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A Way Out and narrative game mechanics

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Bit late to the party, but I recently beat Hazelight's A Way Out with a friend and I had a blast. In my opinion, it's one of the more interesting co-op experiences because of how tightly the narrative intertwines with the gameplay.

The typical gameplay is, frankly, pretty simplistic. Most puzzles can be solved by a simple button press. The game is basically just a series of events to create situations where your character helps out the other player in small but meaningful ways – helping them up ledges, flanking enemies to take them out, etc. The characters share a common purpose so there's plenty of narrative reasons why they are working together, aside from the fact that it's a co-op game so obviously the players are aware of the situation on a meta level.

That all changes in the last act. And in my opinion, that's what really takes the narrative to the next level and transcends the fairly boilerplate prison escape story and become something that really has more meaning than a similar movie or other narrative experience.

Long story short, one of the characters betrays the other as part of the story and the final section pits the players AGAINST each other in a shootout. I was impressed at how much emotion this decision elicited. In a way, it breaks one of the cardinal rules of the co-op experience. Suddenly the players have completely oppositional goals. I played Leo, but I've heard some people who chose Vincent simply pulled their punches at this part because they felt disgusted by having to try to kill the other person. Because you spend so much time over the course of the game not only helping each other out, but playing silly competitive minigames, you can actually feel the tangible nature of the betrayal. I was playing with a friend but there's an emotional element to having to shoot someone who you've bonded with over the course of a couple of hours as you work together to solve puzzles (I was on voice chat so it wasn't too hard). It's similar to how I felt in Journey, only the experience was the opposite, since at the end of Journey you struggle to stay together with the other player only to fail for environmental reasons (it gets too cold for you to continue). In A Way Out, the struggle is that you're ripping apart the camaraderie you feel which is fairly genuine. You actually DO share experiences and struggles and don't just simply watch it happen in a cutscene.

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Now, I've read a lot of criticism that suggest some people felt that there should have been a way for both characters to survive. Narratively, there's some logic to that (although I think if it were a movie, one of them would probably still kill the other). However, I believe this completely misses the point. Of course you don't want to have to kill the other player. Even if you don't like the characters or care about their motivations or backstory, the event still resonates because it's actually the other PERSON that you are hesitant to betray. You're meant to have the reaction of wanting to just point your gun in the air and shoot like in Point Break. So why can't you?

Well, aside from the fact that Leo would definitely be justified in wanting to kill Vincent, since he has no other option besides death or prison, it wouldn't be interesting from a gameplay perspective to not kill them. The game makes you literally pull the trigger on your friend. If you had the characters walk away from each other somehow, it might work narratively but would actually go against the visceral nature of the gameplay. You aren't going to feel that sense of finality mixed with guilt if you aren't interacting with the experience in a meaningful way, and I don't think a peaceful resolution would allow that visceral experience. That's why it's so powerful to have the button-mash race at the end, since you want to "win" the minigame, since in video game you're always conditioned to "beat" the minigame, but you also don't really want to win since that results in killing your friend. If you weren't playing against a real person, I doubt this moment would have the same impact, no matter how well-written the character is. I think you really have to feel like you're having a human connection for there to be a true sense of guilt or hesitation.

I'm curious what others think about this. To be clear, I think the game definitely suffers from some issues with the writing and gameplay, but the core ideas are really interesting and I'm curious how the next game by Hazelight will deal with these issues.

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