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Love and divorce in a video game? The innovative and weird ‘It Takes Two’

Animated couple on a sky lift
“It Takes Two” features a marriage on the brink and a “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids"-style world.
(Hazelight / Electronic Arts)
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Give this to “It Takes Two”: It shows that potential movie and TV clichés — say, a couple that’s a soon-to-be ex-couple working together — translate surprisingly well to video games. But that’s largely because this is a pop-culture arena where such topics have yet to be regularly explored. Even when “It Takes Two” inspires a raised eyebrow, it does so with a divorce-themed story that’s rare for slick, run-and-jump-driven puzzle games.

It’s also arriving after a year of pandemic social distancing, in a moment in which we’ve learned that games can connect us. “It Takes Two” wants to bring us together by raising questions on how we fall apart.

Here, a young girl’s imagination and desire for her parents to stay together transform mom and pop into clay-like toys, forcing them to explore their home and their yard “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids"-style. There’s an underlying message behind each level, namely the little things they overlooked but the game is also hiding some bite, both in its themes and in its challenges.

In line with the game’s setup, “It Takes Two” is two-player only, either online or in person, and the bulk of the action takes place via a split-screen. Additionally, at least in its first few hours, “It Takes Two” seems like a rare work aimed primarily at parents — and perhaps some older teens — as it attempts to explore how couples drift apart and the powers that can hold people together. Its heavy emphasis on divorce may be best suited for older children.

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An animated "Book of Love," complete with a face gestures
“It Takes Two” grapples with serious themes about relationships.
( Hazelight / Electronic Arts)

As a character-focused two-player game, the Hazelight Studios title makes a strong effort to match gameplay with personality. It immediately gives players roles and assigns them characters with a history. But it also adds an edge of competitiveness to what is otherwise a cooperative game as it aims to lighten the tension of a bickering couple with outlandish scenes and characters (an angry vacuum, a scientifically advanced squirrel community).

My colleague Chris Price and I have yet to finish “It Takes Two,” the latest from welcomingly outspoken game developer Josef Fares (“Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons,” “A Way Out”). But we spent pretty much an entire Sunday with the game, which came out this week for PlayStation and Xbox consoles as well as PCs.

We both came to “It Takes Two” with different video game preferences: I prefer light challenges and story-driven games that ask big questions. Chris leans toward painstakingly difficult role-playing games where losing — a lot — is inevitable. What follows is our conversation about the game.

MARTENS: Chris, I know you regularly play online with friends and I know you gravitate toward more competitive games than I generally do, so I’m curious, what were your initial impressions of a cooperative game like “It Takes Two”?

PRICE: It’s funny, Todd, it wasn’t until I started playing “It Takes Two” that I realized the vast majority of my favorite games that offer “co-op” actually don’t mandate cooperation. What I mean by that is, although I love every title in the “Soulsborne” series, “Grand Theft Auto Online” and more, gamers can usually get away with playing alone or summoning help to do all of the heavy lifting.

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It was neat to experience a title specifically designed to foster genuine cooperation. Whether you’re fighting a boss or walking through the different — and aesthetically pleasing — levels, each player is relying on the other to move forward.

"It Takes Two" stars a bickering couple on the verge of divorce.
(Hazelight / Electronic Arts)

When losing, when a character “dies,” the game is also extremely forgiving. A simple misstep off a ledge is punishable by only a seconds-long respawn at the same place rather than complete removal from the session and that’s bound to relieve more novice players. Even the boss fights themselves remove any potential for advanced players to blame others for letting the entire team down, as the battle continues as long as one player can stay alive until the other returns to action.

While losing can still be part of the fun in gaming, constantly carrying all the blame when co-op is involved can discourage gamers from coming back and trying again. But “It Takes Two” is designed in a way that you both either sink or swim — nothing in between.

Do you see the games that Fares and his teams lead are something of a niche?

MARTENS: A bit. I’ve always been a big fan of couch co-op games and I love playing “Overcooked” or more recently “Moving Out.” But as a solo pandemic dweller, I haven’t been able to really experience those titles, despite them being some of my favorite types of games to play.

What surprised me, though, with “It Takes Two” was how robust the game felt. While you and I were playing it, I kept thinking I would absolutely start this game over with someone else. No offense to you! I just meant, it felt like a story-driven co-op game that would play differently with who you were playing with.

I mean, if I had a significant other, I would absolutely want to play “It Takes Two” with them. I like the way it sort of brings up little moments in a relationship, and how a forgotten and old vacuum can not just be a massive monster we maneuver inside — one in which two characters are running, jumping and gliding through coils — but also a metaphor for how we move on, what we leave behind and how we forget that comfort almost always trumps whatever is new.

As someone who is relatively shy, playing games is my favorite way to get to know a new partner and I like the way that “It Takes Two” nudges toward bigger ideas. It doesn’t linger on them and wants to fall back on humor, but for me it worked, as is it raising questions for the player, and I believe game narratives should give us tools and blocks rather than the whole plot.

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Beyond the story, though, I was also surprised at just how difficult it was. While we were able to best a number of bosses, I was getting pretty stressed with the battle with the giant beetle. I should say, for those with bug phobias, of which I am one, the insects are pretty cartoonish and there’s some clever animation in the way hornets will take on WWI flying ace formations.

And that world inside the tree was pretty massive, going from homey places with squirrels to more militarized sections to one area in which we were kind of floating through space.

With a shift in perspective, "It Takes Two" wants to ask questions about the things we leave behind.
With a shift in perspective, “It Takes Two” wants to ask questions about the things we leave behind.
( Hazelight / Electronic Arts
)

I really enjoyed those fantasy elements, how suddenly turning on a light revealed an ocean with jellyfish in a suburban backyard completely out of view of any grown-ups. I like that sort of magical thinking when it comes to mundane surroundings, even if we struggled mightily to fly a toy plane. And yet, as difficult as it was for us to balance the plane, I admit I was laughing here in Los Angeles. If I had been playing solo, struggling to balance a toy plane for 30 minutes, I probably would have given up in frustration.

I think that’s my main takeaway. “It Takes Two” really shows the joy of playing together when you’re not in a pure competitive mode. Curious if you felt that, or would be interested in seeing the game through to its conclusion?

PRICE: Absolutely. I’m very interested in seeing it to the end.

It’s also interesting that you mentioned “the joy of playing together” as a source of fun in this game. I usually start new games at the hardest difficulty possible and the fun I extract from the experience comes from piecing together the storyline while clearing every obstacle the developers can throw at us. (If I were to think back on my first time seeing the ending credits of “Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice,” I was mostly relieved that I finally crossed the finish line and didn’t care whether I had fun getting there or not.)

For the controller-breaking, challenge-seekers who may sometimes forget that games are supposed to be fun, “It Takes Two” definitely offers a reprieve from stress-filled battles and “YOU DIED” statements running across your screen every few minutes.

I should also emphasize, though, while I wouldn’t consider it stressful, it’s certainly not easy. I remember questioning a few times what age group it was geared toward because of the complexity of some puzzles. In fact, there were points where the mental vigor required to advance exceeded what I’d put into hacking and slashing away at a high-level boss in a more traditionally difficult game.

MARTENS: That’s something I’m still thinking about.

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While I believe kids are probably smarter than all of us and can figure out elaborate puzzles in which a hammer and a nail must be used to construct pathways around giant toolkits, some of the themes are heavy and involve destruction of mementos and the need to wrangle tears from a child.

There’s also the weird character the Book of Love, who has a sort of generic foreign accent and also doesn’t offer many life lessons, at least that we have yet to see. Also, mom and dad are clearly, in non-toy form, overwhelmed and exhausted. I mean, that’s what relationships are a huge bulk of the time, so no real argument from me.

I’m a hopeless romantic who is also a cynic, but I went in thinking it would be a family game and now I’m less sure.

PRICE: And yet “It Takes Two” still has me thinking about diversifying my gaming and balancing between pure competitive mode and fun, strategy-based cooperation. Our half-hour of struggling to balance that plane together was silly and it felt like only a couple of minutes. “It Takes Two” as a whole has got me thinking that perhaps not every game has to be high pressure and induce rage quitting.

I am curious as to how the story will be resolved, though. A divorcing husband and wife unwittingly working to save their marriage is unfamiliar territory for game protagonists, which I thought was refreshingly creative from a storytelling standpoint. But whether Cody and May gently land their plane hand-in-hand into the credits or crash outside the generic “happily ever after” box will ultimately determine how memorable the story is.

As much as we’ll always have great respect for the classics, it’s clear today’s consumer base also hungers for storylines that go deeper than the usual “damsel in distress” and revenge tropes, opening scenes that essentially served as an excuse for the game that would follow.

A look at the split-screen action in 'It Takes Two.'
(Hazelight / Electronic Arts
)

Oddly, I was thinking about “The Last of Us: Part II” while playing. While that game did carry some elements of revenge, its refusal to be cliché in its conclusion initially shocked and disappointed some fans, including myself, who’ve grown to expect cookie-cutter, warm resolutions. And it wasn’t until my second play-through, after I shed my expectation that games should always be an escape from reality as opposed to possibly being as jarringly realistic as life itself, that I gladly set it atop my shelf of favorites.

After all, aren’t storylines that are the most realistic and relatable sometimes the most memorable? None of this is to say the two shouldn’t end up happy and in love in the end. But I think a narrative that somehow concludes as creatively as it began could leave a more lasting impression.

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Todd, do you think next-generation games are going to continue pushing these types of storytelling boundaries or am I alone in thinking this way?

MARTENS: I think it’s been happening! Especially in the smaller or mid-level indie games I tend to gravitate toward, and we’re gradually seeing that influence in bigger games. “It Takes Two” is distributed by Electronic Arts, after all, but that’s a tricky design challenge for developers — to marry gameplay with story elements in a way that makes the interactivity make sense. I’m always fascinated by those who try to tackle it, which has me curious to keep playing “It Takes Two” and see how it continues to develop.

The game is walking a balance in its first half between “stay together for the kid” and actually attempting to explore why mom and dad stopped talking to one another.

The latter question is more interesting but discussing that, while battling vengeful toy plushies, isn’t easy. Some emotions may get the short shrift or handled a bit messily, but I guess I’m a little forgiving of that. When it comes to love and romance, that’s life, minus the angry stuffed animals.

'It Takes Two'

  • Developer: Hazelight

  • Publisher: Electronic Arts

  • Platforms: PCs and PlayStation and Xbox consoles

  • Price: $39.99

  • Release date: March 25

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