Josef Fares

Posted by Philip Jong.
First posted on 01 January 2014. Last updated on 12 May 2014.
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Josef Fares
Josef Fares is a filmmaker and the Creative and Game Director of Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons from Starbreeze Studios.

The author wishes to acknowledge Almir Listo, Starbreeze Studios, for his assistance.

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is the first adventure game project from veteran game developer Starbreeze Studios. The project was conceived by Swedish filmmaker Josef Fares, who spent 2 years on staff at the company leading the development of the game. The game tells of an emotional tale of an older brother and a younger brother who go on a dangerous quest together to try to save their ailing father. To do this, they must travel away from their village to a faraway land inhabited by giants, monsters, and other strange creatures. The game has been praised by critics for its breathtaking graphics, strong narrative, and novel gameplay mechanics. Yet, beneath the facade of a fairytale journey that Fares has so finely crafted, this game is also a heartbreaking story about life, death, love, and loss, perhaps reflecting Fares' own harsh childhood growing up in Lebanon in midst of a civil war.

We are extremely privileged to have the opportunity to interview Josef Fares, Creative and Game Director of Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons. Though no longer working now at Starbreeze Studios, Fares agrees to speak to us candidly about the development history of the game, the role of cinematic in games, the unique experience gamers can expect from the game, and what lies in the near future for him as a filmmaker and a game designer.

What were your earliest and fondest personal memories of playing adventure games?

It started a little bit with Nintendo 8-bit games like Zelda and Metroid, but it was when Super Nintendo was released that I really fell in love with RPG and adventure games. Games like Zelda (A Link to the Past, in particular), Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy, Lufia, Soul Blazer were definitely a big reason why Brothers is a top-down game.

You joined Starbreeze Studios to lead the development of Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons. Looking back, what worries did you had about joining the company as an outsider with no prior game development experience to create an original IP (Intellectual Property) for the company? What was the original idea you pitched to the company about the game?

I must say that I was very excited to start working there. I knew of course that it would be challenging but this was a dream come true and I had a strong vision of the game. So I came in with a lot of confidence but had a huge amount of things to learn about game development. The team was really nice and taught me every step.

I came to Starbreeze with two demos of the game that I created with other companies. The original vision of the game was always there (the controls, the ending, the story, gameplay ideas), but of course during the development we changed a lot of stuff.

When did the development of Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons begin? How long had the game been in development? How large was the development team?

It started 4 years ago when a couple of students and I did a demo. A year later, I did another demo with a smaller company and then started working at Starbreeze. The development of the game took two years. When we started the development of Brothers we had a team of 5 people, but later we ramped up to about 15 people.

Death is a recurring narrative theme in Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons. To what extent is the bothers' quest to save their father a symbolic exploration about the circle of life?

The death theme is definitely a part of the game, but I rather not talk too much about this. I prefer to let the player discover their own interpretation of the game. There are some very personal moment from the game that is inspired from my own life, especially towards the ending.

The world of Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is inhabited by giants and other magnificent creatures. What is the inspiration for the game's majestic setting?

The world is very much inspired by Nordic myths and fairy tales. It was also important to create a world that is beautiful and varied to keep the player curious all the time.

The brothers speak in an incomprehensible language. What is this language? What are the challenges of using nonverbal storytelling as a narrative method in a game such as Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons?

I am from Lebanon, and the language in the game is inspired by languages spoken in my country. But the reason to use a nonverbal language was that I really wanted Brothers to be as interactive as possible. By using a language that the player does not understand, the game encourages the player to be more focused and in a way more interactive. Another reason is that I wanted the player to have their own interpretation of the story.

How important is cinematic in games such as Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons in which the narrative focus is visual?

I tried as much as possible to have as little cutscene as possible. The main focus was to keep the player interactive all the time. The only places we had cutscenes were places that were hard to make an interesting game mechanic for the player.

How did the novel dual control scheme used to control the actions of both of the brothers in the game come about? What were the technical challenges of implementing this control scheme into the game?

It was very challenging. There were not many games out there that had tried this mechanic before. Creating a fun and different puzzle or gameplay and still making the player feel a physical connection between the Brothers was hard. It was a lot of trial and error. But the toughest thing to figure out was how to control the camera. Having both of the brothers on the same screen at the same time when the player controls them was a lot harder than I thought. We had a coder working with every gameplay moment in the game to create the right camera.

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons was released for both the consoles and the PC. To what extent was the game's support for keyboard controls on the PC a mere afterthought, given that the game was originally designed to be played only with a controller?

If it was up to me then I would have taken away the keyboard controls. The foundations of Brothers is that the game needs a controller, as it is part of the storytelling. But for releasing on the PC keyboard support is needed. I strongly recommend the of use a controller even if the game is being played on the PC.

Many of the puzzles in Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons are cooperative by nature. Yet, the game is for a single player. What is the design philosophy behind the game's puzzles?

The best example to describe the design philosophy is that we tried to make the player feel as comfortable as possible in controlling the Brothers with one controller. Something I usually give as an example is to imagine trying to tie a pair of shoes alone or with someone else. It is comfortable to do this alone but confusing to do this with someone else. The "tying shoe" design philosophy was something we tried to follow as much as possible.

To what extent did the development of Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons mark a change in your creative direction as a game developer rather than a filmmaker?

It has given me the opportunity to make more games in the future. It has also made me realize the huge amount of work that is needed to make a game and, most importantly, how different films and games are and how important it is for game creators to keep pushing the limit on storytelling in games. My hope is that game creators get inspired from movies but focus on making games. The interactivity of gaming is wonderful, and there are so many things to discover.

What can we look forward from Josef Fares over the next 5 years, both as a filmmaker and a game designer?

I have many ideas on what do to next, both in games and film, though I can't talk about them right know. But I can definitely say that this is not the last game I make. Keep your eyes open for my next game. I know what it is, and I am quite sure that people will like it.

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