as his thoughts on the state of interactive story telling in 2015.

Josef Fares was an award winning film director before he started making video games, but in the space of a few years he's gone from starting his first game to heading up his own studio.

Released in 2013, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons managed the complicated task of marrying theme and mechanics, having the player control one brother with each analog stick, one helping the other traverse through the world. It was as novel as it was effective, especially once Fares and his team at Starbreeze wove the mechanic into their narrative. 

The newly-formed Hazelight comes off the back of Brothers' critical and commercial success. Fares has the backing of EA, and the team is working on an unannounced project that aims to take the same emotional resonance that made Brothers so compelling and apply it in a completely different way. 

I spoke to Fares about how the Hazelight deal came about, as well as how hard it was to get anyone to let him make Brothers in the first place, and where the state of interactive storytelling is in 2015. 

Can you explain how the formation of Hazelight came about after leaving Starbeeze, as well as the deal with EA?

I was a contractor at Starbreeze. My normal job is as a film director, but I was there from morning to evening working on Brothers. However the idea wasn't for me to stay at Starbeeze. So after I did Brothers I really just felt like I would love to make a new game. And after Brothers a lot of opportunities came in, and publishers were asking me if I wanted to do another game, but my plan was to make a movie first, and then do another game. But because of the success of Brothers I pretty much told all the publishers I talked to "this is how it's going to be if we make another game." One thing that was very important for me was having 100 percent creative control, which is what I actually have with EA right now. They can't interfere at all; it's 100 percent in Hazelight's control.

After Brothers, pretty much the whole team had left Starbreeze, and were at different places. Some were at Machine Games, some were at DICE -- they were all spread out. But we had been talking the whole time, so when I said I had a deal they jumped on it immediately, because we really liked to work together. That was the number one thing that I cared about. And we had some other publishers we were talking to, and I said, "This is how it's going to be, and if you're not interested then I'm not interested." The reason I can do that is because I'm not dependent on this. I really have a passion for making games, but if it's not done a certain way I have no interest in doing it. 

Brothers came out of the left field from Starbreeze, a studio known for its big triple-A releases, and it almost feels like an indie game. 

It is an indie game, actually. There was a small team at Starbreeze, but I think only two were from Starbreeze itself, and I came from outside with a different vision from what Starbreeze does. It was almost like an experiment in some way. If you're a really big Starbreeze fan you should play Wolfenstein: New Order, because Machine Games is Starbreeze, pretty much -- they're the Starbreeze guys. 

Was there ever an option to stay with Starbreeze for your next game? 

No, no. They're going in a different direction, focusing on Payday and those games. They've said they're very proud of Brothers, but it's not really the type of thing they want to do. At Hazelight, we want to focus on doing other things. 

Would you say that from Starbreeze's perspective Brothers wasn't a successful experiment?

I can't talk for them, but I just know from the media they're not making these types of emotionally-driven games that we at Hazelight want to make. 

So how is the experience now that you've got full creative control rather than working under a studio?

Actually it's the same. I had full creative control over there too. I'm the kind of guy that has a very strong vision about how the game should be and I can be quite persuasive. I'm not the guy who gives up on my vision, I'm very clear on what we're going to do and where we're heading. I don't feel any difference at all. I'm just really happyto be back with the team and creating a new experience. I'm super excited.

 
"I know it sounds cocky, but it's really something that hasn't been tried before."

People ask me sometimes "Do you feel any pressure because of the success of Brothers?" And I'm like "No, this is going to be even better." I'm extremely confident. Whenever I talk about the new game's idea and vision people go "Wow, this is amazing." I know it sounds cocky, but it's really something that hasn't been tried before. I guarantee there's nothing similar to it. Of course you'll recognize it from other games, but at the end of the day when you play through the whole thing there's nothing like it. 

 

You mentioned you don't feel pressure from the success of Brothers, but do you feel pressure to recreate the same novel theme and control scheme? Do you feel a pressure to keep coming up with novel ideas?

Let me say this: I remember when that idea came. I couldn't sleep that night. I couldn't wait to come in and tell the team about how cool it was.That was a big "a-ha" moment for me -- I was so excited for it. But the new game is something different; it's exploring other stuff, other emotions. I can't talk about it --  I wish I could -- but no, I don't feel a pressure. It's going to be a very different game, both in setting and style, and playstyle. It's a very hard game to do, but the support has been really great, EA has been really really nice to me. 

We've only got a teaser to go on for the new game, but it's obviously more adult in theme to Brothers. What was behind the decision to shift away from the more childlike themes of your previous game?

I think the only part you could compare to Brothers is that, again, it's focused on creating emotions in the player. That teaser was put together in three weeks, and it really doesn't represent anything, it was just something to have for the announcement. We've been working on the new game since mid-November, so we're really very early. But the resemblance will be about emotions.

Again, though, there are so many things to discover in video games. When people ask me what I'm excited about regarding the future and technology, I say that the biggest thing I'm excited about is creative storytelling. That's the biggest thing I think will change.

 
"The biggest thing I'm excited about is creative storytelling. That's the biggest thing I think will change."

Because right now, and I'm exaggerating here, we're playing pretty much the same kinds of games. Even the next-gen games, they look very pretty, but under the hood it's the same mechanics and the same games with a few fresh ideas. That's the thing I think is going to change most, and that's the thing I'm looking forward to in the future -- how to tell stories in new ways. I truly believe telling a story in an interactive medium is so powerful, and I think it can be more powerful than movies.

It's still very underestimated regarding what it can do to people. And that's the focus of Hazelight; to try and create these emotions in the players. With that said, my next game, I have a vague idea what to do, is something again very different from what we're doing now. I'm not so much into the idea of sequels and prequels. I'd love to do something new every time, to have new challenges and new ways of discovering how to tell the story, that excites me a lot. 

In the last year or two we've seen a lot of new ways to try and tell stories in games, such as with The Walking Dead, 80 Days, The Banner SagaThey've all been putting out really novel, interesting ways of telling stories. Have you been paying attention to those?

Of course. I was on a Q&A recently with one of the writers of one of the episodes of The Walking Dead. But I said this there: I really appreciate The Walking Dead, but for me most of the time I had the controller on the table and I was pushing options. What I love about games is the interactive, and The Walking Dead, which I appreciate a lot, is much closer to a movie-experience than a gaming-experience. I'm much more about the interactivity. It's a fun game, but it's really not the future if you ask me. 

I'm curious: with Brothers it seems you made a conscious decision not to have much dialog, and what is there is in a non-English language. The effect of that is that everything you have comes from the environment and the events of the game. Was that a deliberate constriction?

Oh yeah, definitely. In a way, when you have a language you don't understand, and you have to read the body language, it forces the player to pay more attention and be more focused. And that's a little bit more interactive than having something you understand. And it's interesting in regards to Brothers, because it's a really very simple story. You don't even understand one word of what they're saying, but people still react to the story, and that's one of the coolest things about Brothers; that people have become so involved with the story when they don't understand a word. 

I think one of the reasons we've seen so many people trying different ways of telling stories is both the opportunities and the restrictions of smaller development teams. We have a lot of engines that let you do a lot, but when you have a smaller team you can't do, for example, a ton of voice lines. So have you done the same here, with Hazelight, where you're not allowing yourself to take easy options?

The ambition is much higher on the new game, and I really can't talk so much about it, but it's going to be different on all levels. That teaser we released doesn't really say anything. It's just a teaser, it's just a picture. Hopefully in the year when we have something to talk about we can say more. I could explain the game in one sentence and you'd go, "Wow, that's cool." A little bit like with Brothers where you can describe it so clearly, what it's about. We're not sitting here asking what we're going to do today. We know what we're going to do, and I think that's actually really important, that you have a strong vision for the game, and it's something I think the best games have. 

 
"It took me about three years before someone accepted me. I went to everyone; I went to DICE, but everyone questioned me."

You've mentioned you came from a film background. What made you move into games with Brothers?

I've always been a huge hardcore gamer, and I've always loved games, and that's always been a dream for me. I always talked about games when I was doing interviews with press for my films, and it just happened that I had a friend who worked at a games company, and he asked me if I'd like to make a prototype over six weeks, and that's when I came up with the idea for Brothers

And was the concept for Brothers just the theme of the two brothers, or having each on their own analog stick?

Each stick, and how the game would end. That one will die and you have to bury your own brother. I actually did two demos before I had the chance to work at Starbreeze. So it took me about three years before someone accepted me. I went to everyone; I went to DICE, but everyone questioned me. They thought I didn't understand because I came from movies, and when you're proposing something different, people don't understand what you're trying to do. For me, I had a big understanding of game mechanics, and that's what I like about games. And I really think it's not a good idea to have a movie script writer or director working on a game, because they're such different mediums. 

There's been trouble in the past of people who have experience writing linear film and TV scripts struggling with the non-linear game narrative, where the player has agency. 

It's a very different way to tell a story. Here the player is controlling the pace, where in a film the director and the writers control the pace. So it's that thing where the player can just stop and you lose the flow of everything. 

With Brothers it seems you placed a lot of trust in the player to just do what they want to do, only very rarely forcing you to move through an area at any speed but your own. Was that a hard decision to make? Were there things you wanted to do that you couldn't or it would get in the player's way?

Before creating it, I had many people questioning it, saying it wouldn't work. We sent it for mock-reviews and it did terribly, and when I read that, I couldn't help but feel these were bad companies. When people tell you that this is how game design is supposed to be, well, goodbye and go home. I don't want to hear it. Games have been going for too short a time for people to say that this is how it is done. We don't know yet. They didn't understand Brothers, and it's different now it's out there and it's successful. The whole time, I was telling people you need everything in Brothers to properly experience it.

Imagine Journey when it wasn't done -- just a guy walking in the desert, who cares? Brothers is the same thing, it's about everything: the world, the music, the emotions. Put it all together and then you understand what it's trying to do. I always try to think outside the box, to see something different. Whenever we do something we ask ourselves "How could we do this differently? How could we do this more effectively?" and with this game we already know the goal we're aiming for, so every decision is taken from that goal. Which makes it easier, in a way. 

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