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James Wallis levels with you

A Spot of Brother

Screenshot from Brothers: a Tale of Two Sons

I spent the day of the GTA V launch playing Brothers, a download-only title created by Swedish film director Josef Fares, developed by Starbreeze Studios and published by 505 Games. It’s a three-hour game that’s won comparisons with Journey and Fable for its story and the emotional response that it evokes.

Brothers is the story of two boys who must journey to the Tree of Life to find a way to cure their ailing father. Played with a console controller, each of the joysticks controls one of the brothers, with the triggers working as ‘do stuff’ buttons for the two characters. From these simple controls the game wrings some nuanced, involving and clever gameplay, and is refreshingly combat-light. It is also deeply entrenched in decades-old attitudes to game narrative, and the fact that it picked up glowing praise for its storytelling is sad and worrying.

First of all, the gameplay and its narrative is completely linear. Either you do what the game wants, in the order it wants, or you won’t finish it. It’s unlikely you’ll get stuck on a puzzle as this is not a taxing game, but if you did then that’s the end of your playtime. It’s not quite as bad as ‘push button, get plot’ but it’s not far off.

As the player you do occasionally get a chance to stray off the linear path, to do side-quests or take part in minor incidents that add colour to the game and achievement points to your gamer-score. On one level, this is kind of interesting: achievements in Brothers don’t function as rewards for passing checkpoints and it would be possible to finish the game without getting any. On the other hand the delight in finding these vignettes was reward enough: to get an achievement for them felt as if I was doing them for the wrong reason. An easter egg is its own reward; and in a time-critical mission getting points for spending time doing other stuff sends a very mixed message.

You’ll be glad to hear that in a game about two boys saving a man, there are female characters.  You’ll be less glad to hear that two of them are hostages who need to be rescued, one is a bitch who tries to kill you, and one is already dead. That’s it for women. No, wait, I tell a lie. You get the game’s second achievement by taking a ball from a little girl and throwing it down a well. The girl cries and you get 20 points. This serves to establish at the start of the game that your characters will be rewarded for being cruel arseholes, a theme that is not repeated anywhere else. So much for characterisation through gameplay.

Someone important dies near the end. You may have guessed this would happen, given the game’s title and theme, so I won’t go into details. But I will say that the death happens in a cut-scene and there is no way to prevent it. In fact its presentation is quite similar to the most famous video-game death of all, the murder of Aeris in Final Fantasy VII, only less affecting. Mostly it’s frustrating.

And there are the usual complaints about how bits of the world don’t fit together or make sense (people wear shorts and short-sleeves in snow, there are mine levels with no way for workers to get down or up from where they’re working, castle defences apparently constructed for the sole purpose of having boys scale them, inventors happy for a couple of vagrants to take their greatest creation: you know the score). The first three chapters are very good indeed, but there’s a big shift in tone after that and although the game’s visuals and atmosphere remain strong, the coherence begins to break down into cliche—narratively and in terms of gameplay too. Puzzles become weaker and more perfunctory, and with the exception of one sweet moment near the end, gameplay and narrative split into two. Key deaths in cut-scenes? In 2013? Really?

Brothers is not Journey or Ico, nowhere close to them. It does have similarities to Fable, another game with a troubled narrative, but Fable came out nine years ago. Is the video-game form really moving so slowly that the Daily Telegraph can say that Brothers ‘weds narrative and mechanics to captivating effect’? Apparently so.

Worth playing? If that’s what you want to take away from this then yes, it’s worth playing. You will be charmed and delighted, but I’m pretty sure you’ll be underwhelmed too.

(Correction: an earlier version said the ball-in-the-well was the first achievement in the game. It isn’t, it’s the second. Apologies.)


Categorised as: game design | narrative


3 Comments

  1. Tom De Roeck says:

    please jamesywan kenobi, help us free the world from bad storytelling, youre our only hope.

  2. Finished Brothers Friday night. I thought I was about half-way through when I was, in fact, at the start of the last chapter. So I had a lot of time to go back and play through bits to get the achievements.

    If anything, I found the first achievement worse than the second since in order to get it, you have to leave your ailing father lying in the cart before you even get him to the doctor!

    The point of the game seemed to be to discover the narrative, rather than to drive it. The story exists, it just needs you to solve the puzzles to allow it to be told. In this way, it seemed to be a sort of favorite bed-time story. Everyone knows how it goes and the parts it needs to be completed. In this vein, the achievement side-quests, can be seen as a bit of wandering in telling the story in response to a child’s “what if?” interruption.

    I agree, though, that it would be much better if player action allowed for different ways for the story to end, or at least for different paths through the story. (Maybe skip rescuing a character, only to see the consequence of your selfishness.)

    Of the deaths in the story, the first, told in the prologue, was more affecting to me. More poignant, for me, was the scene near the end where the younger brother must use the “do something” control of the older brother to do something he was unable to do in the game previously.

    I have one more play-through to do for the two-part achievement, which apparently won’t trigger if you start partly into the story.

    • James Wallis says:

      I have a feeling that the entire game was built around that idea of the controller-shift near the end. It’s a cute idea, but it’s completely overshadowed by the ridiculously maudlin attempt at heartstrings-tweaking that has come before it, not to mention the second appearance of the dead mother. For a game with a charming sense of finesse in its early stages, the moments when it tries to hit the major chords (see also the suicidal man) are badly misjudged.

      I’m told you may need to zoom in with the telescope to get the Love Birds achievement. It’s the only one I’m still missing too.

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