Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons (2013)

I’d like to let all of you in on a little secret, and it seems like an appropriate little secret considering what my last post was on. Ready? Here it is (shhhh, come closer) – girls really like video games. Listen carefully, because this secret is not the same as saying girls play video games. That by now should be common knowledge as there are not only female DOTA 2 champions who reduce many poor bastards to crying to their mommies, but female BF4 teams that owned the asses of male groups so spectacularly they had to ask the pharmacist for 4-ply toilet paper.

What the secret is, is that girls like video games. In other words, non-gaming girls love to dabble in the odd little game every now and again much like high-school jocks that act all aloof on the rugby field, but secretly cannot wait to get home to play Forza, or Clash of Clans. Guys would rarely have a problem admitting to their better halves that they play the odd game, but girls would rather die than admit it. This is because women like their partners (whether boy or girl) to make them feel like they are the centre of their universe. So an admission of liking something that could potentially purloin their opportunity of being showering with love for hours on end is paramount to sleeping with the enemy. A shared enthusiasm for the passion of gaming can therefore be a rather tricky affair if you girlfriend feels like she is competing with a computer screen or gaming console for an engagement ring.

So here is how I fixed that. I carefully browsed through my collection of games and selected the scariest one in my arsenal – Outlast. But hang on, I thought, this game is so poo-inducing scary that I might do more damage to my girlfriend’s perception of video games than improve it. No, for real. I am an adrenaline junkie and I love entertainment media that scares me, but Outlast terrified me to a whole new galaxy. No, must choose something else. Then I just so happened to remember that I had just installed F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin as I recently purchased this long-forgotten, little masterpiece on the Warner Brothers special from Steam for the price of a decent latte (God bless you guys). Bingo!

So I convinced my totally non-gaming better half to sit down (on the basis that the game is scary) and I launched the game. The creepy music and pulsating title screens immediately grabbed her attention, and by the time the menu screen loaded, her eyes were ablaze with excitement. “Now put your middle finger on the W… and index finger on the D…yes like that…” I explained as she gingerly tried to familiarise herself with something that is by now utterly second nature to me. Half an hour later, she was yelping with glee as she deftly pummelled the kneecaps of enemy spec ops with lead before shrieking with fright as Alma made her nefarious cameos in the game. It was indescribably cute to behold!

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“Dude I am telling you, we are lost. There’s supposed to be a giant, flesh eating eagle here… O no wait there he is! Hey!”

In between all this fun we were having together, it got me thinking. What is, in fact, the perfect controller for gaming? I can literally hear the fanboys screaming at me through this post: “The PS4 controller is the best because of the six vibration motors, gyroscope and touchpad!!” or “The Wii U controller comes with its own frikkin’ screen dude!” and so on and so forth. My question is not which one do you prefer, though. I am wondering what interface actually makes for the most amount of engagement when we have fun with our games.

There have been some attempts at making a few novel concepts for interacting with games in the form of the Zalman FPS Gun or the Novint Falcon for example. Yet the innovation of these devices is almost as remarkable as their total failure to make a lasting impression on anyone. And don’t even get me STARTED on the damn Xbox Kinect. Personally, I blame the licencing lawyers for the reality that we have been gaming on the same controllers for decades. Once the guys in the black suits with the leather briefcases approach your desk, it becomes almost comical how swiftly good ideas get squashed under an indecipherable sea of corporate legalese. Even the Oculus Rift couldn’t survive the process without being forced to take on stupid hand… motion… thingys. At least check out the review videos for the Novint Falcon though; its demo apps seem to be cooler than its actual gaming application.

Now let’s take one more step further: What happens when it is the game itself that uses the controller that we already know and love, and turns it on its head as an alternative to making a whole new piece of hardware altogether? This is where the rather hyperbolically-titled Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons came in. In this little gem, you guided two siblings (Naia, the older and Naiee, the younger) on an intimate journey to find the legendary tree of life. They needed the healing liquid from the tree as a cure for their father who happens to be dying from… something. The brothers subsequently found themselves in an epic quest laden with marvellous discoveries and fraught with danger to reach the tree. Even now as I look back at the synopsis I just wrote, the plot seemed terribly cliché on paper, but believe me, it is unlike anything that has ever been done before. For a fantastic analysis of the game’s plot, albeit with huge spoilers (so definitely play the game first), check out Reece Heather’s spoilerific story analysis.

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The girl is a friend they make on the way, but also a key plot figure.

Brothers is a game that is built around a rare and unique controller-based gameplay mechanic that is, rather ingeniously, somehow allegorical too. This is precisely why at first I was a bit apprehensive for buying this game because I always like to play with a keyboard and a mouse. (Yes, even when playing Devil May Cry and Silent Hill.) The developers, Starbreeze Studios, recommended a dual joystick gamepad of some sort since each stick was supposed to be designated to a different brother, and the result is what Reece Heather and Zero Punctuation described as a ‘single player co-op’. That’s right, this game shares the characteristic with a very short list of other titles in which you control more than one on-screen player in unison. And I say it is allegorical because this kind of gameplay strategy subconsciously makes you realise that the brothers must overcome the obstacles in their path as all siblings should: together. In other words, when the brothers have to saw down a tree for making a crude bridge over a ravine, you must make each brother take an end of the saw, and then make them move backwards and forwards together. Same for rowing a boat; grab an oar and row together in sync to sail straight and true.

What is particularly interesting is where this title came from. Brothers has something in common with the band Abba and Girl With the Dragon Tattoo in that it also comes from the land of the Vikings. Starbreeze Studios is a Swedish based company and they hired their very own Josef Fares to sit at the helm of the Viking ship. Fares is an award winning film director and this games stands as a testament to the magic that can develop before our eyes when true creative talent leads the way in gameplay and gaming storytelling, and not money. It is also worth taking note that there is a kind of Talos Principle shift going on here for this studio. On the one hand, we have a studio which became famous for violent action games such as The Darkness, Chronicles of Riddick and Syndicate, yet on the other, the studio’s most evocative and non-violent IP is probably one of its finest games.

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“Hey little bro, it’s gonna be okay. I had hairy palms once too.”

Also, I could tell you about the game’s graphic capabilities and how it presents beautiful visual aesthetics (which would inevitably end in me gushing, once again, about the splendour that is Unreal Engine 3), but I am not going to do that. What we, and certainly other gaming developers need to appreciate is how this game pulls everything together. Like so many other games that come from Scandinavian countries, the balance in Brothers is struck virtually perfectly. The visuals are good, but not so over the top as to be pretentious. Instead they are soft and gentle while they still manage to draw an incredible amount of emotion from the player. And the two brothers fit so perfectly into the game world it looks as if they were born in the game rather than placed into it.

In fact I am reminded of what one film critic remarked on the favourable response the 1994 cult classic movie Fargo received (sorry I forget who he or she was). This critic noticed that, in the movie, the snow-covered American Midwest is so palpable through watching the film that it takes on its own character. Now this is probably the most apt description of what was happening in Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons. Each separate game environment has a story to tell and as you moved through each set piece with the two siblings, you systemically pieced together what happened in that particular location.

Let me use an example, but I must warn you that some minor plot spoilers follow here. At one point the brothers had to pass through a particularly mountainous and rocky gorge. Upon reaching this gorge, they discovered that they have inadvertently stumbled upon the aftermath of a battle between two factions of giants dressed in massive suits of armour and wielding colossal crossbows and swords. Here the game took a surprisingly different turn from the cliff-based vertical traversal in that not only do you have to guide the duo through the pools and rivers of giant blood, you also have to clamber over the decaying corpses of some giant soldiers. It is there, in your face, and it is gruesome. And at one point, a dead giant’s head blocked the opening through which the brothers had to pass in order to leave the area. Then they spotted a huge crossbow that, coincidentally, was aiming right at the giants face complete with a few scattered arrows as big as flagpoles. You can imagine what happens next…

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Yes you get to fly it…

And all this took place vividly before your eyes without a shred of English dialogue. The two brothers spoke a fictional language that, as a few critics remarked, sounds a lot like Simlish from the Sims games. Again, I think it all formed part of the perfect balance the game achieves in trying to keep you invested in the story rather than distracting you with drawling expositions or witty dialogue. The game is therefore an excellent benchmark of what can take place once developers really invest in characters that players deeply care about. Because, when these characters are then placed in a dangerous situation, the gameplay experience becomes instantly relatable and heart-wrenching. I was sceptical at the beginning because of the almost juvenile opening sections, what with chasing bunnies, throwing balls around and playing ding-dong-ditch on some guy taking a poop in an outhouse. But at each turn, the story pulled me in as it got darker and more sinister by taking on themes that mature audiences will really relate to.

Do try and get this game. It got showered with awards upon its release and I am pleased to reveal that it is very much playable on keyboard too. In fact, that it was nominated in almost every category at award shows and won half of them was what motivated me to buy it in the first place. The only flaw that I can think of, and I REALLY had to think, was that this game offered very little challenge. Normally I wouldn’t care at all, but I feel that the opportunity was missed a bit to integrate some very novel puzzles into a few scenarios given this game’s unique central mechanic. The solutions to puzzles are normally very clear, and usually revolve around <hole-too-small-for-big-brother-so-take-little-brother-and-pull-switch-on-other-side> type of thing. Otherwise, I am super happy I found this little diamond. I cannot wait to see what else the Vikings come up with next. Maybe Thor 3?

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