Summary Judgment: Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons
I wrote a piece a couple of weeks ago in the Theme Party about games that execute perfect mergers of story and gameplay in such a way as to create a stronger emotional resonance in the player than a purely visual medium would be able to achieve on its own. Having played Starbreeze Studio’s Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, I now have the most perfect example imaginable to point to when people ask me for one game that most effectively embodies this concept. Brothers is the fulfillment of the promise that was made by the creation of the medium, and is a game that anyone who wants to understand the power of the interactive experience needs to play.
It’s interesting, then, that Brothers has such a simple underpinning when it comes to the core functioning elements of the experience. At its heart, Brothers is a puzzle/adventure game in which the player utilizes one half of the controller to embody each of the two titular brothers. The left stick and left trigger embody the big brother, and the right stick and right trigger embody the little brother. Using this scheme, the game creates a sort of singleplayer co-op environment in which the two characters work together to coordinate and solve puzzles to advance. Simple enough.
But there’s a reason I was careful to use the word “embody” and not “control” up above. In a normal game, a controller is an apparatus used to manipulate physical objects; it moves legs, arms, cursors, swords, triggers. The controller manipulates tangible things towards specific goals.
In Brothers I can think of no better way to describe the change here other than to say that the controller’s halves do not represent objects, they represent souls. The left stick and trigger are the essence of the big brother, and similarly for the little one. They’re boiled down so much, simplified and contextualized to such a degree that the player comes to attach them to the brothers as emotional and human creatures, and not simply as objects to move around on the screen.
And this shined through very clearly as I progressed through the game. It was a bizarrely new experience, simultaneously thinking of each brother as myself but also as the “other” brother. The game asks you to be two people, and it’s an incredibly unique experience. The little brother and big brother started to exhibit different personalities in the way that I played them and in the inconsequential choices I made; I often found myself having the little brother run ahead of the big brother, or climb things earlier, or be the first to rush to act with a new object. I didn’t do it on purpose, it just sprouted out of the way each character felt. The two brothers are just slightly different enough in the way they approach the world that you get a strong sense of personality from them despite the lack of understandable dialogue or a specifically laid out backstory.
A TRUE FAIRY TALE
The brothers themselves are not the only part of the game that oozes personality despite never directly forcing it down your throat. The visuals and general artistic direction of the world are phenomenal and bring to mind the sort of fairy tale stories we’re told in our youth, stories of heroes and children and monsters, always fascinating and scary at the same time. The game stunned me with how variable the environments were and how different each new place felt.
On top of that, there are so many details crammed into each scene for the attentive explorer, little visual things that lay out the dire situations some of these locations are in without directly spelling much out. History is here, stories are here, but they’re never dropped on the player’s head and the world lets you bring it to life yourself as a result. In addition, the game has a wonderful achievement structure that encourages the player to interact with things in a way that is more organic and not objective driven. It brings the world to life and enables the player to spin their own legends. By the end, I had a few pet theories rolling around about the places I’d seen and what had transpired there, and like all the best stories, it compelled me to think up stories myself after the fact.
The emotional resonance of the whole experience is an incredible sum of all of these parts, and the way that Brothers connects with the player on an emotional level is like nothing I’ve ever seen before aside from perhaps Journey. This is the game that is proof of concept for the entirety of the medium, and it does so in such a condensed, simplified fashion that it makes me think that simplification should be our aim more than the over complication that many games tend toward today.
Brothers is an achievement in interactive storytelling, slow building emotional connection, and artistic vision. It is a very nearly perfect combination of interesting and unique gameplay mechanics, extremely strong artistic design, and peerless storytelling technique. It is an artistic creation that screams to be experienced.
Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is available on Steam, Xbox Live, and Playstation Network for $14.99.