After half an hour of fighting with a vacuum cleaner, my girlfriend and I had to take a break. The vacuum had caused a lot of stress on a Sunday morning because it simply refused to do what it was supposed to. We weren’t arguing over cleaning duties: The vacuum — gigantic, anthropomorphic, and very angry — was an enemy to overcome. We were trying to win the first boss fight of It Takes Two.
It Takes Two is a video game about marriage, created by Swedish developer Hazelight Studios, published by gaming giant Electronic Arts, written by Josef Fares and Soni Jorgensen, and directed by Fares. Released in March 2021, the game is available to play on Xbox, Playstation 4 and 5, and PC.
There are a lot of easy jokes that could come out of “a video game about marriage.” (“Who’s the big, bad boss of this game? My freakin’ WIFE?!”) To its credit, It Takes Two mostly avoids this particular set of clichés. Instead, the game is cooperative, requiring two players to work together to overcome both fantastical obstacles and emotional distance.
The players take on the roles of May and Cody, a tenuously married couple on the verge of getting a divorce. After telling their daughter, Rose, about their impending separation, May and Cody are put under some kind of spell and transformed into two of Rose’s dolls. Trapped in an alternately whimsical and horrifying Toy Story–ified version of their house, May and Cody must work together to return to their original bodies and, in the process, repair their marriage. You can probably guess the general arc here: Fares describes the game as a romantic comedy.
It Takes Two’s cooperative gameplay is uncommon in mainstream video games, where co-op modes tend to have the second player operate either as a duplicate version of the main character or in a token supporting role. And though romance is a frequent subject for visual novels and dating simulators (a genre of game designed to give you the experience of wooing an assortment of characters), as well as board games like the popular Fog of Love, big-budget action games — the ones that tend to come to mind when you think of “video games” — rarely make romance the central focus.
Importantly, you must play It Takes Two with a second person, whether it’s someone who’s in the room with you or a friend playing online. So I was extremely appreciative when my partner, a person with a healthy relationship to entertainment media who generally avoids video games (with the notable exception of Untitled Goose Game), agreed to play with me. After borrowing a friend’s PlayStation 5, we set out to investigate whether it was, in fact, possible to make an engaging game about relationships.
After finishing It Takes Two, the answer is definitively “yes”…but maybe not this one.
On one hand, It Takes Two is effective in depicting and encouraging cooperation. In each level, May and Cody have distinct tools that need to be used in concert to achieve objectives. For example: In the first level, May has a hammer and Cody has a set of nails, while in the second level, Cody has a gun that shoots out sap, and May has…a rocket launcher. May can use her hammer to swing across Cody’s nails, while the rocket launcher can be used to ignite the sap in creative ways. Most of the game presents you with a series of puzzles in which the players need to use both of their abilities in concert, along with some well-timed jumping, in order to proceed. In doing so, It Takes Two gives a sort of quick survey of some of the most famous types of game: some levels resemble shooting games, others roleplaying games, and so on.
Since my girlfriend had no prior experience with this kind of game, I had to explain some of the basic grammar of video games: double jumps, dashing, and so on. After a bit of trial and error, she (and we) developed a taste for the problem-solving components of the game. Being presented with these challenges really does succeed at engendering the kind of communication the game is interested in. For most of the summer, my girlfriend and I have been pitted against the overwhelming power of a cruel, unforgiving enemy: the New York City apartment rental market. After months of looking for a decent apartment in a historically bad moment for it, there’s something nice and uncomplicated about having a shared goal that requires collaboration and has no real-world stakes.
On the other hand, It Takes Two has plenty of its own opportunities for frustration. Even though I’ve been playing video games for most of my life, I had never stopped to consider that the classic video game boss fight is an experience that is designed to be stressful and agitating, something that came as a surprise to my girlfriend, who understandably believed that video games were supposed to be “fun.” Enter the vacuum cleaner, a big, scary monster that yells a lot and shoots bombs at you. After several attempts at defeating it, our collective anxiety levels went through the roof as my girlfriend grew frustrated with my halting attempts to explain what we were supposed to do. We had to take a break, mute the TV, and deliberately walk through each step of the fight before continuing.
But there was a bigger conflict to come.
I love cooperative games, but I also love winning. So when I play a game with someone who has less fluency than me, I tend to engage in “quarterbacking,” meaning that I tell other players what to do in the interest of winning as quickly as possible. In between my slow, deliberate sessions of It Takes Two with my girlfriend, I breezed through a bunch of ITT with my roommate, who literally has to play video games for her job.
My extracurricular gameplay was partly an altruistic decision — the game lets you easily swap between completed chapters, and I was hoping that my girlfriend and I would be able to skip the boss fights. But I have to admit, it was fun to move through the game quickly, and to take on some of the goofier and more elaborate boss fights with a bit more freedom.
When my girlfriend and I started playing again, I knew the solutions to most of the puzzles, and was therefore much less fun as a partner. For a while, I would feign ignorance, “guessing” at strategies that I already knew would work. But instead of successfully streamlining the game experience, my selfish quarterbacking made everything both take longer and feel far less fun. Where It Takes Two thinks that the solution to relationship troubles is to pantomime talking about your feelings, I found that the best gameplay experience came from knowing the best time to communicate and the best time to shut up.
Knowing when to be quiet is an incredibly valuable skill, and it’s one I wish It Takes Two possessed. Because while the gameplay is often quite fun, the story can charitably be described as “wack,” “corny,” or “genuinely kind of bonkers.” In theory, you’re supposed to be following May and Cody on a sweet, endearing journey as they relearn working together as a team and (spoiler) eventually reconcile. In practice, the game presents the couple as incredibly selfish people who absolutely should get a divorce, and who should, at the very least, seriously rethink their approach to parenting.
Here’s a spoiler warning, in case you want to play through the game for yourself. Early in the game, May and Cody decide that they need to make their daughter cry to become human again. They decide that the way to do that is to “destroy something she loves.” In a particularly infamous scene, they “murder” Rose’s favorite toy, an adorable elephant named Cutie, by literally tearing it apart and dragging it, kicking and screaming, to throw from a high ledge. (This is not an exaggeration — the game forces you to actively participate in the killing. You can watch it here.)
Look, I get it. It Takes Two is supposed to be a rom-com about two people who have become difficult and petty rediscovering the power of love. This is an interesting premise for a game, especially one that is so obviously drawing on the tropes of other games. Plenty of video games have been influenced by movies — for instance, Saving Private Ryan has been a major inspiration for the past 20 years of gaming. It Takes Two had the opportunity to draw on the familiar subgenre of rom-com about couples with rocky marriages rediscovering their love for each other like His Girl Friday, The Philadelphia Story, and even The Parent Trap.
But these films suggest that the viewer has to actually like the people involved, or at least be interested in them, and understand on some level what they got out of the relationship — topics that It Takes Two seems to either take as a given or simply ignore. Weak protagonists are not uncommon in video games, where the investment typically comes from the fact that you are the one playing and therefore identify with the character by default. But the interesting thematic goals of It Takes Two have the side effect of spotlighting just how little the game tries with its characters. It doesn’t help that the game's third-most-important character is an anthropomorphic relationship advice book with a vaguely racist accent, who proved to be so annoying that I audibly groaned every time he appeared onscreen.
Fares, the director and cowriter of It Takes Two, defends the Cutie scene as an example of “dark humor,” and the game has successfully provoked a reaction from players. In order to pull off the kind of dark humor the elephant scene is going for, you’d have to really nail it, and while It Takes Two has fun with a hammer, it does not nail this. To enjoy it, you’d need to either be 1) invested in May and Cody as characters, or 2) inclined to find the elephant murder really funny. I was neither.
While the gameplay in It Takes Two is often tricky and entertaining, there’s a deep lack of complexity in the storytelling: A friend described the game’s understanding of divorce as “something that happens when you can’t figure out whose turn it is to get groceries.” Ultimately, It Takes Two suggests that what Cody and May “really” need to do to reclaim their relationship is to get back in touch with their hobbies from before they had their pesky, annoying daughter — and while the game tries to tell a pretty stock story about a child mistakenly blaming themselves for their parents’ divorce, it also does imply that yes, in fact, May and Cody’s relationship problems are Rose’s fault for being born.
So it is perhaps unsurprising that, while my girlfriend enjoyed the time we actually spent playing the game, her eventual verdict was that It Takes Two should just be about some guys trapped in a weird castle or forced to do an elaborate escape room or something. The act of cooperation is, thankfully, not the proprietary domain of heterosexual marriage and romance. It Takes Two is well-designed as a way of getting you to communicate with your gameplay partner, but that communication doesn’t feel specific to dating, marriage, or (even neglectful) parenting.
While It Takes Two doesn’t have a ton to say about marriage and relationships, that doesn’t mean that the subject matter can’t effectively be communicated in game form. Notably, the popular 2017 board game Fog of Love takes a similar rom-comedy–inspired approach.
Fog of Love is fun largely because it moves away from simply trying to model cooperation. Unlike the marriage in It Takes Two, Fog of Love doesn’t have an “ideal” relationship dynamic in mind. Players create their characters and are given individual personality traits they need to pursue in order to be “true” to the character that will occasionally be at odds with a healthy relationship — maybe they work too much, maybe they’re carefree to the point of recklessness. During a round, players receive cards representing scenarios (a fun date, a stressful trip, a dark secret) and then respond in character to accumulate points in relationship satisfaction or personal characteristics. Sometimes, players won’t be able to make the relationship work, and their characters will break up at the end of a game. That’s OK, too. (Someone should tell May and Cody.)
It feels a bit unfair to compare the straightforward, linear story in It Takes Two to the complexity of Fog of Love. But the latter shows that you can use game rules and mechanics to capture some of the nuances of being in a relationship, and even create room for some bleak comedy without engaging in elephant murder. Fog of Love frequently demands the players guess what their partner will do in a given situation — where to go for breakfast, whether to take an impromptu trip, how to navigate a tricky family dynamic — and asks you to navigate compromise, shared ideals, and sticking to your individual goals. It’s surprisingly realistic in modeling actual conflicts, while leaving room for the players to make everything as silly as they want.
It helps that Fog of Love designer Jacob Jaskov actually created the game as a relationship exercise: In an interview, Jaskov said he wanted to make a game his wife would enjoy. Like a real relationship, Fog of Love is kind of complicated and maybe has some more pieces than you were expecting. That can make things a bit unwieldy: When my partner and I sat down to play, I accidentally moved a bunch of cards around and fully messed up the narrative of the tutorial game. (I suspect we were not supposed to take a collective trip to Ikea in a scenario that was supposed to mirror a casual first date.)
Unlike the vacuum cleaner, this error was an entirely self-made obstacle. But the solution here was similar: We took a beat to talk through the game and decide how we wanted to proceed. A potentially stressful situation threatened to cause additional conflict and forced us to jump through even more hoops. This time, we discussed what we both wanted, what we were “supposed” to be doing in the game, and what would be the best use of our time. And surprisingly, the fix didn’t change: We decided to just keep playing. ❤