You wouldn’t be able to tell at first glance that Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is a game about mortality, as it handles the very meaning of death in a variety of interesting, generous and beautiful ways. It’s an unexpected puzzle adventure game from developer Starbreeze, formerly known for The Chronicles of Riddick, The Darkness and Syndicate, which all hinged upon proving the mortality of your enemies over and over again. But Brothers is both about the living and the dead, and makes the stories of past and present lives that much more meaningful.
Death by war. Death by sickness. Death by Mother Nature. Death by one’s own hand. Brothers uses the theme of ‘death’ with subtle yet powerful mastery. Coincidentally, its first hour presents itself as a game that is so alive with characters in both animation and artistic design, particularly between the titular brothers. The story opens up with the two siblings having to take it upon themselves to find a cure for their gravely sick father in a location only highlighted by a tree pictured on the older brother’s map. And yet, as it gets progressively more morose, the ways in which Brothers visually discusses its dark story-beats are sometimes shockingly explicit.
I can’t understate how magnificent Brothers’ art direction is. Like the ageless visual design in games such as The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, Brothers carries itself with placid elegance, impressing us more and more from lushly vibrant villages to ice capped vistas lined with the colourful haze of the aurora borealis. It follows a similar visual pacing much like other small title icons such as Journey. Brothers is also coupled with an organic score that gracefully comes and goes as it pleases.
Most of the environmental and character models are rendered in full 3D instead of having 2D compromises for extra detail. The rendering is subtle and soft, but is impressively brought to life with some fantastic lighting and colour, which come together to create a world far from the grizzly aesthetics we’ve found in other Unreal Engine 3 titles.
Part of what makes Brothers such a special game is that the discovery of pedestrian interactions is just as effective as its mainline puzzle design. Nearly a third of the game’s value comes from mingling with your surroundings: from the little brother smacking a villager in the ass and giggling at his reaction, to both boys sitting on a bench howling in the distance, you are incentivised to mess around and to see how the game responds to the pair.
None of these interactions would be as meaningful if it weren’t for the game’s success in establishing the brothers as characters through both game mechanics and non-verbal storytelling. Little brother – who’s playful, musically inclined, and gets along well with animals – is petite and thin enough to fit through bars and light enough to be launched to higher ground. Big brother – who’s far more objective-oriented – can swim and carry Little Brother, who has a justifiable fear of water. Just as their engagement with NPC’s highlights the differences between the two, their strengths and weaknesses complement one another beautifully.
Brothers’ unique control scheme stems from moving both siblings simultaneously: Big Brother with the left analog stick, Little with the right. The left and right triggers initiate their interactions, and both pulling and holding the triggers prompts separate actions. For example: some puzzles require you to hold down the triggers to hang on to a ledge while others simply have you pull them to swing across a gap. This becomes especially tricky when using these controls to navigate both characters synchronously to accomplish different objectives.
The disparity within the simultaneous control scheme creates some interesting theories that pull from the game’s theme as a whole. Some theorize that the left stick represents the Big Brother’s experience, since our minds have years of acclimation from using it for movement. Meanwhile, considering that we have far less experience using the right analog stick for movement rather than camera control, it’s representative of the little one’s youthful innocence.
It’s easier to keep track of both brothers when keeping them both in their respective left and right hemispheres. It’s when they cross paths that it confuses you, though the game is very much aware of this. While opportunities are few and far between, the camera shifts its position to help you coordinate which sticks to use and in which direction whenever possible.
Puzzles get increasingly more complex in moving parts rather than difficulty as they specifically challenge your handle on coordinating the pair. Pulling off time-sensitive tasks while simultaneously controlling each brother separately is very rewarding when successful, making it look much easier than it actually is. Each challenge builds upon an expectation that you were sufficiently attentive to what the game taught you in a previous scenario. One string of sequences involving the brothers tied together by a rope highlights this progression of game mechanics and its demanding set of dual controls. This introduction-and-application sequencing is game design 101, but Brothers pulls it off exceptionally well.
Its Zelda style, speechless story telling is painfully effective. Communication is expressed purely through slightly exaggerated body language which directs our eyes and has them paying attention to posture and hand gestures. Brothers’ best use of this takes place right before a man is about to commit suicide. This scene is vastly more impactful because the way in which the man reacts gives you the opportunity to discover what drove him to the darkest place imaginable.
This deep and powerful visual narration crystallises in the game’s conclusion. Brothers’ final moments are emotionally heavy and deliberately drawn out along with having one of the sweetest scenes I’ve ever sat through in a video game. It’s a massive emotional payoff that bookends their entire journey, using some of the most ingenious forms of symbolism that have ever been fully realized throughout past and present generations.
A Gentle Interaction
Rarely has a game ever effectively delivered its story through gameplay the way Brothers has.