Why I Love is a series of guest editorials on GamesIndustry.biz intended to showcase the ways in which game developers appreciate each other's work. This entry was contributed by Leo Fernández Infante, producer and programmer at Retro Forge, which launched the 2D Metroidvania game Souldiers on PC and consoles earlier this month.
It Takes Two is one of those games that stays with you long after you've played it. Developer Hazelight Studios (A Way Out) crafted an outstanding production all around with their excellent mechanics, elaborate scenarios, beautiful graphics, and neat puzzles. It's a surefire 10 out of 10 in the "video game development good practices manual" and well deserving of the Game of the Year awards it racked up. But, for me, what's really great about the game is that it uses its mandatory two-player mechanics to tell a story in a way that couldn't be achieved through more traditional single-player means.
But first, a bit of context. The game puts us in the shoes of Cody and May, a married couple who have recently decided to get a divorce. When they tell their daughter, little Rose, she storms off to their shed. There, sheltered under a table, she makes an innocent wish to the old "Dr. Hakim's Book of Love": that her parents get along again. As she does so, her tears fall over two dolls representing her parents. And voilà! Suddenly we're playing as Cody and May, now embodying tiny dolls of wood and clay, unknowingly on a journey that could save their marriage. Along the way they'll be helped by the book itself, as a rather annoying NPC.
During the seven chapters of this odyssey where Cody and May seek to return to their real bodies, they must overcome a colossal variety of challenges. Sometimes they will need to defeat enemies using traditional shooter mechanics. Other times they will drive vehicles. They'll even cross over into old school dungeon crawling gameplay. All these different mechanics and genres organically shift along with the environment, altering the controls and camera angles when necessary, and ensuring that we always have something new to discover just around the corner.
As if that weren't enough, at the beginning of each chapter Cody and May will be provided with a new unique ability. It will be the combination of their two abilities that allows them to advance through the stage, solving small puzzles designed in an extraordinarily elegant way, offering a steady drip feed of little "aha!" moments. All throughout, each player can take care of a part of the puzzle, but they'll need the other player to fill in the missing pieces and execute a solution. These challenges require communication and teamwork to overcome in a way that's utterly unique.
Each level is made with great care, unfolding a universe brimming with imagination
Each level is made with great care, unfolding a universe brimming with imagination. The scenarios It Takes Two places you in run the gamut from chasing sentient legged fuses through a shed, to allying with the tree squirrels to defeat a wasp nest, to infiltrating Rose's toy castle to get to the queen, to crossing a village hidden inside a cuckoo clock, to going inside a snow globe, to cleaning the weeds in the garden, to searching in the attic for the gadgets to put on a concert. Need I say more? The sheer variety of activities on display is utterly jaw dropping, offering one of the most enchanting and magical worlds I've come across.
And it's not just the environment concepts that stand out, but rather the details within each area. Each of the environments is full of small details that invite you to get lost exploring its corners. It's a real pleasure to discover an interaction with the scenery over here, a mini-game over there… Because, in addition to all the game's mandatory mechanics, It Takes Two is chock full of optional mini-games: target shooting, ice skating race, a runner, a tank game, a kind of Guitar Hero-esque rhythm game! There's even a giant chess board that the two players can actually use to, well, play chess!
As for the difficulty, the balancing is effortlessly smooth. It Takes Two is not exactly an easy game, but it's never overly frustrating thanks to its infinite lives and generous checkpointing. This way makes the game a more casual and relaxed experience, which makes it accessible to a wider variety of players, which is important as the game literally "takes two" to complete. As such, the difficulty has to account for veteran gamers and rookies alike, such as parents playing with their children, and this less punishing, more casual approach works perfectly with the overall tone of the story.
The game is built exclusively to be played by two players, and while finding someone else to go through the entire campaign alongside might be a hurdle for some, it's the adherence to being a co-op only experience that makes it truly shine. In addition to the game's story being about a troubled couple trying to raise a child together, there is a more universal message it's trying to convey: That sometimes you just can't do something on your own.
Indeed, a person's achievements are always built on something that other people have done. To give a simple example, I may be able to write this article seemingly on my own, but only due to someone teaching me how to write. And for someone else who created the computer I'm using. And to someone else for discovering the electricity that powers my computer. Indeed, all of our achievements are predicated on the work of those that came before us. Though we may not be aware of it, we depend to varying degrees on many others in order to be able to perform the most everyday acts of our lives. We could not survive alone.
When we let individualism, selfishness and arrogance triumph, others suffer, especially the most vulnerable. We see this in It Takes Two with the couples' bickering negatively affecting Rose. To say that "we cannot do it alone" is a tremendously necessary message in the times we live in today, and it directly appeals to empathy, collaboration and effort for the common good. Unfortunately, it is also a message that is generally ignored, underappreciated or misunderstood.
To say that "we cannot do it alone" is a tremendously necessary message in the times we live in today
It's more than just our material needs that require the help of others. According to Spitz's and other psychologists' observations in the 1950s, a baby, even when their basic needs such as food or hygiene are met, needs an "other" to show them affection in order to survive. We cannot grow and develop properly on our own, regardless of whether our physiological needs are met. There is something unique about our relationship with others that makes it as basic a need as eating or breathing.
Cody and May enter their adventure unable to understand how the other feels or why they behave the way they do. This inability to empathize with each other is what has led them to their current situation. And it's their empathy that they recover while forced to collaborate in their quest to return to their human bodies.
While this sets the pair on the righteous path of empathy, understanding and mutual respect, their journey to get back to the real world has them stumble along the way. Without going into specific spoilers, I'll just say that at one point about halfway through the game the player characters choose to make their daughter suffer (in what's easily the game's darkest scene. You'll know it if you play it) over a harebrained hunch about how to regain their human form. At this point in the story they're being selfish and totally putting their own feelings first, instead of those of their daughter. May and Cody are by and large a likable pair, which fits the humorous, relaxed tone of the game, but in this scene they're jerks. They inadvertently bring about a premature childhood's end for their daughter, only to realize that their actions were for naught. Cody and May got so caught up in their tunnel vision of breaking a curse that they neglected to question whether the ends justified the means. It's a moral low point for them, but they learn from their failure and this traumatic incident sets them on a path to do better and put their daughter's feelings first.
In short, It Takes Two is a great game, not only for its excellent production values, its extremely polished mechanics that make it tremendously fun to play, or even for its fairy tale rom-com story. It is also great for the implicit message it carries: that we all need each other, so we need to understand one another better if we're going to succeed.
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