"It's impossible to get tired of this game otherwise I'll give you a thousand bucks," Josef Fares proclaims in the middle of a presentation on It Takes Two. It's a one-way video call, so Hazelight's creative director can't see me raise my eyebrows at the statement, which is made before I get a chance to dive into the game for myself. But It Takes Two's core conceit is certainly interesting enough for such a statement to hold water: centered around Fares' love of romantic comedies, it's a co-op platformer about a couple headed towards divorce and the paths that lead to and away from it, with the narrative reflected in the shifting level design.
"What the fuck, how many games are doing the rom-com genre?" Fares asks rhetorically. "We should have released it on Valentine's Day, that would have been perfect marketing. Damn, shit..." he trails off, cursing under his breath. Fares isn't wrong, as It Takes Two is firmly about love and relationships – it even forces you to create or manage an existing relationship in order to play it, as there's no single player option. "This is not a game where you ping something, you have to talk to the other person," Fares insists. It Takes Two wants you to talk (and bicker) through this game just like the couple at its center talk (and bicker) through their problems.
Fares says you won't want to play this with a totally random person, but despite not knowing my partner (Phil Hornshaw from GameSpot), we spend the better part of an hour developing a lovely rapport. Together we figure out It Takes Two's delightful puzzles, laugh at the absurdity of Dr. Hakim (an anthropomorphic book with an unplaceable accent), and gasp at particularly gruesome death animations. No, we didn't fall in love - which Fares said would happen - but the dynamic we developed in such a short period of time is a testament to the kind of magic It Takes Two can manifest when it is firing on all cylinders.
The Romcom Gamified
Fares' favorite romcom is When Harry Met Sally, or maybe True Lies – neither of which are represented in It Takes Two. However, his affection for the genre is clear, and it's obvious that affection spread to the team at Hazelight Studios, who have injected the game with all the trappings of a great romantic comedy, beginning with its story: a Parent Trap-esque "stop my parents from getting a divorce by any means necessary" wish that turns May and Cody into dolls.
That issue catapults you into the game itself, which may not look like any romcom you've ever seen (a war between squirrels and wasps wouldn't exactly fit in with You've Got Mail), but is peppered with the kind of dialogue you can imagine Tom Hanks throwing at Meg Ryan, who would volley it back with a sneer.
Annabelle Dowler and Joseph Balderamma play May and Cody with all the casual hilarity of A-List Hollywood actors absolutely chewing on scenery in a pulpy rom-com. Because of their talent, it's easy to believe that May and Cody have been in a lengthy relationship that has frayed to a point were it seems irreparable – the two exchange insults so fast it's like watching the Williams sisters in a tennis match and they dredge up old grudges before you can say "couples therapy". They bicker constantly, only stopping for a few moments here and there to try and sort out a puzzle – and sometimes they bickered while problem-solving, which reminds me eerily of my own parents.
Then there's Dr. Hakim (also voiced by Balderamma, but mo-capped by Fares himself), an anthropomorphized self-help book determined to get May and Cody back together. He's the one pulling their doll strings throughout the entire game, and he'll pop up to add even more comedic relief to a game that perpetually operates at a low hum of humor. Sometimes Dr. Hakim feels unnecessary, especially since the game is already so delightfully funny thanks to Dowler and Balderamma – but after a few instances where I flinched at his surprise arrival, it became clear that Dr. Hakim is laying the groundwork for both the narrative and the gameplay.
"Dr. Hakim, he is a cheesy character, yes. But clichés are clichés for a reason," Fares explains. "It's not about just knowing, it's about realizing – this guy is a very cheesy and obvious guy but, if you listen to him closely, if you do really realize it, it's equivalent to therapy sessions. I dunno how many, but as long as the game is… if you got a therapist with a one hour session, you have 14 therapy sessions. Let's market it that way."
The Labor of Love
Cody and May's dynamic and the history of their fractured relationship isn't just part of It Takes Two's narrative, but is woven into the gameplay in a manner that is wholly unique. Set in a world that looks like Little Big Planet met Grounded, you play one level inside a hollowed-out tree in their yard, and another in an ice-covered land where you'll need to use two parts of a magnet to get around and find your attraction again (get it?). "There are short, special, mechanics that fit the narrative for that short moment," Fares says. He insists that here are no similar scenarios in It Takes Two, and that every scene is unique.
Cody and May start off with nothing but their doll hands and use the environment inside a tool shed to help them get through the level – think fans, vacuums, and the occasional electrocution by power outlet. After a boss battle with a vengeful vacuum that Cody broke months ago by sucking up batteries and other non-vacuum-able items, the duo is given a hammer and a set of nails. May – who's clearly the more dominant one in the relationship – has the head of a hammer mounted to her back, while Cody – the lovable goofball who can't remember to take the trash out – gets a bunch of nails that he can throw and recall with a whistle not unlike Yondu in Guardians of the Galaxy.
The heavy-handed metaphor (May = hammer, Cody = nail) may evoke an eye roll or two, but the metaphor's application within the gameplay is undeniably fun. The two must work in tandem to get through the level, with Cody shooting nails into wood panels that May can swing on with the claw of the hammer, or May hammering a button that will shoot a platform up in the air that Cody can nail into place. My teammate and I had to give each other countdowns and time our movements perfectly in order to finish the level, upon which we ended up in another boss battle, this time against a toolkit May abandoned in the shed.
The next level takes away our tools and brings us up a giant tree in May and Cody's backyard. We're given some rope from Dr. Hakim, which we use to swing between branches as we argue over things in the backyard. It's there that It Takes Two turns even further towards the absurd, with Cody and May finding themselves embroiled in a war between squirrels and wasps – wasps that are only there because Cody didn't remove their nest. "Are all of these levels going to be, like, sitcom relationship problems?" my partner asks. "Seems like it," I laugh.
Let's play a love game
"I'm not a big fan of 'go collect things'," Fares explains. "I'd rather have us create a world that is interesting and interactive instead of just collecting stuff." That doesn't mean It Takes Two doesn't have surprises – yes, the main game will consist of you and your co-op partner tag-teaming puzzles in a linear manner. But there's also minigames and activities scattered throughout that pit you up against each other, like the Whack-a-Cody, which had May smashing Cody on the head with a hammer to earn points (they can't die in this world, don't fret). Fares is also promising Easter eggs, "In a sense this is a love letter to Nintendo, there are some Easter eggs here and there, and you will definitely see inspiration from some of my favorite games ever."
But at its core, It Takes Two is a co-op platformer that zips between game genres with a breathless elegance – one second I'm swinging my third-person camera around behind May to make sure I have a jump distance lined up correctly, the next minute the camera swings away from me and forces me to play a section in 2D platforming style. There are boss battles and timing puzzles and enemies you'll have to shoot down with a combination of matches and flammable wax, all of which is woven into the narrative relationship between Cody and May.
I only played through two levels of It Takes Two, but it's clear that the game will constantly shift, and that playing Cody and May offers two entirely unique gameplay opportunities. But Fares isn't worried about replayability – he just wants you to finish the game. "Replayability, we should be very careful talking about this, all the statistics are showing that people are not even finishing games," Fares insists. I can confirm that It Takes Two draws you in with the successful marriage of narrative and gameplay and the broken marriage of Cody and May – I certainly wanted to play more after the preview finished.
Perhaps the most important thing to take away from It Takes Two is that the game is about navigating a relationship, which you'll have to do yourself in order to even play it. I played through a few levels with a stranger, which meant I was on my best behavior – I never yelled when he messed up and sent May falling into a moat of questionable goop, and I always apologized when I tried to ram my way through a platform sequence without thinking. If I were playing this with my boyfriend however, I know I'd be an insufferable brat the entire time, and we'd definitely go through our own little relationship journey throughout our playthrough as I learned to be softer and gentler when giving directions. And that's exactly what makes It Takes Two special: you'll need to work on your own relationship to get through it.