Every so often a special game comes along that makes me pity those who consider this medium no more than a tool for distracting children or an outlet for the violent tendencies of teenage boys. Silent Hill 2, with its clever use of metaphorical imagery, atmospheric gameplay and the subtle way in which it tackled the subject of mental health, was one of those titles, and it’s one I occasionally go back to (I’m talking the original grainy PS2 version, not the terribly executed remaster) when I need reminding of the ability of video games to be so much more than mere shadows of the other artistic mediums they try to emulate – like films and literature.
Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons also happens to be one of those special games. First released for PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 back in 2013, I recently purchased the brand new PS4 version of the game after having seen the overwhelmingly positive reaction to it on those other platforms (PC in particular; the PS3 version reportedly had some frame rate issues). Developed by Starbreeze Studios and published by 505 Games, neither of which are big names in the industry, one of the most intriguing things that first catches your eye about Brothers is that its director is actually better known for working in films: Swedish director Josef Fares.
Now I say this is intriguing because Brothers does not come across as an imitation of a film at all. It is instead very much a video game experience, rather than something with aspirations of being an ‘interactive movie’.
It does have a story – a very powerful, emotional story in fact – and the game tells it without ever using one word of English. Nor any other language that I know of; its characters speak what can only be described as ‘gibberish’. Having said that, this is an unmistakably linear, intrinsically story-driven game. I’m not overstating this: Brothers really is ALL about the story. What it does so well is merge that story with its gameplay mechanics, and give the player directions through gestures and voice inflections rather than spoon feeding you information through non-interactive cut scenes.
I’d go so far as to say this is a game you need to experience primarily for the story. It isn’t a long one, lasting between 3-4 hours depending on your own pace, yet there are so many memorable moments to see (visually the game is gorgeous; smartly it offers you the chance to just sit and admire the scenery at various points) and to feel as you play through it.
With the game being so brief, yet so well paced and directed, I don’t want to spoil one part of that journey, but suffice to say it is more emotionally affecting than most games I’ve played in the past decade. I’d dare anyone not to get close to tears at one point towards the end in particular. This game isn’t afraid of tackling deep, emotional issues, and while there are certainly other games for which that is also true, where Brothers is so unique is that it lets the player feel for themselves through the gameplay, rather than trying to manipulate that emotion through an acted scene.
Here’s the premise: two brothers must go on a journey to find a mysterious ‘tree of life’ in order to save their dying father. This journey takes them through different environments, from your own sunny village to a snowy mountaintop and beyond. On your way you find people, animals, even at one point a pair of trolls who you can help with their own dilemmas, ranging from fun little excursions to literally life-saving actions. Each portion of the journey is full of surprises, whether in the environment itself, or slightly off the beaten track if you choose to explore a little.
Part of the tagline for the game goes like this; “One must be strong where the other is weak, brave where the other is fearful, they must be… Brothers”. That one line sums it up almost perfectly. The gameplay is, in one sense, astoundingly simple, yet can take a few moments getting used to and requires concentration to maintain throughout a couple of sequences in particular.
Best described as ‘single player co-op’, you control both brothers with one controller, one with the left thumb stick and the other with the right, and progressing through the game requires you to utilise both in equal measure. You may need to lift one brother up to a ledge on the other’s shoulders, so he can then let down a rope for the other to climb. Or indeed other instances require the brothers to lift a heavy object, or push a door simultaneously, in which case your hand-eye co-ordination will be tested as you try to keep them both operating equally. You really grow to feel that these two brothers literally need each other to survive their journey.
Brothers communicates this in a way that is impossible for non-interactive mediums like films or books to do. It puts you directly in control of the journey. Their story is told by your actions; their intrinsic bond fostered through how you must use them together to progress. For a medium that seems to be constantly comparing itself to films, constantly trying to pass itself off as ‘just like them’ in its cinematic storytelling, a game like Brothers is a real breath of fresh air. Yet what it achieves is, in a sense, so simple.
I think the video game industry as a whole can look at a game like Brothers as a fine example of how to step out on its own two feet. Be bold. Tell your story as only a game can; through gameplay. You don’t even need real words to do it.
Please take the time to experience this game for yourself if you have the means of doing so. You won’t regret it. There is only so much I can get across through writing about it; even in my praise I surely haven’t done the game true justice, and I doubt I’ve really captured the essence of how it feels to play. It is unlike anything else on the market today; it commands respect for a medium that is otherwise subject to unfavourable industry trends. If you’re truly curious about what video games can achieve, beyond the tired old stereotypes, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons would be a fine place to start.
10 / 10