Game designer Josef Fares makes a lot of games about relationships. First there was Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons that tackled themes of loss of a parental figure and the unbreakable emotional bond between family members. Then there was A Way Out, which explored the relationship of friends-turned-rivals on different sides of the law.
It Takes Two, Fares’ latest game from Swedish developer Hazelight Studios, explores the relationship between husband and wife – specifically a husband and wife going through a prickly, unpleasant divorce who have been turned into dolls by their daughter until they can reconcile their differences.
The premise is that the two lead characters, Cody and May, have drifted apart due to their focus on work, hobbies, raising their child and, well, everything that isn’t each other. To put the pieces back together they’ll need to confront their marital problems head-on and, with a little help from a talking Book of Love, find what made their relationship so special in the first place so they can get back into their human bodies.
As outlandish as the plot sounds, the way the game handles something as unpleasant as divorce is incredibly heartfelt. It’s something you’ll feel immediately within the first 10 minutes of playing it, like we did in a special online preview event, and according to Fares, he hopes it might even help you reconnect with your significant other, too.
Reading from the Book of Love
While the gameplay is mostly an action-platformer with elements of third-person shooter and puzzle-solving genres tossed in there, each level introduces a new mechanic that plays to the characters’ strengths. In one level, you’ll get hammers and nails that help hold platforms in place to cross greater distances, while another has you wielding a sap cannon and matches to kill the wasps who have taken over the oak tree outside of the house.
It can be hard to paint a picture of It Takes Two because so much of it changes from level to level. Varied level design, however, is all old-hat for Fares and the team at Hazelight Studios. Both of the team’s prior games have included mechanics that change with each new level. But what sets It Takes Two apart is that, from what we’ve seen so far, the new mechanics are more intuitive and fluid than those in the studio's previous games – like, say, the crude quick time events in A Way Out that required you to unscrew a toilet from the wall to escape the prison.
“We don’t want variety for the sake of it,” Fares told us. “It’s important that the mechanics reflect what’s going on in the story.”
It helps too, Fares says, that the development team has learned a lot over the course of building A Way Out. “Our developers really kick ass now. We have learned a lot … We have become a stronger, better studio.”
Sherpaing you on your journey is The Book of Love, an anthropomorphic book that’s imbued with the charisma of Fares himself which aims to help the couple reconnect. The Book of Love, though a bit over-the-top in concept and theatrics, helps bring a bit of levity to what would otherwise be a fraught situation, making the game feel more akin to romantic comedy than an action-platformer.
“How many games are doing the rom-com genre? Not many,” Fares said in an extended gameplay demo given to TechRadar. “It’s a hard genre to wrap your head around.”
Divorced from reality? Not really
Admittedly, you don’t have to look far to find other examples of divorce done well in different media. Ted Lasso on Apple TV Plus underpins its positive self-affirming messages with the harsh realities of divorce, while Marriage Story took audiences through the legal and emotional nightmare as the acrimony of a bad separation ripples out in waves over many months.
It Takes Two, as you might imagine, is more like Ted Lasso than Marriage Story with a more optimistic outlook on divorce, but it does touch on the impact of the divorce on Cody and May’s daughter, Rose, who is the catalyst for turning the two into dolls at the outset.
Although it dabbles with the dark side of divorce, the resulting adventure and reconnecting of Cody and May revels in wish fulfillment. Few children really want their parents to get divorced and, more than anything, most would do whatever it takes to keep them together. Rose, on many levels, represents all the children who want their parents to reconnect rather than filing for divorce – and you can't help but root for her wish to come true.
Surprisingly, while this is a deeply personal story, Fares says it’s not based on his life: “The characters are not based on real people. The inspiration is from all the relationships out there that need some love. This game is about spreading the love. You’ll feel the love.”
When playing it, we couldn’t help but see some parallels between It Takes Two and Concrete Genie from Pixelopus. Both games tackle complex, deeply personal subject matter (Concrete Genie is largely a game about bullying) with a touch of surrealism thrown in.
While neither game is likely to win over gamers who want action-packed gameplay with cutting-edge graphics and tight, responsive controls (It Takes Two’s biggest weak spot), they use the medium of video games to tell deeply humanizing stories that are grounded in reality. I might never go off to fight the Horde or save a princess in distress from a trap-laden castle, but I have plenty of friends whose parents got divorced.
That, in a nutshell, is It Takes Two’s greatest strength right now – it has this profound ability to tell you a touching story that feels both real and surreal simultaneously.
Help! I need somebody… anybody?
The big caveat to It Takes Two is that, well, it takes two, literally.
Like A Way Out, the game is only available to play co-op and it requires a living, breathing person to cooperate with you. Ideally, this is someone close to you as the game can be played split screen, however it certainly can be someone online, too, and you’ll only need one copy between the two of you to play it.
But what if your partner really isn’t the gaming type? Well, that’s when you might run into some problems.
A number of the puzzles in the game either required extensive lateral thinking skills or controller coordination, something not every spouse / partner / friend will have. When they don’t, timing puzzles and boss fights have the potential to turn from fun, relationship-building affairs into screaming matches on a dime.
Thankfully, for my demo I was paired up with Dean Takahashi from VentureBeat, a near 30-year technology and video game journalist who has had plenty of experience over the years. And yet, all I could think about was how hard this game would be with my girlfriend, an on-and-off gamer who primarily sticks to games like Animal Crossing: New Horizons or Luigi’s Mansion 3 on Nintendo Switch. She plays games to relax, and typically stays away from games that are too challenging because she finds them stressful.
How the two of us would ever get through It Takes Two I’ll never know because, unfortunately, there’s no tangible way to ramp down the difficulty to make it more accessible to non-gamers.
The way things look right now, It Takes Two could be more of a curse for my relationship than a blessing.
Still, setting my own relationship aside, if you’re in a relationship with another gamer and you want to relive the cooperative team-building experience of Portal 2 in a new platformer / action-adventure game, then you should scoop up a copy of It Takes Two when it comes out on PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC (as well as PS5 and Xbox Series X via backwards compatibility) on March 26.
- Looking for great two-player games? Check out our guide to the best co-op games