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It Takes Two: the GOTY of Narrative Design

Why Josef Fares' title takes cooperation to a new "narrative level".

The art of collaboration. It Takes Two, 2021. Hazelight Studios

Translated from Italian, 03/30/2021

Yes, GOTY. The Game Awards. Even if he doesn't invent anything, he invents everything. If its pure platforming mechanics are textbook stuff for those who follow the genre (of which Nintendo is the queen), they are not so obvious in a co-op title, so strongly co-op that it cannot be played alone. But it is enough to speak in slogans. I want to tell you why I am loving this title and why I find it revolutionary. There are minor spoilers in this article.

The advantage of being unique

The same magazines that awarded A Way Out, the previous title of Josef Fares and his Hazelight Studios, today use it as a negative comparison to exalt It Takes Two. "It Takes Two is more 'video game'" or "A Way Out lingered more on its distinctly cinematic nature, while It Takes Two ..." and so on. The only two things the two titles have in common, however, are their creator and co-op component. But no one has embarked on the bizarre quest of comparing Cyberpunk 2077 and The Witcher: 3 Wild Hunt just because they are both from CD Projekt RED, so why do it with Fares? Is he hust "the co-op guy"? Well, co-op isn't a genre. It's just a mode. It Takes Two, on closer inspection, is nothing less than a platformer. So why do we look for "the Fares element" to explain "the Fares element"? Because Fares has created something new. The new that has no definition and is genuinely exciting.

The revolutions of emotion in video games

Undertale: The entire moral system of turn-based RPGs is rewritten. Journey: the "flow" of the player passes through his senses (sight, hearing, touch) and no longer through the challenge rate and the effort / victory rate typical of the western game. What Remains of Edith Finch: the consecration of the "walking simulator", no longer a meme or a strange experiment, but a virtual narrative adventure as accessible as a book can be, but with the feedback of a video game. It Takes Two: co-op becomes a genre. Point. But you will say: what about Unravel Two? And Cuphead? What about Monster Hunter: World? Why do these games have co-op but can't be called "co-op games"? "Because it's an optional mode and not the only way to finish them"? It is not entirely correct. This is a case in which our Video Game Narrative Detective lens can help us. In A Way Out, Vincent and Leo must work together to get out of jail. Their need as characters, however, is not "getting out of jail", you don't want freedom "to be free". It's about desire of life, of self-acceptance, of brotherhood. "Escape from the prison" alone is not enough to hold up the game and in fact (spoiler alert), surprisingly, half of the game is set after the escape and it is also the most exciting part of the game. "A Way Out", but the game continues after the escape. So what is this way out that the two characters are looking for? Maybe... we're not talking about physical prisons? A Way Out is a great example of writing, however it is not yet the co-op title that drops the bomb.

The narrative design of collaboration

Usually, mere titles can help us to understand what's the game about. "It Takes Two": "it takes both". So, two character are required to finish a story. And what's the story, what happens? It happens that parents divorce. End. Did you like the story? As we said, we don't do something to get that exact thing, we don't get back together to get back together. If you have read our long article where we examine Death Stranding and you know what the "subtext" of the character is, you know that there is not a soul who does something to do the exact thing. And this divergence is usually the first thing we are taught if we want to paint a real personality and not a caricature. The magic of It Takes Two, however, manages to bring narrative themes which are both described by the story and by gameplay. Taking Death Stranding as an example again, you may have read that Kojima's game "transformed A-to-B travels, which are no more secondary/collateral, but the real core of the gameplay". It took an often problematic feature of any open world game such as traditional displacement and transformed it into the true core of the player's journey. What you have certainly read, but not so often, is this definition: "The journey is both the story of Death Stranding and the heart of its gameplay". And then you could say that "the escape is both the story of A Way Out and the heart of its gameplay" but it would seem a little less complete, as Leo and Vincent escape, but the game continues. We could use "brotherhood" instead of "breakout", but brotherhood is not a gameplay mechanic. It is noble, but not "playable". What about now: "The collaboration is both the story of A Way Out and the heart of its gameplay." And think about it: collaborating is both a narrative and a playful action, in the same way as a journey. It's a gameplay idea. This is narrative design. The narration in perfect harmony with game design.

Game of Love 2021

Anyone who has followed me up to this point might say: "Didn't you just say that you don't do something to do the right thing? Aren't they collaborating to collaborate?" If so, you're right: May and Cody work together to reach their daughter and break the spell. But Doctor Hakim (the magic book) says one thing and it's the key to everything: "You must discover the value of collaboration." He does not teach them to respect each other, or to love one another, or to make wise decisions for the sake of their daughter. Rather than presenting the ultimate goal and the solution, he throws them at mortal enemies, closes them the easy way and sets up funny ambushes, like a true antagonist, putting tremendous pressure on May and Cody to take a cooperative way of thinking in whatever challenges their surroundings. And the journey becomes the ends and not the means. You don't have to cooperate to win. You have to cooperate to play. This is, again, narrative design. A narrative idea at the service of gameplay. So, incredibly, it seems that some games shine thanks to a very strong dissonance: while in a classic audiovisual narration authors will have to take care not to match "the topic" (what is done and what is said) with "the theme" (what you want to do and what you really mean), gameplay works great if you really do what you want to do. Also because, and this is very important, "what you really want to do" is not a gameplay idea. Game design is the art of the present time par excellence. It's the "art of feedback" and it needs continuous incentives to exist. We can therefore make an ideal scheme, valid exclusively for video games. Speaking of "genre" in its videogame and not filmic meaning, we will have:

Topic (explicit narration) = genre (explicit gameplay)
Theme (implicit narration) ≠ genre (explicit gameplay)

To make it simpler:

Topic = genre ≠ theme

So, what we'll have for It Takes Two:

Collaboration (topic) = co-op/platform (genre) ≠ love and family unity (theme)

Or... Undertale:

Heroic battle against monsters (topic) = RPG (genre) ≠ who's the real monster? (theme)


Journey towards the mountain (argomento) = adventure/platform (genre) ≠ self discovery (theme)

What Remains of Edith Finch:

Exploration of the house and its stories (topic) = graphic/narrative adventure, "walking sim" (genre) ≠ exploration of our roots (theme)

Look at the themes. You may perceive them as more evocative than the topics, but also impossible to play? How does self-understanding play out, or self-acceptance as in the case of A Way Out? We need a narrative bridge that is good both with the plot, if any, and with game mechanics. It Takes Two succeeds in the titanic task of creating a narrative essence that fits into the gameplay. And it does so by elevating "co-op" to a completely independent genre. Not a mode, not a sub-quest, but an entire game based on a core gameplay idea. And with one small key detail: the result is fun. Enough to deserve the GOTY, if you ask me.

Did this little discussion stimulate you in any way? Do you think this is pure madness? Do you want to destroy me? Or do you want to talk more about it? Feel free to comment on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn... wherever you want to have a party together. And thank you for reading.

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