It Takes Two is Toxic Warfare

So the premise of It Takes Two is that two (heh) grossly unlikable individuals who should have never gotten married are in the midst of a divorce that will cause their child to have serious psychological issues for the rest of their life. But before I can sue Hazelight Studios for creating an unauthorized biography of my family, mom and dad have their souls imparted onto dolls that were created by their daughter, and with the help of a book on love and relationships – manifest as the racist caricature of a Latin lover – our “heroes” engage in the most hands-on form of couples therapy, working together to save their relationship by navigating the crawlspace and fighting the vacuum cleaner.

I am guessing this will all set the stage for the sequel, It Takes Two 2, in which mom and dad must get their daughter back from child protective services in the wake of their drug-induced rampage, resulting in a high-impact and high-revenue videogame series predicated on scarring your children for life and having fun while doing it.  Perhaps this will even lead to another game, It Takes Three, in which mom and dad agree to work out their differences with the help of a divorce lawyer.

In other words, the original It Takes Two is commentary on a broader issue in the videogame industry – known to the public as “toxic behavior” – where online relationships are often only as long as the ten minutes required to play a round of Call of Duty, resulting in the videogame equivalent of the asshole who cuts you off in traffic and gives you the finger, who does it because there will be no consequences and he will never see you again.

But since the videogame industry makes too much money off of these systems to actually fix them, claiming the interactions which result from their systems and technology are the fault of the players themselves, it’s easier to make even MORE money by creating commentaries on their own disastrous handiwork. So It Takes Two is the game which subverts the videogame hellscape laid out by League of Legends and Counter-Strike and their global matchmaking services, a game where two people PUT ASIDE their constant bickering and learn to work together.

Now don’t get me wrong, “screaming at my noob allies” has been a part of humanity since the days that we came out of the trees, it’s something we’re kind of wired to do, my primitive ancestors would also blame the President of the United States for my inability to hold a job. This means that if you’re one of those fancy-pants game designers, the goal is to design an interesting game which steers people away from my very worst impulses, a game where people work towards challenges and goals, and if they fail to achieve them, it’s not going to create much of a fuss.

So with this in mind, and with little idea of what It Takes Two was about, I imagined something along the lines of the co-operative mode in Portal 2, a game which emphasizes thinking and planning over the stress-inducing action mechanics that require everyone to do the right thing at the right time or suffer the digital consequences, the perfect game for date night or polite company, the perfect game for a world of gaming that could desperately use more cooperative puzzle games.

But we instead have a more conventional action game that follows the blueprint of Uncharted and fifteen years of various mediocre singleplayer games, alternating their storytelling and action sequences with what are allegedly puzzles, which in the Current Year™, can only be puzzling enough that it takes less time to solve them than to look up the answer online. The difference is that It Takes Two expands one of the classic tropes of this formula, where you have a supporting character or helper monkey that occasionally drops you down a ladder, and the helper monkey is now controlled by a friend or family member, a game where you experience the thrill of being the computer-controlled partner who pulls the switch that opens the door, so the player can continue their journey.

It Takes Two isn’t just the title, it’s the first line in the instruction manual, and it’s a bold play, a commentary on toxic behavior that REQUIRES human beings to share the same airspace. “This means that if you are a loser without friends, you are NOT welcome here”, I said to my new teammate, a man who was walking down the street and offered to play, so long as I promised not to hurt him. And with my new best friend sitting nervously next to me, I could only wonder: How would Hazelight use the tale of a dysfunctional marriage to subvert the problem of videogame players that can’t work together?

So as the first couple of hours played out – or maybe they were just minutes that felt like hours – I began to imagine myself in the Hazelight meeting room, hiding behind a potted plant in one of the very important company meetings where It Takes Two became a conception. And during this important series of company discussions, there was the moment when one of the employees at the end of the table, the one eating the paste, shouted out loud: “Why don’t we just make it IMPOSSIBLE to lose? That way, nobody has a REASON to get mad?”

The man’s stupidity and ignorance reminded me of the cartoon about the lab mice that repeatedly try to take over the world, and on one instance, they plan to do this by organizing the luncheon with a meal that will contain the mind control serum, but the problem is that the serum tastes terrible…so one of the mice “solves” the problem by simply choosing to make the meal without it.

Which is to say that the secret to a successful marriage, as it turns out, is regenerating health and infinite lives, a game where one player’s demise doesn’t impact the other, to simply remove the consequences from failure, so people have no incentive to work out their differences. What a fucking solution! The divorce rate plummets overnight. Dad now has an infinite number of attempts to make it through his son’s soccer game without getting drunk. The cops still arrive and open fire, but dad comes back to life after mashing the square button. Mom comforts little Jimmy as his father becomes a repeated casualty of law enforcement. “It’s okay, sweetie, it’s just like the videogames!”

Because you see, the videogame industry has figured out that they can be like the corporation that pollutes the planet while screaming about ecological awareness, as the creators of Super Meat Boy conduct the advertising campaign where a one-button platformer spread across fifteen-second levels and infinite lives becomes a “hardcore game” for “hardcore gamers”. Why bullshit people with a convincing digital universe when it’s so much easier to bullshit people with the marketing department?

So the result is a game about working together…where you don’t actually have to work together. It’s the perfect game for an industry’s continuing identity crisis over the culture of bickering and shouting that their games promote, on their path to maximum profits, and in laying down an alleged blueprint showing the problem can be “fixed”, It Takes Two wins Game of the Year awards from clueless game critics, because they’re children disguised as critics, championing “mature” “art” in an attempt to validate the time they have wasted on their toys.

And in this stupid, stupid demonstration of everything wrong with videogaming in the Current Year™, as I cross through so many checkpoints that I wonder if the game is simulating a police state, it becomes apparent that It Takes Two is set inside of a rejected sequel to Katamari Damacy, or Elebits, or maybe some licensed tie-in game like The Spiderwick Chronicles, a throwback to the turn of the century in game development, when “games where you play tiny characters in a normal-sized house” could actually be novel, because computer technology was not quite yet powerful enough to render two houses.

So it is a setting and a premise that would be right at home in the budget-level games that were published for the PlayStation 2 and the Nintendo Wii, games which nobody gave a second thought even fifteen years ago, now acting as center stage in a high-profile release, and acting as center stage for one mundane challenge after another, the classic “potpourri” game which dances from one setwork and genre to the next, the game which is ten-thousand genres a single time because it could never hope to be a single genre more than once.

It reminds me of the more nostalgic days when BioShock and Halo were first-ballot in the Baby’s First Action Game Hall-of-Fame, and we have now come to a moment where one can defend those games by at least explaining how those games introduced new toys and tools and challenges and then layered the concepts one upon the other. Compare with the big-brained genius of It Takes Two, a game which introduces the toys and challenges and then takes them away at the end of the next chapter, a game where simultaneously operating the matchstick launcher and a (literal) nailgun is considered well outside the paradigm of human intellect, a game where each level gets its own special weapon, the world where a weapon wheel is way too advanced for the kind of individual who believes this game acts as a compelling or interesting commentary on relationships or marriage.

But as I was writing this review, I knew the news would inevitably get out, that I was not enjoying this cutting-edge masterpiece of the medium, and when the protest groups arrived outside of my house, the activists screamed that I was not the “target audience”, how this was supposed to be a “casual game for casual gamers”, and that I was not judging it objectively. My co-operative partner disappeared in this chaos, thereby ruining the fun for me, and so enough was enough. I got on the roof of my neighbor’s house – because my own house does not have a roof – and I asked: “Then who the fuck, exactly, was this game made for?”

I thought this was a good question, actually, because perhaps It Takes Two is not a game for children, perhaps it is a serious game for serious adults, evidenced by the fact that the father uses curse words and the mother is a corporate stooge, and as you fight the squirrels who are dressed in military camouflage and fly the toy fighter planes, players are being confronted by serious life lessons. It reminds me of how Sonic the Hedgehog once lectured the audience of his Saturday morning cartoon on topics like smoking and underage sexual harassment, presumably before performing his spin dash attack on the assembled crew members who were filming it.

It was in this moment that I remembered the videogame industry is a magical place where the people who failed to get into the movie or television industries demonstrate exactly why it worked out that way. Even with the odds stacked against videogaming as a cinematic medium, where writing a single line of dialogue first requires you to write tens of thousands of lines of code, It Takes Two is a world where two mom and dad demonstrate in fantastic detail why they deserve a divorce and why absolutely nobody deserved this disaster zone disguised as a videogame.

And let us emphasize that the mother and the father, whom I choose not to name out of respect for their daughter, are two of the most insufferable and unlikable characters in the entire history of videogames, bitching and bickering about the most inane and inconsequential details of their day-to-day life, where mom tells us how she couldn’t spend more time with the family because she was “too busy at work”, and featuring an incredible sequence where they destroy their daughter’s favorite doll and proceed to celebrate as she cries the tears which they believe will reverse their own misfortune.

Who could have foretold that game journalists would love two protagonists who have serious self-esteem and character issues, living their lives in a simmering depression that is the result of their own personal choices?

And yes, I’m spoiling parts of this game, because this game will SPOIL your soul, and the real spoiler is that there will never be any “serious” stories in videogames, as long as you are operating these digital worlds with buttons and sticks, across a medium where grievous wounds and heartbreaking loss can be subverted on a moment’s notice by reloading your last save file. A lesson which will be ignored, mind you, because the “real game” is that you must convince the corporate board to invest substantial sums of money in your project, and one of the easiest ways to do that is to convince people who know nothing about games or movies is that your game IS a movie.

Or maybe the REAL lesson is that everyone involved in the production of It Takes Two should be banned from anything resembling the creation of another videogame – pending their participation in the international trials, which will doubtlessly find them guilty of some crime – and that anyone who believes It Takes Two is a “Game of the Year” should be barred from participation in any process which meaningfully impacts the society I navigate on a day-to-day basis.

The only positive thing I have to say about this game is that contrary to the title, it only takes one: It only takes one of the two players to say “this game is shit”, thereby ruining the experience for both parties. And I guess in that way, the game is a fantastic commentary on toxic behavior. So thank you, Hazelight Studios, for whatever it is that you do well, because it’s not videogames, unless the goal was to make one of the worst and most offensive videogames in the history of this particular planet, then consider your development team a successful relationship.