Coming of Age with the Press of a Button

In which we see that by embracing the nature of the interactive medium, video game developers can create even more resonant experiences.

by

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons blew me away. The heartfelt story of two brothers going on a grand journey moved me, the gorgeous environments and evocative art delighted me, and the clever control scheme and light puzzles intrigued me. These are the familiar elements that many games use to captivate players, but few games use them in harmony as well as Brothers. By designing narrative and gameplay to complement and enhance each other, Brothers conveys emotion in a uniquely poignant way and proves itself a powerful example of the expressive potential of video games.

(Be warned, the following contains major spoilers for Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons. If you are merely curious about the game, I suggest you read Mark Walton's eloquent and spoiler-free review. The game only takes about 4 hours to complete and I highly recommend experiencing it for yourself before you read on. It's wonderful.)

Brothers begins laying the groundwork for its best moments in the tragic first scene. The younger brother watches helplessly as his mother drowns in front of him, and soon after, his father falls ill with a mysterious ailment. In order to save him, both brothers embark on a journey to find a mystical tree high in the mountains. When they come upon a river they must swim across, however, the younger brother balks. Still traumatized by his mother's death, he must cling to his older brother's back to make it across.

This dependency goes both ways. The older brother is too large to fit through small gaps that the younger can squeeze through, and big brother can boost his sibling up to ledges that neither would be able to reach alone. Such simple puzzles build on the theme of connectedness. The two brothers are already bound to each other narratively by blood and by the quest to help their father. The environmental design forces them to work together to overcome the obstacles they face, cleaving them to each other through gameplay. And because the left stick and trigger control the elder and the right stick and trigger control the younger, the two are even further bound together on a fundamental mechanical level.

Having to control two characters at once is a curious sensation. The two are physically separate and are controlled separately, yet they must act--you must make them act--in unison. As the brothers are bound to each other through different aspects of the game's design, so too are you connected to them. This is a particularly good example of one of the fundamental strengths of video games: the ability to make you feel connected to characters by putting you in control of them.

Brothers builds on this basic connection by drawing you into the emotional bond between the two boys. The gibberish they speak conveys mood and tone perfectly well, and through their exclamations and their actions you see their personalities emerge. You may be drawn to the elder's politeness or the younger's ebullience, or put off by the younger's impertinence or the elder's rigidity. With strengths of one complementing the flaws of the other, the brothers cover more emotional range than a single character could and make it easy to identify with them.

And so Brothers crafts a deep fellowship. By controlling them both, you develop an instinctual sense for each boy's place in the world. Each spoken phrase or idle gesture speaks volumes to you. You get the sense that no more could these two part ways than your hands could detach and walk away from each other. This easy, unthinking intimacy feels like brotherliness, and only through the harmonious interplay of narrative, level design, and gameplay is Brothers able to achieve such a credible representation of that deep bond.

With the foundation of brotherhood established, Brothers sets its sights on other, darker emotions. Because the brotherly bond is so skillfully woven, it becomes all the more upsetting when it begins to fray. A beguiling new presence captures the elder brother's attention late in the game to the confusion and dismay of the younger. There is a period of uneasiness that puts you on edge, and after a dramatic and tragic encounter, the older brother is gravely wounded. For the first time in the game, the younger sets off on his own, desperate to find the item he hopes will save his brother. As you guide him up a twisting, winding tree, the contorting environment mirrors the disorienting feeling of using only your right hand to play the game that has demanded both for so long. When you emerge from the tree, disorientation turns to shock. The older brother has died.

I was playing the same game, but I was no longer playing the same game.

How can you convey the feeling of loss? The death of a beloved character can make you feel sadness and regret, but grief goes deeper. There is an emptiness, a hollowing out, a physical sense of loss that mere narrative often fails to capture. But the sensation of my left hand gripping the controller passively, lying dormant while my right continued to work, that sensation felt to me like loss. The physical balance of my play experience was upset; I was playing the same game, but I was no longer playing the same game. Something had been lost.

When a beloved family member passed away recently, my life took on a similar fractured quality; I was leading the same life, but my life was no longer the same. A loss like that reverberates throughout many aspects of life, and so it seems only natural that to convey this poignant sense of loss, Brothers uses multiple aspects of the game. The narrative informs you of your loss by showing you the lifeless body and the weeping younger brother. But you aren't simply told, not merely shown. You are forced to change the way you interact with the game on a physical level and then, in your hobbled state, you must bury your brother. With each pile of dirt you push onto his corpse, you see him passing from your life and you feel your left arm lying limp by your side, a physical manifestation of virtual death.

The emotional impact of this moment is intense, and only the interactivity of the medium allows it to carry the weight that it does. But this isn't Brothers' last trick. Carried to within shouting distance of his home, the younger brother faces an insurmountable challenge. In order to reach his father and deliver the cure, he must swim across a dark expanse of water. It's not possible. At every watery obstacle prior, you moved the elder brother to the shore, pulled the left trigger to make him dive in, then moved the younger towards him and pulled the right trigger to make him grab on to his brother. Yet even as you remember this simple solution, it dawns on you what you must do.

You pull the left trigger. This is a profoundly odd feeling because your mind has so securely bonded the younger brother to your right hand. It feels wrong. It feels uncomfortable. But sure enough, the left trigger sends him foundering and flailing into the water where he slowly makes his way across to the far shore. In that brave act, the younger brother confronts his fears and forges onward, growing up a bit in the process. This narrative coming of age is underscored by your physical action; by pulling the left trigger, you make the younger assume the role of the elder. Because this act is a subversion of what you've been doing for the whole game, you feel some of the trepidation and unease that accompanies the transition from childhood to adolescence. And amidst this tumult of emotions, there is a note of comfort, an assurance that even when our loved ones pass away, a part of them stays with us.

Brotherhood, grief, maturation. These aren't the themes you might expect to find conveyed honestly and authentically in a video game, and yet Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons does just that. By treating the physical act of using the controller as part of the emotional experience of playing a game, developer Starbreeze Studios leverages the interactivity of the medium to create something special. The potential of video games to probe the human condition is vast indeed, and it's inspiring to play a game that takes on that noble challenge.

Discussion

91 comments
Snaptrap
Snaptrap

These are the kinds of games that I enjoy seeing. I rarely play any of my modern games anymore. When you get home from a hard day at work, the last thing you want to be doing is spending time on an elaborate game. I regret selling my JAMMA boards, but I guess there are alternatives. I'll be picking this one up along with Might and Magic X. I miss the classic style of dungeon crawling.

elessarGObonzo
elessarGObonzo

game seems innovative and definitely could be the start of something kind of new in gaming.

through the first hour i got very bored and the characters don't seem to have much personality in my opinion, just pieces to help complete the puzzles.

i have read a lot of people stating how emotional this game is and i'm guessing i just haven't reached that point yet: mom has fallen off the boat and kid just reaches for her once and then lets her drown, kids aren't wanted in town but no one cares once they've snuck in?

i do enjoy the little interaction animations all over but it's not enough to cause awe or any emotional response. if this was on my Android it may seem like a bigger deal, i don't know. i have just come to expect more from NPCs and protagonists with my PC games.

Iozaeph
Iozaeph

Chris's article never talks about the interesting fact, that the games director is one of Swedens most succesful film directors and screen writers, who is also a gamer, and this is his first attempt at videogames.

RogerioFM
RogerioFM

I think one of the reasons why we feel such a strong connection is not only because the blood bind. But also the way the game was designed in how it handles the death of the brothers, death and how we deal with it is the central theme throughout the game, your father, the survivor of the burned house, those taken by the war, for the invisible monsters and so on. But despite the perils the brothers face they almost never truly die during the game, you must really seek the danger to actually die. T


his way it does not disrupt the flow and it creates a sense of safety that deepens the connection since you know you'll need each other to finish the game. W


hen the big brother dies, you know its final, you werent reloading your game each 10 minutes because you died, it's not a common situation like many other games, you left a situation of safety to one of loss, and you lost someone you cared forever and there is nothing you can do to bring him back. So the game forces you to deal with it.

tjsmoke63
tjsmoke63

Very nice article for a terrific game.

Dexyu
Dexyu

That mom sure didnt want to live dam she didnt try to grab the boat dam

jonny_dutch
jonny_dutch

Internet managed to keep fairly schtum in regards to the games story, at least early on, I actually gave up trying to search for the twist after I decided I wasn't going to play the game. Very glad I managed to find out through such a well written article instead of some mangy spoiler forum, great piece.

franzito
franzito

Wow... and to think some folks still see video games as mindless entertainment...

pedram007
pedram007

an exceptionally insightfull article, thank you Chris!

Bayonetta2013
Bayonetta2013

These types of games are rare but when they come along god are they a beautiful breath of fresh air...although very different from thatgamecompany's Journey, I was affected on the same emotional level and dear lord *spoilers*  that ending brought me to tears.

lumbergoose
lumbergoose

I found it hard to care much for the characters in this game.  I think it was because the game was so short.  I found the best part of the game to be the world which constantly surprised me.

DaDukies
DaDukies

Great article, I agree 100%

I didn't even think about it...but, like the article reads, as soon as I got to that river at the end i KNEW to press the left trigger, even though I was  moving the younger brother with the right thumbstick...crazy

stev69
stev69

Not really my cup of tea, looks interesting though.

DeanTheJinn
DeanTheJinn

you explained beautifully one of the thing that makes this game so uniqe

Samathir
Samathir

Indeed the game is short, however, unless u have a heart made of stone, its hard not to feel moved by the game. Chris explained very wel everthing i felt, while playing.

It´s a good example how videogames can be a form of art.

Gegglington
Gegglington

im only say 10% into the game on pc using a 360 controller i dunno if its me but keep pushing the bros away

Zombie8814
Zombie8814

This is a good game, but it is way too short. I felt like I played a demo. Shortest game i've ever played in my life. Definitely not worth $14.99.  

The game should be $5.

LOVERPS3
LOVERPS3

i've finished this game its worth to buy

Queuingreturns
Queuingreturns

"By designing narrative and gameplay to complement and enhance each other, Brothers conveys emotion in a uniquely poignant way and proves itself a powerful example of the expressive potential of video games."

The Last Of Us is the best "example of the expressive potential of video games."

Give the game its due THEN we'll give Tale of Two Sons its due.

Sick and tired of a masterpiece like The Last Of Us not getting the credit it deserves. The same thing happened with Uncharted 2: Among Thieves. Best game of 2009 by a country mile. Gamespot didn't give it GOTY. Way to go.

hairdie
hairdie

@Iozaeph lol from is perspective of making films if this game is 3 hours long hes made an epic :))

Bayonetta2013
Bayonetta2013

@Dexyu Haha, she didn't really try too hard, huh? Then again there was a pretty bad storm, too...but if that were me, I'd be fighting like hell to stay alive.

franzito
franzito

@lumbergoose Your argument implies that the game didn't tell a good story by being short, which implies that you might have not understood the meaning behind it.

Kayweg
Kayweg

@lumbergoose Could you specify how short ? Quite a few interesting new adventure and survival horror games by smaller companies out there, including thisone. Many of them get a lot of praise, but are also criticised for being short.

I found myself close to downloading some of those but then got put off by that.

Slightly irrational maybe, but i don't like the prospect of a game i can play through in a day.

Chris_Watters
Chris_Watters moderator staff

@Gegglington Stick with the controller. The game creator has tweeted that it's the way the game is meant to be played. You'll get the hang of it!

Chris_Watters
Chris_Watters moderator staff

@Queuingreturns I'd be interest to hear more about why you think The Last of Us is a great example of the expressive potential of video games. Though I loved that game too, I tend to agree with @Stebsis that the expressive power of TLOU is more due to the acting and character dialogue than game design and mechanics. 

FrankZoex2
FrankZoex2

@Queuingreturns Question: Have you played Tale of Two Sons? and if you have what did you think of it and why?

mastermetal777
mastermetal777

@Queuingreturns Well, if some people didn't like The Last of Us, that's on them. It either didn't impress them or they just simply didn't like that style of game. I think it's the best game of 2013 so far, but if people didn't like it, that's fine. The same goes with Uncharted 2: Among Thieves (which I agree with you about being 2009's GOTY). Haven't played Tale of Two Sons yet, but I'm willing to give it a shot eventually.

DeanTheJinn
DeanTheJinn

@Queuingreturns instead of whining like a mindless fanboy can you tell me how did the last of us made a physical and a narrative connection as strong as described in the article p.s i love the last of us i'm even considering buying a ps3 but im not acting like a houge di*k

Merauder7
Merauder7

@Queuingreturns  

 Shouldn't we be getting over the Last of Us rage by now? 

 Tale of two brothers actually introduces some novel  mechanics to the genre of gaming, through controls, interaction and set pieces; things that define gaming, embody it and thereby, tale of two sons exalts the entire genre.


Last of us was a decent game with an awesome Hollywood grade scriptwriting and visuals. That a good game does not make.

Stebsis
Stebsis

@QueuingreturnsDoes "designing narrative and gameplay to complement and enhance each other" apply to Uncharted and Last of Us? No. I'm not saying they're bad games, but they're kind of like movies, they give you cutscenes and try to tell the story like a movie does. Brothers does not do that, there isn't a single piece of dialogue, no cutscenes etc. it's all designed around the game aspect and it tells the story like a game should, by letting you play it. Uncharted tells a story like a movie should, the gameplay, though great and solid, is so separate from from it. TotalBiscuit did a really good video of Brothers, you should watch it.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lz3EmqraAxc

luigyms
luigyms

@hairdie @Iozaeph the best 3 hours of gameplay i ever had.

the quality of the game is unequestionable and the tale is so good. it could be a book, it should be a book

lumbergoose
lumbergoose

@franzito @lumbergoose In my opinion the characters were just flat.  They have no personality they just have a trait (can't swim and can't fit inbetween bars).  The game expects me to care about these characters but it doesn't give them enough time for me to get to know them, and the game does very little to help me understand them.  The dream part was pretty cool but it still wasn't enough for me. 

pippocalippo2
pippocalippo2

@Kayweg @lumbergoose I have the exactly opposite approach to that: I like those kind of games that let me sit down, play for a while and get up feeling that I've accomplished something. This is why I love episodic-structured storytelling.

pedram007
pedram007

@Kayweg @lumbergoose The thing is that a movie is about 2hours long and no one complains...a game can be 2hours for all I care if it really delivers quality all the way. This type of sentiment compels companies to strech good games with filler to make them longer...

lumbergoose
lumbergoose

@Kayweg @lumbergoose It's three to four hours long.  Only replay value would be in getting the trophies I guess.  But that's really short because of chapter select.

bannermanner
bannermanner

@Chris_Watters @Queuingreturns @StebsisChris is making the point that the actual act of gameplay tells the story in Brothers.  The Last of Us and the Uncharted series tell their stories in uninteractive, cinematic fashion.  Not that there's anything wrong with that, but there's some serious ludonarrative dissonance.  By that, I mean things like Drake talking about not wanting to hurt anyone yet murdering hundreds of people over his adventures and The Last of Us forcing you to disconnect from Joel in the last few scenes because it's his story.  It's great, but this is cinematic storytelling you're in a pious fit over.  And that's not exactly exclusive to video games.

Nobody's denying that Uncharted or The Last of Us aren't great games.  But in terms of gameplay being a storytelling device, you're absolutely dead wrong.

FrankZoex2
FrankZoex2

@mastermetal777 @Queuingreturns At least you put your cards on the table and admitted you haven't played the game. A lot of people just hate on something and haven't given it a fair chance.

mastermetal777
mastermetal777

@Merauder7 @Queuingreturns It had mechanics that enhanced the overall experience. You weren't some super-agile treasure hunter or a soldier. You were just a normal guy who's learned to survive and protect a 14-year old girl. That kind of limitation sells the environment and theme they were looking for, and I think people tend to overlook that a little too much because they're expecting a meatier "game" experience when that just wouldn't work.

franzito
franzito

@lumbergoose Still, how many games approach this way? Most of the games we play doesn't even give many about the characters, we don't get to know them or we dont need to know.

Bayonetta2013
Bayonetta2013

@mastermetal777 @Merauder7 @Queuingreturns Correction: Joel could do things not many normal people could. His brutal ability to survive is even noticed by various companions throughout the story...and obviously that's a good thing, because it helps to make Ellie into one beastly survivor.