Backlog 2015 #1: Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons

CoverI’ve had a massive backlog of Gen 7 games since pretty much halfway through Gen 7. I’ve tried to get through them a few times and started a separate blog to try to track it. All of these attempts have failed. Now I’m trying again. This time, I have all of my Gen 7 consoles with me in London, but my PS4 (with my Great Love Battlefield) is back in Belfast and I’m not bringing it over until this backlog is cleared; I actually want to play these games. Last year I think I only managed Bayonetta (which I loved to a criminal degree) and FarCry 3 (which I despised; it was like listening to a 14yo lecture you about the nature of humanity after they’d seen Apocalypse Now for the first time). The first game of 2015 was Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons.

General Impressions

I really liked this game. Reductively, the game’s USP is its control scheme. You spend the entire game controlling the two eponymous brothers (or sons, I guess), one with each analogue stick, with the only action button being a context-sensitive “Interact” mapped to the corresponding shoulder. It works incredibly well, particularly keeping the interaction pared down to one button, allowing the player to focus on the meat of the puzzles rather than execution.. The older brother’s movement is mapped to the left stick, where movement is usually mapped in video games at large. The younger brother’s is mapped to the right stick and I tended to lose track of him. I think the designers were aware of this and used it to make the big brother seem more solid and leader-like. Brothers is fundamentally a puzzle-platformer where each new section has you manipulating the unique control scheme in an interesting way. The game is almost completely linear (not a bad thing) and I enjoyed all of my time with it. I was never bored; the game introduces many unique events that keep the gameplay fresh but they’re all based around the central idea of having two characters so I never found them token. Much of the platforming reminded me of Sands of Time; always a good thing. The game is paced such that the relaxed puzzle sections are infrequently punctuated by more thrilling, pressured sections and it’s judged perfectly to give those sections a welcome sense of tension.

Brothers is not the most challenging but I think that’s deliberate; the game’s focus is on atmosphere and world-building. I found both compelling. The music in particular, combined with thoughtful, cinematic visuals, gives the entire journey and world a sense of constant dread and disquiet. The world also looks gorgeous. The simple, cartoony art style is married with ethereal lighting to give it a serene feeling that contrasts strongly with the events taking place; once you leave the village the world becomes a much darker and more frightening place. The decision to keep the game in an abstract language and convey emotion with tone of voice and animation is a successful one. The game treats the player with a tremendous amount of respect, never hand holding and leaving much of the story to the player’s imagination. You journey through dark, fantastical scenes that have a clear “present” but exactly how things arrived at these often unpleasant states is left up to the player. The latter half of the game has some truly affecting imagery and I thoroughly enjoyed my time in the world. If anything, I would have liked to have been able to spend a little more time exploring, but I appreciate the economy of the game that keeps things moving forward and refuses to get bogged down or sacrifice its pace.

The world of Brothers is gorgeous.

The world of Brothers is gorgeous.

There are some elements of the finale that I found to be a little on-the-nose, in contrast to how subtle and underplayed much of the rest of the game is. There’s also one turn of events that I have a conceptual problem with, which is discussed in the next section, but overall I was really impressed with the game and can only recommend it.

Spoiler Filled Discussion of Some Specific Points

The Valley of the Giants slain in some unknown conflict and the unpleasantness of navigating the puzzles there was my personal highlight of the game. A close second was the attacking army frozen in place somehow. I found these settings thought-provoking and they reminded me of some of the better environmental storytelling in the Zelda series.

The Graveyard of Titans

The Graveyard of Titans

The one part of the game I took issue with was the progression of the relationship between the elder brother and the young woman you save from the human sacrifice. At first I liked how capable the character was after being freed and I found the body language used to convey the attraction between her and the elder brother very charming and effective. I also liked that they were including the difference between the brothers where one is sexual and the other not. It’s not an original theme to explore but I found its inclusion welcome. However, where this story goes is more one of cynical seduction on the part of the young woman as she is revealed to be a monster right at the end of the game; a black widow, luring the brothers to her lair to eat them. The entire game has a sense of allegory to it, where the world is meant to represent a journey into adulthood and all the darkness and danger and fun and adventure that entails. The age gap in the brothers provides differing perspectives on this journey and its responsibilities. Again, it’s a standard theme for stories about siblings but it’s good here. The fact that the one example of sexuality and attraction in the game leads to betrayal, cruelty and ultimately the death of the older brother is something I found very troubling in the context of the game as its implications seemed broader to me than just this particular woman being evil and poisonous. I don’t know what I would have preferred but I do know that this element of the game sat badly with me.

The resolution of the elder brother's romance left me with some questions.

The resolution of the elder brother’s romance left me with some questions.

The very end of the game when you have to call on the strength of your brother using his interaction button after his death is hokey but well-earned and I found it pretty affecting. It’s also impressive that the game forms such a closed, complete work with these mechanics and with its bookending scenes. It’s clear how much care and thought went into the design.

Personal Stuff

This section is going to briefly touch on a more personal stake I had in this game, so it’s safe to avoid if you…don’t want to read about that.

I’d been apprehensive about playing this game because of my own personal history. I grew up as the elder of two brothers ~2 years apart in age, but around 5 years ago my younger brother hanged himself when he was 19. I was worried that the themes of this game would cut a little deep and I’d find it difficult to play, particularly since it seems obvious from the beginning that one of the brothers dying would make sense for the story. But I was curious to find out, which is part of why I started with this game in 2015. There is a great deal of hanging imagery in this game and in so many games. If you want to make a forest EVEN CREEPIER it’s a weirdly ubiquitous shortcut in games to just hang some bodies from it. I’d really like to see that imagery used a lot more thoughtfully in film and video games because it most often strikes me as lazy while also being emotional for me personally. There’s a moment in the game where you can rescue a man who has lost his family from hanging himself. I’ll confess that it was surreal for me to watch the older brother hold the victim so he didn’t die as the younger brother climbed the gallow tree and undid the noose at the top.

I smiled wryly when I realised it was going to be the younger brother who survived, sparing me the more direct emotional pain; the themes are those of perseverance and loss, not responsibility and a failure to protect, although that’s touched on with the father character. My brother got into girls long before I did, despite his being younger, so it was odd seeing part of the roles switched in the game, but it made the stuff with the sexuality bringing about a brother’s demise sting a little bit more because I just find it disingenuous, outdated and offensive. But maybe that’s part of why I took such an issue with it.

In the end, the game didn’t affect me on a personal level as deeply as I’d feared, but that’s not meant as a criticism; it just wasn’t going after the points that I find particularly raw. It’s still a great game and a great study in growing up and contrasts between siblings as well as really satisfying puzzle platformer with and intriguing world.

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