After a couple of hours’ playtime with A Way Out, I summed up my thoughts by saying that I thought the game was a cool experience that made some smart design choices. I won’t be taking back that assessment; having finished the campaign in about seven hours, I still think it’s a genuinely good, worthwhile game that took a concept which could easily have been a ‘gimmick’ and made something interesting out of it.
Spoilers for the entirety of the plot are about to follow, though, because I gots to have me a quick chat about the ending.
But let’s quickly cover how we get there, first.
So when I first wrote about A Way Out, I think we’d just found our titular Way Out by fully Prison-Break-ing it up and escaping via the network of maintenance vents and shafts that we could access by levering our toilets away from the wall. We worked together to climb up a tall shaft thing, took out guards, navigated a tower while being shot at, and eventually managed to make it out into the world. After that, we went and met Leo’s wife and son, who we played basketball with for a bit; then we found ourselves on an old couple’s farm, where we stole a change of clothes and an old vehicle which we used to escape the authorities (with Vincent driving and Leo shooting out the back); Vincent’s wife gave birth, so naturally we had to go to the hospital to meet Babby Vincent, which almost got us both caught; then we made our way to a friend of Vincent’s who had a plane, travelled to Mexico to kill Harvey (the guy who killed Vincent’s brother and screwed Leo into a prison sentence), and finally escaped a bunch more pursuers to make it back to the plane and home.
That pretty much sums up the story, I think. The plot itself was nothing groundbreaking, but I was expecting it to be a tried-and-true by-the-numbers prison break caper, so I’m largely fine with that. The attraction of the game continues to be the mechanics throughout pretty much the entirety of the thing; it almost turns into an exercise in how many ways the mandatory split-screening can be used to tell a story. Overall, I think the effect works; certainly, playing with someone I know well and who was in the same room, I think it fostered a sense of co-operation in the real world as well as in the game’s universe.
There’s one thing in particular that encouraged this, actually; for most of the first couple of hours, we didn’t really make much in the way of meaningful decisions about how to approach a situation. I touched on this in Part 1, talking about how Vincent and Leo were supposed to be separate characters but seemed pretty much interchangeable to the extent that when the two of us were faced with a puzzle, either of us could pretty much start doing something and the other could come in and help. We could just sort of get on with things in-game, basically. Later in the game, though, there are a few moments where the game pauses and asks the players to make a decision about which course of action to take, which forces the two real people playing the game to talk about what makes the most sense and come to a shared decision (you can’t progress unless the two of you agree on how to proceed).
The game frames these decision moments in every instance as picking either ‘Vincent’s way’ (usually more measured) or ‘Leo’s way’ (guns blazing, generally), which is interesting for a couple of reasons: you have to un-immerse yourself for a moment to talk to your co-op partner about what to do, but you then have to go back and frame your real-world reasoning in the context of siding with one character or the other. I found that in most instances, until we’d talked it out, I was more likely to think Vincent’s way was the better option and my partner was more likely to side with Leo.
I wonder whether this is because we’d come to empathise with the characters we were playing, or because we initially chose our characters by picking the ones we felt more kinship with in the first place, so of course our thought processes would line up with our chosen characters’; perhaps it was a bit of both. Either way, it was interesting to see that the game was forming a real bond of co-operation between the players while at the same time developing the bond between its two protagonists, and I think the overall effect of causing the players to empathise with Leo and Vincent’s journey is something that couldn’t have been done were this game possible to run in single-player. It does feel like you go through a kind of re-enactment of the relationship between the two; you feel as if you’re experiencing some approximation of their dynamic, which is certainly co-operative, but isn’t without conflict (as, I suppose, is all co-operation). It feels real, I suppose is the point.
There are other, smaller bonding moments too, although these don’t always make sense. I mean, Leo and Vincent get to the hospital, where Vincent’s wife has just given birth and they know the cops are going to be swarming after them, and you can choose to just kill some time by playing Connect 4 together. I had a quick chat about this with Rob of I Played The Game and Dan of Couch Petito on Twitter, who pointed out that the tonal inconsistency caused by occasional breaks from SERIOUS ESCAPE MODE to play darts or baseball is probably more of a serious problem than I’d thought while first playing; the mini-games seem like fun little distractions to help you and your partner have a good time, and I can see why they were included, but it really doesn’t make an awful lot of sense for Leo and Vincent to be so readily game for abandoning the whole… not-getting-put-back-in-prison thing.
Right. Ending discussion time.
The journey you take leads you to the ending with the feeling that Vincent and Leo have bonded in a real way, and so have you as the players. You’ve taken out the Bad Guy and you’re on your way home where everything will presumably be OK somehow (despite the fact that the Dynamic Duo and their wives and children will still be on the run for the rest of their lives, I have to imagine). The plane lands, and then suddenly you’re surrounded by cops. At first I thought that Emily, the slightly mysterious pilot, had turned us in, but no: as Vincent and Leo stand there with their hands in the air, blue and red lights flashing over them, the police chief walks up to Vincent, hands him a gun and tells him he did a good job.
Yup, Vincent was a cop all along. Turns out that the deal-gone-bad which got Leo sent to prison was also the event during which Harvey killed Vincent’s brother Gary, so Vincent volunteered to go undercover and help Leo escape so they could catch Harvey and bring him to justice. On learning this, Leo flees, Vincent chases him and they have a rooftop showdown culminating in one of them killing the other – so the co-op mechanic which until now has been used to overcome problems together now becomes a battle pitting the two characters (and the two players) against each other.
It’s all a bit… well, okay, there are a few levels on which I don’t like it.
Number one: I don’t buy that they need to break Leo out to be able to get Harvey. Sure, it might make it easier to track him down, but it seems an extreme length to jump to.
Number two: there’s pretty much no foreshadowing whatsoever that this might be the case. At least, I didn’t spot any, and I feel like it’s something I might have picked up on. The only thing I can think of is that a couple of the minigames are competitive and use similar mechanics to the final showdown.
(QUICK EDIT BECAUSE I THOUGHT OF MORE THINGS AFTER PUBLISHING: Also, why the heck would they not wait until the two were separately apprehended before giving Vincent the well-done? WHY DO IT WITH LEO RIGHT THERE BEFORE HANDCUFFING EITHER OF THEM? Also, Vincent is a terrible cop and did not deserve a well-done at all. He broke Leo out, got the guy to commit a ton more crimes on top of the ones he was already serving time for, then went to Mexico and murdered a guy extra-judicially instead of just telling the police where he was so they could arrest him. Ugh.)
Number three: OKAY so I can see why the game did this. It’s another way of exploring the ‘what can we do with the co-op dynamic to tell a story’ thing. But building that relationship between the characters and the players – especially when the players may already have a relationship in real life – and then forcing them to go against each other feels a bit cheap.
That last one is the one I have the most trouble with. I feel like A Way Out did what it set out to do by exploring how the co-op mechanic could develop a bond between real people, and then pulling the rug out for the sake of what’s basically a cheap twist feels neither necessary nor satisfying. I’d have preferred it to end with a leisurely drive into the sunset with one player driving and the other changing the station on the radio or something. I don’t even think it was effective at what it was trying to do: until that point, I think both of us were feeling connected to our characters, as proved by the decision-making process. After that, I no longer felt a connection with Vincent. I didn’t even really try to catch Leo, and I basically let Leo kill Vincent because by that point I didn’t like Vincent any more and I was pretty much on Leo’s side about the whole thing. I guess you could interpret, if you wanted to be all in-character about it, that the way I played lends itself to a version of the story where Vincent genuinely did bond with Leo, more than he expected, and so couldn’t bring himself to take him down. But I don’t think that’s what the game’s going for.
I’m not sure what it is going for, in fact. Does it expect us to suddenly turn on each other and try our darnedest to shoot each other to death? Maybe players who are more familiar with competitive shooters take to that more readily and just accept that the aim of the game is now to beat the other person, but I wasn’t up for that. On the other hand, the game does require one player to kill the other in order to end it, so it’s not expecting us to try to reconcile… unless you can just both put the controllers down and after some time they’ll just give up and hug it out, but I’ve not seen any evidence that this is possible, and the game encourages you to keep going.
Anyway, the game ends with either Vincent or Leo dying – in our case, Leo killed Vincent, Vincent got a grand cop’s funeral, Leo left a letter for Vincent’s wife (a letter Leo encouraged him to write), and presumably then Leo and his family go and get on with their lives while Vincent’s wife tries to deal with raising a baby on her own. I don’t know what happens if Vincent kills Leo, but I can’t imagine it’s much happier. It’s a bleak ending to a game that spent most of its playtime developing a bad situation into a positive representation of the bond between fire-forged friends, and I don’t think I like it very much.
But that’s just the ending, and I’d still recommend picking up A Way Out; for a fairly low price, you get a campaign that’s pretty short (perhaps because it’s harder sometimes for two people to commit to steady play than for one person) but does a lot of pretty smart things with its mechanics. It’s certainly worth experiencing for yourself, and I’d like to hear other people’s reactions to the ending, if you’ve played it.
I would say that it’s probably best played in local co-op with someone you know personally, to get the best of the experience. I do think (this is something The Otaku Judge brought up in a comment on the previous part of this review) that it is going to turn some people off because there isn’t necessarily anyone they can do that with, and I do feel bad about the fact that the game’s nature might exclude a portion of the people who would like to play it. I don’t know if I can call it a bad commercial decision, because obviously the decision was more of an artistic one than a business one, but certainly it’s a shame. I don’t know what the online match-making’s like, but I think a big part of the experience would be lost if you didn’t play the entire thing with the same partner.
With all that said, I’ll give A Way Out a score of BREAK out of PRISON. Yeah, I don’t do scores. It’s good, though. Mostly.