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.
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.
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?