Through unique controls, breathtaking atmosphere and minimalist storytelling, Brothers is one of the best games of the year.
Posted by Mike Suskie (August 16, 2013)
There are approximately a million things that I love about Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, and I'm hesitant to tell you about any of them. It's not that I'm worried about spoiling the story, either – there really aren't any big twists or unexpected developments, and the whole game is presented as an Odyssean adventure, a string of miniature escapades that's more about the journey than the destination. That's the thing, though. Developer Starbreeze uses the basic setup, vibrant setting and unique control scheme as jumping-off points for a healthy chunk of the year's most memorable sequences, and every chapter stands out in a unique way. The game's biggest strength is its capacity to surprise you – be it with clever puzzles, some shockingly morbid subject material or even its occasionally jaw-dropping sense of scale – and as such, going into specifics feels unfair to both readers and the game itself. I desperately want you to play this game, but I'm struggling to tell you why.
I'll give it a try, though. The game stars a pair of (get this) brothers who have already lost their mother when their father contracts a deadly sickness. The local healer insists that an unspecified something will cure him of the disease, and so they set off, through mountains and frozen tundras and the like, to find it. That's as complex as the overall story arc gets – the two siblings set out to find an item, and they either do or don't find said item. The interesting angle is Starbreeze's minimalistic style. All of the characters in Brothers speak in a made-up language, and none of the dialog is subtitled. So you simply have to figure out, through tone and animations, what characters are saying to one another. The game quite deliberately radiates over-exaggerated quirk for that reason, but you can see how the game wouldn't exactly be a deep well of character development when it's host to such a restrictive storytelling technique.
Brothers is a deep well of character development, though, and here's why. Starbreeze's other unique flourish is that players control both brothers at the same time, one with each analog stick. Both have their own set of characteristics and abilities – the older brother is stronger, while the younger one is nimbler and can squeeze into smaller areas. From a design standpoint, this opens the door for some of the most creative puzzles and platforming exercises I've seen in some time, with players often tasked with performing two different actions at once, in separate places. It's essentially an escort system without the escort system. Think about any game with a strong two-character dynamic – something like Ico and Enslaved: Odyssey to the West – and then remove the hassle of having to shuttle an AI-controlled teammate around. What you get is a unique dynamic wherein operating machinery or navigating steep ravines takes laser precision, perfect timing and firm aptitude with multitasking. It's unlike anything else I've ever played.
Perhaps even more importantly, though, it's a grade-A example of how to use the interactivity of the medium to a narrative advantage. We know virtually nothing about these brothers – their history goes unexplained (save for a flashback of their mother drowning), and their discussion is indecipherable. We do, however, spend hours personally guiding them through perilous scenarios wherein they would not survive without one another. Their connection isn't just a plot device; it's a central mechanic, and that speaks volumes more than dialog, title cards or narration ever would. Whenever one sibling falls into serious danger, the other's reaction – whether it's the stoic determination of the older brother or the intense panic of the younger one – is completely believable because we have no trouble accepting that these people matter to each other.
That's the kind of thing that every story-driven game should strive for, isn't it? I'm not suggesting that every developer forego dialog, of course, but narrative and gameplay need to service one another, not be held in separate rooms. In Brothers, every element is consistent and no individual piece of the bigger picture could work without everything else. Even the simple act of swimming across a shallow river is a character-building act of teamwork, with the player steering one brother while pulling a trigger to keep the other hanging on. It's powerful, and works so much better in practice than it would on paper.
On top of that, Brothers absolutely bleeds atmosphere. Through some marriage of the strange foreign language, a frequently astounding sense of scope and Gustaf Grefberg's gorgeous soundtrack, Starbreeze has managed the difficult task of building a world that feels cold and lonely despite being full of people to talk to. A standout moment for me was about halfway through, when the two brothers scale a castle wall and enter a chamber full of furniture that's about ten times bigger than it should be. You stare for a moment, and then realize, out of nothing, that the room belongs to a giant. One of two things will happen after that. Either Starbreeze will elect to actually show you a giant, which will assuredly be awe-inspiring, or they won't, in which case you're left to simply imagine how far the boundaries go, how much more there is to this world beyond what you're seeing. Either option is both feasible and enticing. I won't tell you which one Starbreeze goes with.
The only major complaint I've heard about Brothers – and, indeed, the only serious criticism I could ever imagine anyone making toward the title – is in regards to its length. The game takes no more than three hours to complete; you could easily do it in one sitting. Personally, I don't mind that. On a practical level, I'm an adult, I've got places to be, and I appreciate it when a game doesn't needlessly take up too much of my time. On an artistic level, the game's brevity prevents it from overstaying its welcome. It's compact and its ideas stay fresh throughout, and when Brothers earns so many points for being consistently surprising, that's the most important thing. There's a dream sequence a few chapters into Brothers that feels uncharacteristically silly, but it's a testament to the quality of the rest of the game that the only segment that could've been cut is only a minute or two long.
And any such missteps that you feel Brothers may take is counterbalanced by one level – which I will not tell you anything about – that stands as the single most haunting thing I've experienced in any game so far this year. I went back and did a bit of routine achievement-hunting after I finished Brothers, because I'm the sort of person who does that, but I vowed never to replay this particular sequence, and not because I didn't like it. On the contrary, I was so blown away by it that I want to forever preserve the sense of horror and wonder that overcame me from soldiering through it for the first time. The whole game is like that, really: bleak, beautiful, unsettling and emotional, often all at once, and frequently in ways video games rarely are. Despite a few clear influences – some Limbo here, some Team Ico material there – it's truly one-of-a-kind, and you really, really need to play it.
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