Chronicling a pair of inmates escaping from prison, ‘A Way Out’ puts a unique spin on the glory days of playing games with friends in one room.
Somewhere during video games’ ascent from a niche pastime to a mainstream hobby, the way we play games with each other changed. It happened gradually, as online connectivity became a core focus for developers. Just like the rest of media, video games transformed into a medium dedicated to communities, to offering the tantalizing opportunity to play your favorite game with legions of people throughout the world. Although a welcome evolution, we lost something along the way as multiplayer gaming shifted online: couch co-op.
As a kid, I sat on the couch with my brothers and sister playing split-screen multiplayer games. This was before online infrastructure had reached games in any widespread degree. And while I’ve spent my formidable years playing games online via Xbox Live and the PlayStation Network, I often think about the more personal nature of sitting next to someone, sharing a screen, and working together to solve problems without any outside noise.
Couch co-op games haven’t completely disappeared, but they are fleeting, especially with regard to big-budget games from major studios. If you’re anything like me and have fond memories of curling up on the couch and playing games with friends and siblings all afternoon, let me introduce you to A Way Out, the debut game from Hazelight Studios published by Electronic Arts’ Originals program.
Written and directed by Josef Fares, the creator of the critically acclaimed indie game Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, A Way Out follows the prison escape of two inmates, Vincent Moretti and Leo Caruso. Vincent, 42, has just entered prison on a 14-year sentence for murder, embezzlement and fraud. Leo has served six months of his eight-year sentence for grand theft, assault and armed robbery. The duo couldn’t be more different in terms of temperament. Vincent is mild-mannered, quiet and methodical, whereas Leo is bombastic, cocky and brash.
The two convicts must work together to escape prison and settle a common score that links their stories. While other games with multiple protagonists typically either switch perspectives throughout each chapter or see the computer control one of them, A Way Out requires you to play co-op. You cannot play solo. And even though the game allows you to play online with a friend, the nature of the experience is tailored to the lost art of couch co-op.
At the beginning of the game, Vincent gets off the bus to enter prison. Leo watches the new inmates come in from the yard. They don’t know each other yet. While one player guides Vincent through his check-in process, the other moves Leo back to his cell. What’s asked of each player here is minimal — a tap of a button when prompted. This simple opening scene initiates players to A Way Out’s deeply cinematic approach to storytelling, with its film-style camera panning, often switching the split-screen view from horizontal to vertical to traditional widescreen cutscenes.
As the narrative continues, though, A Way Out uses co-op in a way that few games before it have done. Many games that feature co-op simply require players to do the same exact things in tandem. A Way Out bucks that trend. You and your friend aren’t simply playing the same game as different characters. You actually have to work together toward a common goal by frequently doing different tasks to assist one another.
These complementary mechanics are introduced in a prison yard brawl in which the player controlling Vincent must come to the aid of Leo. Once both men are in the fight, if one fails to land his punches — which are completed using quick-time button events — the scene restarts and you must try again. This feature, where failure for one means failure for both, is the driving force of getting you and your playing partner to work together.
At times you have to make decisions on how to proceed as a team. These instances shed light on each character’s personality and force you to come to a compromise. When initially fleeing the police after escaping prison, you are forced to decide whether to go under a bridge and avoid police presence by taking a longer route, or by knocking out a guard and stealing his cruiser to drive directly across the bridge. The former showcases Vincent’s passive nature, while the latter comes from Leo’s confrontational tendencies.
Besides a few more traditional third-person-shooting sequences, A Way Out’s gameplay demands are incredibly accessible. I played through the game with my wife, who besides the occasional Guitar Hero session, does not play games. We were able to get through the story with minimal frustration. And that’s the point. A Way Out isn’t determined to challenge your controller skills, even though it makes great use of its minimalistic requirements. It’s the perfect game to play with a family member or friend who doesn’t normally play games. After all, the appeal of couch co-op, at least for myself, was always the time spent playing together, not the game itself.
If you are competitive, though, scattered throughout A Way Out’s scenes — which take you from prison to a scenic wilderness, a trailer park, a hospital, all the way to Mexico and back — are mini games to play against each other. They provide a fun aside to a tense story. You can play Connect Four in a hospital waiting room, play basketball or baseball, duke it out in a retro arcade game, or even find out who plays an old man’s banjo the best.
With less emphasis on traditional gameplay, A Way Out has plenty of room to shine narratively. Essentially, by the time the credits roll, you’ll have played a roughly six-hour interactive movie. A cinematic experience filled with intrigue, high stakes and a dizzying twist that changes the whole arc of the story.
A Way Out does a remarkable job of humanizing its troubled protagonists. Yes, they’ve made grave mistakes, but we’re constantly reminded that each character is relatable. Leo grew up in an orphanage where he met his wife. They’ve stuck together through it all and have a son who’s not quite old enough to understand the things his father has done. Vincent, we learn early on, has lost his brother. Throughout his pursuit for revenge, we see that he too has a burgeoning family at home: his wife is pregnant with their first child. Even though the two are on the run, the game slows in pivotal moments to shed light on the relationships that mean the most. It’s a perfect balance of high-stakes action and the quieter moments that mold us as humans.
By the end of the story, after A Way Out takes its final, most heart-wrenching turn, Leo and Vincent have become fully realized characters you care about and want to see succeed. A Way Out plays with your emotions in clever, surprising ways to deliver an impactful story of vengeance, resolve and an unlikely friendship. If you have a PlayStation 4, Xbox One, or PC capable of running it, grab a controller, sit down with a loved one, and enjoy this dazzling return to couch co-op.