The Amazing & Astonishing RPS Advent Calendar: Day 6

By RPS on December 6th, 2013 at 10:00 am.

At Christmas, it is traditional for families to come together and share gifts, food, conversation and the occasional drunken slur. Behind this next door, everything is relative.

It’s Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons!

Adam: HERE BE SPOILERS! Not giant, heaving great plot points, but discussions of mechanics and moments that may be too revealing for some. I’ve avoided anything too specific but skipping my section is acceptable if you haven’t played the game and want to do so without hints of the things to come.

We should not lament the lack of a Citizen Kane to call our own, but the absence of an Ico on the PC has been a most vexing issue. Thankfully, in Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, Starbreeze have given us a game that feels like a sibling of sorts to Fumito Ueda’s lonely masterpiece.

Like Ico, Brothers is a cooperative adventure for one player, taking place in a wildly suggestive fairytale world. Both games work with and subvert archetypes – in Ico, a wicked queen and a captive princess, in Brothers, a magical medicine and a quest to save a dying relative. Both are also games about the bonds between people and it’s in the handling of that aspect, on a thematic and interactive level, that Brothers excels.

At one point, late in the game, I couldn’t figure out how to pass an obstacle. There’s very little challenge in the game, which is mostly made up of simple puzzles and basic exploration, but this one area had me completely stumped. I had to cross a raging torrent of water and I’d run out of options.

The controls don’t allow for a great deal of possibilities. Each brother is assigned to a thumbstick so that both can be controlled simultaneously, but beyond running, jumping and contextual interactions, they don’t have any particular skills. No swords, no magic.

It’s a masterstroke of design, allowing for clumsy rough and tumble, and carefully choreographed ascents. There’s a gleeful infantile joy in the scrambling animations, weighty and playful, but as I looked at the river, all of that joy was dashed into a mess against the rocks.

Brothers, you see, isn’t a cheerful game. The world is beautiful, evocative and full of wonder, but it’s also cruel. The brothers aren’t on holiday – although the younger and more carefree fellow acts as if he is – they are on a journey to save their father’s life. The stakes are high but the fragile armour of youth lends the boys an air of invincibility. They don’t hesitate when faced with sacrificial cults, blood-clotted battlefields or underground lairs. While the game is short, their quest takes them far from their home, and they encounter many strange and terrible things.

And after many encounters and confrontations, they find themselves at that river. I tried everything I could think of to cross and just as frustration was setting in, I found the solution. In response, my face made a sound like a broken tumble dryer, a gurgling blub of incoherence, and I paused the game.

The controller has become a metaphor, I remember thinking. It was a silly thing to think but appropriate nonetheless. There are moments in the game when one of my hands stroked its half of the controller as if it were caressing the outlines of a phantom limb.

Working in synchrony, the dual controls are splendidly tactile and playful, but whenever even the slightest separation occurs, control is immediately taken away. It’s a jarring experience, reliant on the familiarity with the control method that builds up over a few hours of play, and it’s an excellent means by which to communicate the game’s central themes and movements.

As well as being a fairytale adventure, Brothers is about growing older, growing apart and standing alone. The way that Starbreeze tell their powerful version of this particular story, which is one of the oldest ever told, could only have been achieved using these specific forms of interaction. That is a mighty achievement.

John: So, yes, like Adam, Brothers is the first game to ever make me feel emotional about the button I pressed on a controller.

Brothers: A Tale Of Two Sons is more than that moment, but it doesn’t need to be. It was enough. It was a point of such weight that the rest could have been just trundling the two characters forward along a decorated path.

It was uniquely videogame. While defending our chosen medium to ourselves is something of a dull echo, I still can’t help but want to point out that no book or film could have delivered that experience. It so perfectly encapsulates what videogames can offer, distils it down and delivers it as one perfect pill. It’s concentrated what-gaming-does. And it does it with an simultaneous emotional punch to the gut and a massive hug.

But like I said, it’s more than that moment, and it’s more than earning that moment. It’s a beautiful, sad, and cleverly paced adventure, told with gentle puzzles and careful, resonant characters. And it’s all this with a control gimmick that’ll have the top of your head unscrew itself and your brain climb out for fresh air. Trying to concomitantly play as two characters on one controller became a cognitively fascinating experience. My mind could grasp it for so long, but like it was holding its breath, eventually having to gasp and fluster and lose it all again. Which all, of course, is a run up.

I adore that this game exists, and I love that it was a moment, a fleeting thing that can’t be sequeled or meaningfully mimicked. And that it all came from violenceomongers Starbreeze is all the more wonderful.

Alec:

Is it okay if I’m all shallow and just talk about how pretty Brothers is? And how effective its wordless dialogue is, conveying all that need be known in a clearly-inflected babble of phonemes rather than the slightest hint of exposition? And how lovely, yet also ominously powerful when it has to be, its oft-spectral soundtrack is?

Is it okay if I focus on what a treat for the senses this game is, even though its greatest achievements lie in its singleplayer co-op control system, with the brevity and emotional clout of its timeless tale of growing up coming a close second?

Is it okay if I exclaim adoringly “that tree! And that owl-thing!” rather than intelligently allegorise about the controller/sibling co-dependence systems?

Is it okay if I bang on about how there’s a cute cat near the start, which you get a different reaction from depending on which brother you direct to pet it?

Is it okay if I conclude by saying “look, Brothers is truly lovely, and dark where it counts, and the one reason you should play it is to see a very glossy videogame doing things that 99% of very glossy videogames are too commercially afraid to do”?

Well, it’d better be, because I’ve bloody written it now, haven’t I?

Back to the Calendar!

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44 Comments »

  1. Meat Circus says:

    “Wildly suggestive”

    Like a carry on film?

  2. Armante says:

    I remember reading about this on RPS earlier this year, and thinking I’d like to check it out. Picked it up recently and loved it. The art is wonderful, and it feels like playing a European fairytale at times. The dual control set-up is a neat idea and works well and the gameplay and puzzles are never difficult. I’d highly recommend it to everyone.

  3. Laurentius says:

    WTF is controller ?

    • Barberetti says:

      It’s a device used to automate irrigation systems.

    • bwion says:

      A “controller” is one of the many and varied input devices that can be plugged into a PC, thus making it the most versatile gaming system available.

      (I hear that console systems use them too.)

  4. CookPassBabtridge says:

    I was so disappointed when my friend played this on her 360 and blithely barreled past “that” moment. It was just an obstacle with a solution for her. For me it was such an emotionmen moment and it was wasted on her. It may be her stereo was wonky and she missed the audio, but still. I was, for one day, sad.

    • Turkey says:

      I kinda had the same reaction as your friend. I think I have some sort of disorder that makes it impossible for me to experience empathy with cartoons.

      • Ich Will says:

        I have plenty of empathy for cartoons, but that moment… well it was no red wedding was it. (Game of thrones fans who haven’t got that far yet, don’t google that term) I personally felt it was the weakest part of the game and a massive anti-climax from a thrilling section. This game was still one of my top games of the year though, I just love it for everything except that moment.

        ******************Spoilers below****************

        I actually found the most poignancy after, when you had to cross (censored) without (censored) and the little animation where you decided that you would try. This was the moment for me in the game, that other moment felt clumsy.

      • intruder75 says:

        Same here.
        It was a means to proceed / complete the game.
        Yes sure I understood the implications especially since the younger brother is terrified of water due to his mother’s death by drowning but it didn’t matter much to me.

        Then again I had to fight with the controller a few times always having to make sure older brother was left and younger right so I could make them both do their stuff at the same time. If they crossed each other the whole thing descended into absolute chaos. I’m not a big console player and therefore still have troubles with controllers at times.

        • PopeRatzo says:

          I’m not a big console player and therefore still have troubles with controllers at times.

          I don’t think people like you and me are supposed to exist.

  5. Lambchops says:

    May I suggest a spoiler warning for this article;

    It’s just I always feel that articles mentioning games having a “moment TM” are somewhat ruined by the acknowledgement that such a moment exists; as you just spend all your time second guessing about it and waiting for it, rather than enjoying the experience. Plus I’d say that from Adam’s bit I can make a reasonable guess as to what exactly that moment entails.

    • Adam Smith says:

      Added a warning at the top of my section. I agree about the problem of discussing ‘moments TM’, but Brothers is full of lovely moments, and always with a sense of building toward something bigger. Its form – folkloric physical/emotional journey – encourages anticipation. Less a turn or a twist than a culmination.

      I wouldn’t want to second guess your guess, but I suspect it’s at least a little wide of the mark. And, as is often the case, it’s the way of the thing that carries most of the weight rather than the fact of it.

      Appreciate the spoiler concern though. I tend toward caution.

      • CookPassBabtridge says:

        To add my tuppence hapenny, to the OP I actually was aware there was a moment to look out for, and yes whilst I did have a sense of wondering “was that it” at certain points, the actual moment had just as much gut punch as if I hadn’t been looking for it. YMMV of course.

        • Lambchops says:

          Cheers folks.

          I could easily be miles wide of the mark for sure!

          Will probably pick this up in the winter sales, it looks like the sort of thing I’d enjoy,

  6. GameCat says:

    For me it might be the GOTY. I’ve had some best gaming experienes here, like that lovely (yet deadly if you’re not careful) boat trip* through frozen lake (or it was the sea?).

    PS. I would love to play it with someone, sharing one controler. I think it might be good game to play with slightly older children (10-12 years old maybe?) and then talk with him about death. Seriously.

    * I DEMAN two analogue sticks boat trip simulator right now.

    • BrokenSymmetry says:

      Yes, the boat ride through the frozen lake was my favorite part as well. Just a beautiful, beautiful game.

    • bills6693 says:

      Same in regards to this probably being my personal GOTY.

      And lots of very stand out moments. I really felt for the charecters, it was probably the most emotionally stimulating game I’ve ever played. And the first time I used a controller with my PC too (bought the controller partly for this game).

    • eQuality_Ninja says:

      Kindred spirits. I hug you all. My GOTY for sure.

  7. Ninja Dodo says:

    Is it weird that my favourite part was the rowing bit? Memories of paddling a canoe around a Swedish lake…

    [SPOILERS] (ish)

    The hang-glider was also amazing (though a shame the checkpointing and unclear landing area made me redo this bit a couple of times), or the wolves in the forest. This game has so many moments that are treated as brief throwaways that would be a centerpiece in any other game. Oh man, the invisible giant in the snowy village. The foreshadowing with the young lady…

    I like that there’s something very Swedish about the world and story, things like the friendly trolls, the way the forest feels (I wonder if the blue and brown-clothed brothers are a nod to Astrid Lindgren)…

    This is one of those games though where even knowing “there is a twist” somewhat diminishes its impact. I tried to avoid spoilers but someone made vague comments about the controls that were a little too easily extrapolated, sadly. Still. Wow.

    [/SPOILERS]

  8. Wichtel says:

    This was my game of the year – after I played it I had to just sit there and stare into nothingness for a while. Never has a book or film feel as much as I did holding down that button.

    • realitysconcierge says:

      Definitely my GOTY. A game hasn’t furthered my expectations of what a game can be like that for a long time.

  9. plugmonkey says:

    “We should not lament the lack of a Citizen Kane to call our own”

    I’m pretty sure we’ve had all of our Citizen Kanes.

    Pick a game that helped establish the language of the medium, something enduring that you can make a case as being the first ‘modern’ game.

    There. That’s it. That’s Citizen Kane. Now, move on. There isn’t going to be another one now.

  10. Shadrach says:

    It’ definitely one of the favorites from 2013, even though short the emotional weight of the story weighs up for it.

    As to the language, while incomprehensible, it’s not exactly ‘babble’ at all times: there are definitely parts of it inspired by Scandinavian languages, I heard a lot of familiar-sounding phrases.

  11. Fliver says:

    I played this co-op. Had to sit on the other person so we could share the controller comfortably, but they asked me out after the credits, so I’d say it went well.

  12. bstard says:

    Amazing & Astonishing is some sort of irony sarcasm isnt it?

  13. cpt_freakout says:

    One of current gaming’s greats, IMO. Nice choice!

  14. gganate says:

    So is a controller required for this game?

    • Turkey says:

      I played it on a keyboard. It wasn’t very comfortable, but it worked.

  15. SuicideKing says:

    This game is clearly the Kane and Undertaker of Gaming.

  16. Ernesto25 says:

    Just started playing this got to what i thought “that” moment was and couldn’t get past. Cracked and went to a playthrough , turns out it was a bug!

  17. DuneTiger says:

    I must be the only person on the planet that didn’t think this game was much to shake a stick at. Don’t get me wrong, I totally understand what they were going for, but it had no effect on me. I am not a heartless, soulless creature, either; I cannot watch the beginning of Up without getting sad about it. All I knew about it when I hit the start button was that everyone seemed to love it. I read nothing more on it and just went along.

    If I step back and describe the game, yes, it sounds fantastic, but in actual play, I found the pace extremely plodding and uneventful. Some of the puzzles were quite clever, but most were rather simple and then copy-pasted throughout the game. If the point was pure fantasy, then fine, it did a decent job, but it wasn’t all that WOWIE-ZOWIE YOU GET A TROPHY as it seems to be from, well, everyone. Maybe it’s just me?

    I don’t feel that the game did a very good job of making me empathize with the characters. Obviously, some people had no issue with it, but to me they were interchangeable except for the younger brothers’ obvious bratty antics and hydrophobia (those are not spoilers, don’t worry). Having a lack of language is a great idea, but when you’re doing it that way, I think your characters need to be so much more expressive than what was presented here.

    Anyways, I’m glad it gets a mention. It was by no means a bad game. I just sincerely feel that it’s not a great one.

    • Ernesto25 says:

      I think i empathized with the character you don’t play more . I just finished it and i liked it but yeah i enjoyed the journey and linear exploration like dark souls is in a weird way. it was worth my time and that moment was erm ok i guess but i didn’t feel joy or any significant emotion at discovering it unlike say spec ops the line. Still its nice to have more games which aren’t inherently Violent but do have darker themes.

      Edit: yeah the achievement bits are off putting.

    • Fliver says:

      For me the appeal wasn’t empathy, it was surprise. There’s dullness – that troll factory at the start is unjustifiably boring – but Brothers, in its better moments, is a weird game. The bit with giant limbs – the disconnect between what you’re doing as the player (mundane mechanics learned in the tutorial) and what you’re doing as the character (no spoilers) is uncomfortable. Because it’s easy. It’s a different world with different rules that you’ve already become part of, and the feeling, for me at least, is somewhere between claustrophobia and excitement. Giving meaning to movement controls… I’m talking shit here, but it’s sort of like what Bastion did for audiologs? It makes it fun, it makes it relevant. There’s pleasure in having your understanding of the mechanic changed. You walk different in Brothers. When that combines with fairy tale imagery, it’s double culture shock.

      But I wouldn’t call Brothers amazing. Too many familiar places. I’d like more secrets too, though maybe that’s just being greedy/asking for bloat.

      EDIT: Surprise is the wrong word. Awareness? Eh.

  18. strangeloup says:

    It’s entirely possible that I am just enormously uncoordinated, but I couldn’t even get through the demo of this. I could not get my head around controlling a different character with each stick; while, as far as I’m aware, no other game has done this, there seems to be good reason for it.

    It might just be me though, with stupid hands.

    • eQuality_Ninja says:

      I was the same, but plugged on with it. The beauty is that it is *meant* to be clumsy – like two kids running around. But over you (and they) become more coordinated. As a result, it all ties into the story beautifully. In mind bending, heart wrenching ways.

  19. adonf says:

    What river is Adam talking about? It seems obvious to everyone who played the game but not to me.
    (there’s a full play-through of the game here for reference)

  20. DanMan says:

    It’s ok, Alec. You should play it in 3D, it’ll blow your mind. The isometric-ish view on the scene is ideal because there’s little change in depth, so you can fine tune it to how it is and have a jaw-dropping visual experience.

  21. sonofsanta says:

    I have just played through this and absolutely sobbed at it. Which is an astonishing and wonderful thing, as previous Games That Make You Cry pronouncements from John have been a) great b) sad c) not up to the task of drawing a tear from my eye. But this? This? Oh my lord.

    [spoilers, as if anyone is still reading this thread, but just in case]
    Yes, _the_ moment got me. But the first moment for me was when he went to pick up the body and… he couldn’t even do that. He had to just drag it, ungainly, almost disrespectful, but all he could manage.

    The second was during the owl flight home, when I suddenly thought of the father. With two boys of my own – Christ, that was an easy and uncomfortable pair of shoes to put myself in.

    And, of course, the river, and the scrabble up the ladder. Phantom limb is the perfect way to describe the sensation by that point, one hand lost and without purpose, not comfortable anywhere but unable to be on the controller… so the moment of realisation, the “what if?” followed by the “oh god”, is like a chain yanking you back under cold seas.
    [/spoilers]

    This was better than Gone Home for me, more of a gut-punch than To The Moon, better even than Dear Esther. If Kentucky Route Zero beat this to your GOTY, it best be incredible.

  22. bonuswavepilot says:

    Holy shit, this game…

    Just finished it, took me around 4 hrs all up… A friend who was watching me had to stop in the clambering / rope-swinging section because it was giving him vertigo…

    Truly beautiful stuff, and probably had the most emotional impact on me of any game in years. I am restraining myself from just listing wonderful moments with exclamation points, but if you played it (and it hit its mark for you) then you already know, and if you don’t I’d just be ruining it.