By Peter Gothard
Brothers is a rare breath of fresh air from a large development studio like Starbreeze. It’s a thoughtful, lingering and profoundly sad experience that doesn’t involve guns, isn’t set in a postapocalyptic near-future, and doesn’t involve reclaiming a stolen girlfriend as yet another collectable item.
Beautiful to look at and simple to play, but with a beating heart and a vibrant soul that really sets the experience apart from what’s commonly considered ‘a videogame’ it’s also quite a departure for Swedish developers Starbreeze – makers of the Chronicles of Riddick first person shooter series, not to mention the similarly gun-centric remake of classic strategy game Syndicate. While the developers’ previous titles contained their fair share of subtlety and genre innovation in their sombre tone, Brothers bears a sense of child-like whimsy that’s never been seen in a Starbreeze title before.
Make no mistake, however; Brothers is only child-like in the tradition of Grimms’ Fairy Tales and other fables used to terrify youngsters down the ages. It’s a fantastical quest, but one that’s never afraid to touch on the morbid, or even the downright terrifying. It’s a story so universal in its appeal it can be told with no words whatsoever, as the few speaking characters in the game chatter and groan in an invented language. It’s by gestures, impassioned cries and physical action that Brothers’ tragic plot unfolds. A family, it seems, has met a terrible fate at sea. Their boat is washed up on the shores of an island, the mother drowned and the father critically ill. The two sons – one a lanky youth and the other a bundle of pre-teen energy - are handed a single piece of parchment on which is written instructions on how to save him. Just like the boys, that paper is all the player has to go on. With no menus, no inventory, and simple, single-button controls, Brothers is a game in which the player is left as curious and bemused as the siblings, as they gingerly leave the cottage to embark on a poignant quest to try and simply lessen the after effects of an already inescapable family tragedy. The death of their mother and the thread by which their father’s life hangs is never far from the boys’ minds, as the bleak world around them offers little but hardship, with even the occasional light hearted discovery soon lost to the grim resolve that continues to drive them on.
Melding the whimsy of exploration with that lingering sense of dread and sadness, not a single vista or cinematically adept camera position is wasted by Starbreeze. It’s a beautiful game. Both visually and tonally, Brothers contains some truly unforgettable encounters. It’s best not to give too much away, but the boys will face both physical and emotional adversity as, soon exiting the relatively safe, populated coastal area in which they wash up, they will explore ruined mountain fortresses, an arctic tundra and the aftereffects of a terrible, climactic battle.
But Brothers’ true uniqueness comes in the form of its control method. The pad’s left analogue stick controls the big brother, while the right guides the younger. Squeezing the left and right trigger respectively help big and little interact contextually with the environment or, if appropriate to the task, with each other. Inhabitants of the world the brothers occasionally meet can be interacted with in different, charmingly characteristic ways by the confident older brother and his curious, sometimes childishly rash companion. Even making the two characters walk in the same direction at the same time feels curiously strange at first, a brother often veering off in an errant direction as you focus on controlling just one at a time. It can be seen as a wonderful metaphor describing how the two boys must learn to think as a unit, and it’s not long before you’ve been forced to master simple movement, and are soon initiating co-ordinated dual manoeuvres, leaping up rock faces or manipulating lever and pulley systems to strict time limits. There are so many superb ways the brothers can combine their skills – climbing, sawing down trees, even innovatively scaling walls while connected by a rope. It’s tempting to describe Brothers as a puzzle game, but it’s not ostensibly going to tease the mind too greatly. More, it’s an exercise in cooperation – but not in the usual sense of two players gathering to solve problems by communicating; this is strictly a single-player game. Brothers is about making the left and right hands understand one another and encourage the individual to have them work towards a common goal.
Really the only criticism that could be levelled at Brothers is the length. It isn’t a long game, and this can work both for and against it. While it can be bested in around three hours, to pad it out any longer would lose the poignancy of its story. If you’re in the market for a sad, beautiful and decidedly ‘un-videogamey’ story that perfectly marries form and function, this is a lovingly crafted, hugely stylish slice of interactive fiction that will not disappoint.
Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is out now on Xbox Live, Steam on 28 August and PlayStation Network on 3 September.