I Have Played: Brothers

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Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is a game that I had been vaguely aware of throughout 2013, but simply hadn’t given any thought to. I think there was something about the promotional art work that put me off, I don’t know. I managed to ignore it right up until the end of the year, where it appeared on almost everone’s ‘best of 2013′ lists, saw it in a sale and flopped it right onto my hard drive. I was a fool for ignoring it for so long. Here’s why… Warning: there will be spoilers.

At the core of Brothers is its control mechanic. As the title suggests, the game is about two brothers – one in his early teens and the other younger, perhaps ten or eleven, both of whom are controlled simultaneously on a single gamepad. Older on the left stick, younger on the right, with the corresponding triggers used as context-sensitive action buttons. The overall effect is remarkably similar to trying to pat your head and rub your tummy at the same time.

Brothers is a collaboration between Starbreeze (developers of the Riddick games, The Darkness and Payday 2) and Swedish film director Josef Fares. While the exact nature of the collaboration and what Fares’ role was is unclear, there are elements of the game that feel very ‘directed’.

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The story, which sees the brothers on a journey to save their dying father is perfectly paced and told sparingly, with minimal disruption to play. It’s often the case when someone from the movie world gets involved in game production that the wrong elements of either medium get mixed together, resulting in games that are too reliant on dialogue and cut scenes. Happily, this isn’t the case here. So much so that language was done away with altogether – the characters do talk, but in a made-up language, so that meaning and emotion is inferred, without being tied to writing that could very easily, given the subject matter, have become schmaltzy.

While the controls for either brother are the same, their abilities and characters are mirror-images of one another. The younger brother is more care-free and playful, while the older is more serious and focused. In gameplay, the younger brother is lighter and more nimble, he can scurry up a cliff face (with a leg-up), while the older brother is bigger and stronger. A good deal of the environment in the game invites interaction and a lot of the outcomes change depending on which brother you use – early on a cat will scratch and yowl when picked up by the older brother, but purr and cuddle up to the younger one.

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Since both analogue sticks are taken up with controlling either brother, the game controls the camera itself, tracking smoothly behind the brothers at some points, before majestically swooping around them to reveal a beautiful valley or frozen tundra, perfectly framed with the eye of an experienced film director. Its environments reminded me of three games – Journey, Ico and Dark Souls. All three have that beautiful sense of scale, of place and of destination. It certainly helps that there are no loading screens throughout, keeping the sense of a single, unbroken journey that’s so important to this game.

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It begs to be played in one sitting. For one – it’s short enough, with a play time of around four hours. But more importantly, it’s crucial for the emotional pay off of the game.

Early on, you’ll be fighting with the controls and the game knows this. The first puzzles only require you to control one brother at a time, taking it in turns to move, leaving one brother in safety as the other makes a dash for it. As the game progresses, it requires much more of you, having the brothers, and by extension your hands, move in cooperation with one another until you can do it without thinking. In the later areas, controlling both brothers at the same time should feel like second nature.

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This means when one of those brothers dies, that connection you’ve built up with the controller is broken. You only need to use half of it now. You have a phantom limb. I didn’t know what to do with my left hand after it happened and the absence was shocking and physical. This real-world, corporeal connection that a player has to the medium is something that only games can do, and Brothers does it beautifully.

I’ve heard of two people playing this game on the same controller, sitting almost on each other’s laps so they could each take control of a brother. It’s an interesting idea – while some of the nuance of the game will be lost (it’ll be much easier, for a start), perhaps the power of that moment would be intensified and the screen would become a mirror, reflecting the disconnection on either side.

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