Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons seems to be asking a lot from any prospective player. Its narrative is exposed not through bombastic cut scenes or essential dialogue, but through the expressions and actions of its emotive cast of characters. It wants to provide a grand sense of adventure inside a dreamy and dark fantasy world, yet only calls for a three hour running time. Brothers also longs to effectively relate the strength of the bond between its titular protagonists, only it does so by requiring the player to control each character simultaneously. You could dismiss these choices a simple refusal to conform to industry trends, and while you might not be wrong, you may overlook what makes Brothers feel so special. It makes all of these decisions because it wants to and it wants you to come along for the ride.
I don’t usually waste space detailing controlling mechanisms and button layout, but I don’t usually control two characters at the same time. The only other instance I can think of was a joke mode in Ms. Splosion Man that succeeded in little other than splitting my brain right down the middle. Brothers, expectedly, makes simultaneous dual control a bit easier. Each brother is controlled by a different analog stick, and individual actions are assigned to the trigger button on top of their respective stick. The face buttons aren’t used; every action one brother might have is condensed into each shoulder button.
It works. While basic navigation might lead to the occasional mix up, any segment where either brother’s mortality is threatened is more of a puzzle and less of an action sequence. While one brother runs across a field, for example, the other distracts a dangerous aggressor. At another point both brothers become tethered together, and the teamwork involved in making them ascend structures by swinging each other around is nothing short of genius. Brothers’ gameplay thrives on creating diverse situations to make yourself make two brothers work together, and while digesting that sentence can feel like a chore, Brothers was intended to feel like difficult at first and second nature shortly thereafter. Working together isn’t easy until you find your rhythm. In my experience, as long as I could place each brother on their respective side of the screen, I had little to no trouble telling them apart.
Brothers preferred means of control seems incongruous, but it’s dramatically important to the story Brothers aches to tell. Specifics would spoil the message – and said message is what Brothers will be remembered for – but what Brothers does with player control is what Kinect, Wii, and PlayStation Move have been advertising for years. Controls are always going to be an abstract, a mode of contextual nonsense that only makes sense because we say so. Swinging a Wiimote like a bat or waving your hands around for menu commands, in theory, helps bridge that gap, but it’s still useless as a means to relate the complexities of a character. Brothers, while still employing controls as an abstract, gets closer than maybe any game before it at using controls as a means to express itself. Without forcing the player to control both Brothers simultaneously, its message would have been diluted or, worse, lost completely.
Another effective aspect of Brothers is its insistence on telling a story through seemingly tertiary actions. There are a handful of NPC’s and other one-off characters you’ll encounter on your quest, and each brother responds to each situation differently. The older brother, expectedly, always seems interested in the task at hand and seems to be asking for direction. The younger brother, more playful, takes the opportunity to either play a practical joke or perform some amusing action. Sometimes it’s weirdly cruel, but more often than not the younger brother’s actions encourage a heartfelt sentimentality between the player and the game. From petting a cat to expressing resentment, every single action helps build the world our brothers inhabit.
While Brothers never loses the thread driving its plot, there are several one-off events you’re free to take or leave. Near the middle of the game I was walking along and noticed the road forked off to the side. As soon as I went to explore the side path a man jumped off a tree limb and tried to hang himself. Panicking, I found a way to wedge one brother underneath the dying man while I directed the other brother to the top of the tree to cut his rope. Once he was cut down he began sobbing, and that’s when I looked off to the side and noticed the blown up (?) house and charred bodies of his family. That kind of subtlety is typically absent in the throngs of games that demand to be in your face 100% of the time, and that isn’t even the end of that specific instance. Brothers includes sequences like these purely for world-building and character development. Compassion certainly isn’t Brothers’ only driving force, but it’s a strong card when and where it chooses to play it.
Brothers also employs a handful of uncommon techniques to help tell its story. At first I thought the sweeping camera angles and occasionally disorienting pans were awkward consequences of controlling two characters, but eventually I came to understand those movements were in service to relaying a dream-like sense of serenity within Brothers’ world. There are also a handful of literal benches to sit on throughout the brothers’ adventure, each of which offers not only a peak at what’s ahead, but also the suggestion of a sprawling, potentially limitless world. When you step back Brothers is a relatively small game without much in the way of exploration, but it succeeds at passing the illusion of something much more. A cave full of slave-like giants, an abandoned winter village, a sleepy town wrapped in autumn, and a threatening, macabre battlefield all feel larger than they actually are.
There’s a certain amount of forgiveness afforded to $15 dollar downloadable games on our console of choice, as if we’re seemingly OK with a presentation that doesn’t match a big-budget peers, controls that aren’t as well refined, and a general experience that comes with an element of clumsiness. After all, it’s just $15. Brothers doesn’t come with any of that baggage. Every perceived inconsistency is transitioned intro strength. Be it seemingly awkward controls or sweeping vistas that feel larger than they actually are, the game knows what it’s doing 100% of the time. The closest analog that comes to mind is Papo & Yo – a game that had a beautiful story to tell but couldn’t come up with enough ways to be a game. Brothers is similarly accomplished in all facets, provided you have the patience to see it through until its end.