—a phenomenal fairy tale—
Review copy purchased.
Note: This review may contain potential spoilers. Just a heads up.
I HAVE BEEN DREAMING OF this kind of game for a few millennia now, even though I haven’t been alive that long. And on that note, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is not just a game, it’s an absolutely breathtaking and poignantly designed experience that invites you to explore a world of wonder, adventure, fantasy and magic. From a glance, Brothers boasts gorgeous aesthetics with a painterly feel, and a breathtaking soundtrack to match, but the tale embedded within this game’s core is so much more than that.
Set in a picturesque world back in the day when cars didn’t blaze down highways and mobile phones where a fantasy of the distant future, players mindsets’ are already significantly geared up towards a game with a more natural, buccolic focus. The story begins on a sombre note, subtly informing the player of the circumstances of a couple of poor brothers. The younger of the two is paying a visit to his mother’s grave, when we are transported to the memory of how he lost her at sea, which already sets the evocative tone of the game.
AN EPIC COMING OF AGE ADVENTURE
After snapping out of his memory, the younger brother joins forces with his older brother to wheel their ailing father down a grassy ramp. Brothers launches you into gameplay so gradually that it doesn’t even feel like a game, but rather, a movie that you get to direct. The distinction between gameplay versus cutscenes is so inconspicuous at times you cannot tell the difference between the two. Perhaps this is what Swedish film director and Brothers collaborative developer Josef Fares had in mind during the game’s production: to give players a chance to control their own interactive film, a film that always hinges on realism, and sometimes, directs itself. The game mechanics require players to govern both the younger brother and the older brother simultaneously, so although it is described as a single player game, it is more like a combination of single player and co-op gameplay fused in one.
“This is not a typical co-op game”
The two brothers are constantly faced with tasks and puzzles that cannot be accomplished unless both of them are working together. But your rewards for solving tasks do not fit into the typical points/badges/leaderboards system of achievement recognition, and you do not ‘level-up’ so to speak. Instead, you are rewarded with new avenues to explore, and new chapters of the story to unfold, not dissimilar to reaching the next chapter of a book. Just look at the reflection of the sunlight scintillating on the water surface-artistry that Monét himself would have been proud of, or being able to watch the scenery in the distance while sitting down on a bench (something which you can do at various points throughout the game). Not only is Brothers not a typical co-op game, it is a fantastic mimicry of real-life that bespeaks a wonderful imagination.
Thematically, Brothers gets about as deep as games go, and it doesn’t cringe in the face of adversity. These brothers look quite young, and yet looking at their family structure, they have already been forced to grow up quickly due to the loss of their mother and the fact that their father is afflicted with sickness. They have no choice but to rely on each other in their quest to heal him, and the younger brother, who has developed an aversion to water since the death of their mother, must face his fears by clinging onto his older brother for support. This is an important gameplay mechanic which will be revisited throughout the game, and in the most heartbreaking manner right towards the end of the game.
A FLIGHT OF THE IMAGINATION
Few games out there manage to conjure up the same sense of freedom and awe that Brothers does. You are part of a world in which trolls are not only alive, but are central to your quest in saving your father. One of the most memorable moments involving the troll people was being transported down a waterfall through an underground cave, as if the two brothers were merely paperweights.
The first troll you meet acts as a guide that assists gameplay, allowing you to traverse otherwise unmanageable gaps and jumps. By the time you reach the caves, you can see trolls working far down below you like the dwarves in Snow White, or the characters you might find within a theme park ride, and all of this provides a beautiful backdrop to the ingenious puzzles you encounter on your travels:
Figuring things out always felt intuitive and was never contrived, whether it was trapping an ogre in a cage or using machinery to transport the brothers across ravines. I’d like to emphasise again that despite the lack of feedback that usually signifies you’ve defeated something, like receiving points or an increase in your tally of collectible items, the only reward you get in Brothers is the satisfaction of exploring the wonders of nature, and the knowledge that you are getting one step closer to saving your father. And that is more than enough.
On a linguistic tangent, I noticed that the parting words the younger brother says to trolls or goats are usually bishomalo and bishomaya. I suspect those must be the gendered variants that correspond to the masculine and feminine words for goodbye, with the root of the word being ‘bisho’. What made me even more fascinated by this language was that it was never explained, but the player could guess its meaning from the context.
A TRIUMPH IN DIGITAL STORYTELLING
The power of books lies in their ability to tell a story just through words, without relying on any visual aids. Films and digital games are the opposite in the sense that they tell us stories through moving images and sounds, and text is often backgrounded. Both have unique strengths and weaknesses, and co-exist in harmony, until someone takes the risk of transforming a book into a film and vice versa. As a digital game Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons definitely capitalises on the perks of its format, and even blends into the film category. Although a controller is recommended for the game, I found it to be no less enjoyable using a keyboard. There is something special about being able to control the story progression through physical input on the keyboard, and seeing those effects played out on the screen before you-something which is missing in film, and something which is left to your imagination when reading a book (the fusion of books and games, such as the gamebook, is also an interesting direction for the future of storytelling). In terms of music, the game soundtrack has a melancholy that is almost tear inducing, and can only be described as heavenly. I take my hat off to composer Gustaf Grefberg.
In fact, it is most often the strong audio-visual combination in Brothers that contributes to its magical atmosphere-one cannot function without the other, not unlike the way in which the brothers must constantly work together in order to succeed.
A GAME THAT SPEAKS TO THE HEART
Many games out there might be successful because they have highly enjoyable gameplay, original design and/or are part of an already established series, but those facts alone are not enough to guarantee that an emotional connection will be made with the player. I feel that it is rare for games to truly move people, not just because they are a form of digital media like films and animations are, but because they have the added expectation of being able to seamlessly integrate player interactivity with a story or a game mechanic. Doing that well is hard. But Brothers succeeds because it breaks expectations and gives you time to grow up right along with the protagonists. There is no timer ticking away in the background, no intrusion of technology to distract from the journey, and no way to move on unless you take a risk. That sounds a lot like real life. When the brothers experience loss, it also becomes your loss. When they free a trapped owl creature (described my many as an owl griffin) from a cage, that sense of compassion and love also becomes yours.
When the brothers finally make it to
Vitraya Ramunong the tree of life, you are overwhelmed with a sense of awe so strong that it feels like they’ve been journeying across the world their whole lives and have finally found their purpose. And in what came across to me as a shocking and unprecedented move, we are given control of the just younger brother for the very first time, since the older brother is injured and cannot move. After spending the entire game familiarising myself with a co-op mindset, I suddenly felt very much alone, as I’m sure the younger brother would have felt. Nevertheless, scaling the awesome winding slopes of the tree was nothing short of breathtaking in the lead up to reaching the final destination.
One of the most heartbreaking movements in the entire game is also one of the most unexpected. After retrieving the water, the younger brother returns to find his older brother waiting for him, lying very still on the forest floor. His skin is cold to the touch, and before long you realise that he won’t be coming back. Not only must the younger brother deal with the anguish of having lost both his mother and now his brother, but he is now utterly alone, and this resonates deeply within the player. But just when all hope seems lost, a glimmer of hope in the form of a beak and feathers find its way into his life again.
WHY YOU SHOULD PLAY IT
So in essence, what makes this game so good? What makes it one of the most-magical gaming experiences you’ll ever encounter?
1. It lets you do all the things you unconsciously want to do within a game. For instance, fly on a makeshift glider, explore ancient ruins like a kid Indiana Jones, laugh at a guy who kept blocking your path, play catch with kids in a village, and countless more examples. You also get a visual feast of amazing landscapes that make you feel like you’ve gone on one of those European river cruises, but decided to ditch the tour guide.
2. It kicks ass because it is real. It doesn’t shy away from death or loss. It shows the player what it means to grow up through facing adversity on your own. It is a portrait of cooperation between siblings, and it is also beautiful way to teach us that we achieve things best when we’re working together with others. By the end of the game, the emotion will cut you deep. Real deep.
3. Gameplay quite literally feels like you’ve opened a Brother’s Grimm fairytale- and the story has come to life, right inside your bedroom. If you’ve ever imagined yourself jumping inside a book and merging with the pages, it doesn’t get much better than Brothers. Trolls, caged birds, castles with ancient and foreboding statues, musical windpipes and terracotta pots, wolves hiding in the shadows, riding on goatback up the rocky mountains, and unexpected twists that leave you completely shellshocked make this game shine like no other.
4. It never ceases to amaze you. This game has unrivalled skills in surprising you, firstly because of its avoidance of clichés, and secondly because the plot never feels old. Playing through each section is like experiencing a new fairytale that has not yet been written. Sometimes the tales are about strange blood-obsessed tribes, sometimes they are about appearances being deceiving, and sometimes, you forget that you are part of the game, which is just like one big giant fairytale in itself. The fresh, innovative approach used in Brothers sets a new benchmark in story driven adventure games.
Final summation: It might seem like a stretch, but for me, Brothers fully deserves the title as one of the best games of all time. It is phenomenal as both a game and a movie, and I feel it will inspire countless people who play it.
- Inspirational storytelling
- Exceptional graphics with a painted feel
- Astounding ability to create sense of realism
- Highly effective use of fairytales in an interactive digital medium
- A bit short in length