This next game snuck up on me, slowly creeping its way to the top of my backlog, partly due to Brad Shoemaker’s insistence on the Giant Bombcast (among others). Like last year’s Journey, it manages to weave simple mechanics with an elementary, yet poignant plot that conveys strong emotion and empathy, all without uttering a single word of comprehensible language.
I mentioned in my last post how The Last of Us felt very much like a work authored by a team around the vision of a singular person. Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is true game authorship from its visionary, film director Josef Fares, who actually pitched the core ideas of the game to developer Starbreeze.
The fantastical world and dark narrative of Brothers becomes apparent when discovering the tumultuous history of the man behind the game. I highly recommend reading Polygon’s piece on Fares and the development of Brothers, as it contextualizes so much of the game’s setting and themes.
Brothers is a lean game, clocking in at around 3-4 hours to finish, yet it manages to use its limited length with great efficiency. There’s very little downtime here, with cutscenes that hardly ever last longer than 30 seconds, and a brisk pace that spans multiple visually contrasting locales. The game showcases a surprising amount of visual variety that keeps things moving and hardly ever stale. Whether it’s a snowcapped village with an invisible troll stalking through, or the various machines and traps of the dark mines, Brothers displays a simple beauty that never lingers past its expiration date.
It’s obvious that much of the game’s atmosphere draws heavily from the likes of Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, with mysterious castles in the mist, and the feeling that you’re an insignificant speck on the complexion of a much larger and hostile world. That feeling of mystery and adventure into the unknown is incredibly important when there’s no dialogue at all, and Brothers does so by characterizing the game’s titular leads solely through physical emotes.
The crux of Brothers relies on its main gameplay conceit of single player co-op: in short, you control two characters with one controller, with each mapped onto their own corresponding set of triggers and analog sticks. Big brother takes the left side, while the younger and evidently less capable brother takes the right. It’s takes a bit of time to get used to the controls, but by the end it becomes second nature to associate each side with the correct brother.
The puzzle designs border on greatness, but fall short in capitalizing on the core mechanic’s potential, partly due to the game’s length and the absence of any sort of challenge. One particularly creative sequence required using the weight of each brother attached by rope to swing one another across chasms like a pendulum. These mechanics are a joy to discover, and it’s a shame that there weren’t more of these creative twists.
However, where Brothers shines is the melding of the game’s core mechanic with its surprisingly dark narrative. The loss of the older Brother is a crushing event, and losing half of your control is a perfect reflection of the younger brother’s loss. A cardinal rule I’ve constantly heard about game design is to never take away control from the player, however in this case it perfectly symbolizes the grim reality of death.
After removing the older brother’s controls from the equation, the game’s final sequence hits. The younger brother, after establishing his fear of swimming, reaches a patch of deep water that he normally wouldn’t be able to cross. I stood there for a few minutes trying to figuring out what the game was trying to tell me, before finally using the deceased brother’s controls, which gives the younger brother inspiration to overcome his fears and move on. This particular moment is a fantastic payoff for the game’s themes and core relationship, and stands as one of the best examples of mechanics driven narrative in the medium.
In that sense, Brothers is a strong example of what game narratives can be when the medium is used as a pillar of design, rather than a set of shackles forced to conform to the standards of Hollywood blockbusters. And yet it also stands as a sign of the changing face of video games, wherein a single person with a distinct story to tell can do so as a form of expression, in the same way that one could pick up a camera or pen and create a film or short story.
While we’re not entirely there quite yet and may not be for a while, Brothers is an encouraging sign, and a strong example of authored storytelling that utilizes the medium for its strengths rather than treating it like a burden.