Microsoft’ Summer of Arcade has typically been one of my favorite gaming events of the year. As much flak as Microsoft gets for not supporting indies, these promotions highlight some smaller and more interesting titles. The first among them this year is Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons.
Brothers opens on the exact opposite of a bright, cheery note that firmly sets the tone for the game: a young man, unable to swim, watches his mother slip into the watery depths of the sea. Later, he mourns her at the grave site devoted to her outside his home. His brother summons him for help; their father is sick and they have to get him to the town doctor.
Somehow, though, Brothers manages to be an uplifting experience that combines mechanics, story and art to create a memorable, thoughtful foray.
Both Sides of the Brain
Brothers puts you in the shoes of two—you guessed it—brothers. You control both of them, but not in turn like most games of this sort. Instead, both are in your control at the same time, with the bigger brother on your left analog stick and the younger on the right. The left and right triggers act as the brothers’ respective interaction buttons.
As you progress, the different puzzles and obstacles are dependent on cooperation between the two. At first, this was a bit disorienting. Once I got used to it, though, I felt like I wasn’t doing enough stuff in the other games I was playing.
Brothers is an excellent example of a dual analog-stick experience. The same way Boom Blox perfected the Wii remote and Flower the SixAxis, Brothers is an experience I can’t imagine on any other type of controller.
The first area of the game takes place in and around the town the boys grew up in. This lends itself to a lot of great interactions that let us peek into the way the two brothers interact with the world and each other.
The younger brother steals a broom from a woman, showing off how cool he is because he can balance it on his hand. The older brother takes the broom and helps sweep the dirt the woman was working on (sweeping dirt is just a thing peasants do, right?).
The older brother tries to gently awaken the man in charge of the drawbridge out of town, while his younger brother isn’t interested in the polite method; the bucket of water seems a much more efficient use of time.
Further in, the surroundings are much less safe and cheery, and the two brothers have to depend on each other for protection and to be able to progress to find whatever it is that will cure their sick father.
Mutually Assured Protection
I was reminded of the PlayStation 2 classic Ico as I played, but a more mature evolution of the idea. Like Ico, Brothers is very much about two people trying to make it through a hostile environment and for much of the game, the younger brother is dependent on the older one for protection. Even during those times, though, the older brother would be at a loss without his counterpart.
As I helped the brothers through the different obstacles, I felt like I was watching them become independent and confident in the face of incredibly trying circumstances.
The game doesn’t have a lick of English in it. There’s no text beyond the very basic mechanics at the beginning, and the language the characters speak is a relative of Simlish; it’s unintelligible gibberish.
Because of this, only very basic, general story elements are conveyed through cutscenes. The meat of the story happens when you’re in control. The feelings of protection, dependence, and then later independence and confidence come from increased familiarity with the controls and feed back into the narrative.
All of this is wrapped in some of the best art I’ve seen in a while; more polygons and gigawhats wouldn’t help the game (or hurt it, for that matter). Brothers is simply gorgeous. The music, too, drives home the melancholy tone of the game.
The final sequences of the game are some of the most powerful I’ve experienced in a game in a long time. The game is short – five hours would be a long play – but there’s so much packed in here that it more than makes up for the short play time.
Only two aspects of the game left me wanting. The segment of the game that puts you solely in control of the younger brother, putting his independence on display, could’ve been a bit longer to hit its point home.
And then there are the female characters in the game. One drowns, one is locked in a cage, and the other is a plot device to separate the brothers. It’s disappointing to see such shallow characterization when the brothers are so well done. These aspects could’ve been improved upon, but they aren’t detrimental to the overall package.
Explore the Unexplored
Games like Brothers are examples of what smaller and independent studios should be doing...
Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons
The art of Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons pulled me in, but the story and gameplay, interwoven together like they’ve been, are what will stick with me for a long time to come.
I’ve had to watch credits through teary eyes twice this year, and that’s a very good thing. Games like Brothers are examples of what smaller and independent studios should be doing: exploring the unexplored and underexplored areas of gaming and finding new experiences.