The “cooperative multiplayer” label fails to adequately describe director Josef Fares’s A Way Out. While you do need to work with a friend to even play this game about two men who break out of prison in order to take down a common enemy, the experience ends in mano-a-mano tragedy that suggests we can sustain love for others during and after violent conflict. Provocatively, Fares inundates the game in pulpy, unassuming writing that could easily be dismissed as trite if not for the emotional authenticity of the two main characters as husbands, fathers, and reluctant brothers in arms.
Built for split-screen co-op, the game has you and another player assume the roles of two men who are behind bars thanks to a backstabbing crime lord named Harvey. Vincent and Leo meet in prison and realize that as much as they would like to do things alone, they need to join forces to escape and get revenge on Harvey. So begins a bonding experience where players must survive through a series of set pieces in order to move the story forward.
The premise is deceptively simple, as are Vincent and Leo, whose tough, hyper-masculine exteriors initially appear to be the stuff of second-rate TV shows. But as their flaws are increasingly magnified, the game draws attention to the distinctiveness of their personalities. Vincent’s gruffness can’t conceal his guilt over not spending more time with his now-pregnant wife, Carol. When Vincent says, “It was like a part of us died,” after intimating that Carol had gone through multiple miscarriages, voice actor Eric Krogh makes the guttural line resonate with the experience of truth. As much sympathy as one might feel for Vincent, Carol’s frustration with his constant absence—“What do you want me to say?” she jabs—also suggests one shouldn’t feel sorry for him.
Leo, on the other hand, is a hilariously puzzling specimen. Voiced by Swedish-Lebanese actor Fares Fares (brother of A Way Out’s director), Leo is far from a model of maturity, but he’s prone to striking displays of sensitivity. After the two men avoid capture and take refuge in the woods, Leo childishly complains about the fish they manage to catch and cook: “Tastes like shit, man.” Later on, if a player directs him to an abandoned bicycle in a trailer park, he becomes enamored with the item: “Ring ring, motherfucker!” Leo says as he plays with the bell on the bike’s handlebars. And you wouldn’t know it from his behavior, but Leo has a more stable family situation than Vincent. In a moment that’s equally sincere and awkward, Leo tells Vincent that perhaps writing a letter to Carol is the best way to pick up the pieces and start over.
Imperfect as they are as people, Vincent and Leo can be adept heroes in the hands of players who learn to work in harmony, though the game’s co-op action doesn’t seem that promising at first; an early prison-yard fight only asks you to respond to utterly predictable quick-time-event prompts. But the interplay between players becomes more dynamic and demanding, as when you must carefully time button presses to make Vincent and Leo scale up a shaft by pressing their backs together and walking up opposing walls. And because the game often puts either Vincent or Leo in a more compromised position than the other, you feel a genuine reciprocity with your ally after playing the roles of the savior, the saved, the leader, and the follower.
Throughout A Way Out, Fares’s direction frequently imbues the game’s action with hilarity and tension. Otherwise banal concepts, like one character catching the hand of another falling character, are made humorous through the use of over-the-top slow motion. During an on-foot chase sequence in a hospital, the game will follow a single protagonist for a few measures until a particular door flies open, after which the camera swings through halls and rooms to then put the spotlight on the other hero. And the editing and panning result in an intoxicating visual rhythm as each player waits for their turn to act out the next kinetic link in the overall action sequence.
Following the lead of Fares’s prior Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, A Way Out builds toward an incredibly sobering conclusion. The plot twist near the end of this game doesn’t merely amount to shock value. Instead, the event morphs the proceedings into a two-player death match that signals the end of Vincent and Leo’s shared journey. And when one half of the split screen eventually fades to black, the loss of one of our once-amicable protagonists is liable to hit players like a kidney punch. But the epilogue implies that dark times can transform people into more caring and grateful human beings, effectively bringing an enormous moral dimension to the game’s hard-boiled pulp.