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Lee's Favorite of the Decade – Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons

Lee's Favorite of the Decade – Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons - Article

by Lee Mehr , posted on 21 February 2020 / 2,981 Views

While submitting our votes for the Staff’s Top 50 Games of the Decade series, a fellow writer suggested each of us make an article about our personal favorite, if we so wished. Since my favorite missed out on the final list, I figured that was a good idea. Also, the added benefit of having reviewed the game before made it all the more exciting to look back on my thoughts. I should also point out that this was written without the push to make some kind of deadline. Without further ado, here’s the old text about my favorite game of the 2010s.  

*Note: this review will contain some early game spoilers to provide context for the gameplay/narrative. While they’re relatively minor, viewer discretion is advised*


Have you ever wondered if there’d come a time when a message, an idea, or even an entire story is communicated in a way that every person could understand it without the fetters of language? Writing and oration are used for conversing with others, but even then so much is reliant upon knowing the dialect to remain wholly immersed in the presentation. Movies get a leg up by crafting worlds, thus preventing language from being a barrier to recognizing the setting and action; however, even that French movie with English subtitles won’t be the same between a viewer who is and isn’t fluent in French. Can games up the ante? Whatever you call “triggers” or “control sticks," they’re still universally the same thing on every (certified) controller. Presenting meaning through this universal translator is what makes Starbreeze's Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons one of the most special games of the seventh generation—and of all time.

Before learning of the task ahead for these desperate travelers, the game starts off by introducing its innovative mechanic: controlling two characters on your own. Many have properly dubbed this a “single-player co-op game.” It’s a rather brazen move to begin any tutorial by tasking the player to juggle two characters at once, but it serves to mentally prepare them for the conundrums ahead.

As the redundant title suggests, you take control of two brothers who are tasked with braving the unknown to find something that can heal their ailing father. Neither this given objective nor any “dialogue” presented is in any real-world language; instead, it’s all nonsensical patter and acted out with pantomimes to elicit a digestible goal. This also reinforces gaming’s storytelling strengths, similar to film’s “show, don’t tell” maxim: witnessing the temperment of each character at the beginning depends upon player input. Interaction with local townsfolk or sites will reinforce the brothers' disparate personalities: the older one is more mature while the younger more mischievous.


Tied with this breezy atmosphere at the beginning, it’s easy to understand each brothers' characteristics. Since the youngster witnessed the traumatic event of his mother’s drowning, he has a fear of swimming and needs his elder brother to cross waterways; conversely, the younger’s smaller stature is necessary for getting into tight places. Many moment-to-moment actions revolve around each using their strengths to prevail over the situation.

This unique mechanic may prompt some curiosity about the overall difficulty of what’s still a puzzle-driven adventure game. I think the best way of explaining the challenge is by delineating between cognitive-based and action-based puzzles. Cognitive-based ones challenge spatial reasoning, physics, and so on; they can be intensely focused on the mental gymnastics of understanding what to do. With Brothers, trying to accomplish the presented goals is more about deftly executing the action of an easily-understood puzzle. The simplistic control scheme of one stick for each brother’s movement and one trigger for a contextual action is a lot to manage concurrently; it's akin to patting your head and rubbing your belly at the same time. The mileage for this type of difficulty may vary, depending on the mental dexterity one may have for multi-tasking. Personally, I found it to be a rather rewarding sense of challenge.

This appeal may prompt some concerned viewers to question how this level of accessibility can still garner such overwhelming praise, especially for the case of those more ambidextrous than me. Looking beyond the subjective feelings of challenge to such a unique case, I'd contend there's an argument to be made for its design as well. Whether more focused on challenging players' mental or physical capacities, the anticipation and release back to normal is how most challenging games can be charted. Titles like Portal can gradually build up to 8/10 difficulty, but when the mission is accomplished you're just walking to the elevator, essentially a 0/10 in difficulty.  And though Brothers may not have that high of a skill ceiling it also never has that low of a skill floor. The very act of navigating two individuals at one time yields the opportunity of momentarily focusing on one brother while the other's running into a wall or plummeting off the edge. That may ring at about a 2/10 on this arbitrary scale but it's still a continuation of challenge even after the main puzzle is done.

These siblings will encounter new fantastical things and your brain, becoming more and more adroit, shapes not only your mastery of the mechanics but also your perception of their evolving relationship. Such interactive storytelling has become very interesting to see put into practice today. When so much modern investment has been put into cinematic games—which I still really enjoy—it’s fascinating to examine a symbolic bond of brotherhood told so often through mechanics.

Another way in which that emotional context resonates is by the extraordinary set pieces and pacing of new gameplay elements as time goes on. One moment could be a simple object-carrying puzzle then the next could have them bound together with a rope to swing from ledge to ledge. While scaling ledges may be used quite often, the surfeit of other contextual interactions are so varied in scope and function that it’s nigh impossible to grow bored of them. Hell, the game may exercise a new idea for a few minutes, get the meaning across, and then never bring it up again.


Economic pacing is also something that works well for the visuals, with good reason. Swedish filmmaker Josef Fares is actually the game director and that eye for framing can’t go unnoticed. From starting off in the humble seaside hamlet to heading up the nearby mountains, the sense of wonderous & epic scale is consistently being shown. Even in the beginning, the intracacies of a villagers' daily life are showcased in the background while carting your father down a cliffside. The subtleties in playing with the geometry and camera angles so as to not make any of the game space feel wasted seems to be Fares and Starbreeze's modus operandi. The setting starts off as having a Fable-esque pastiche mixed with Scandinavian fairy tales. As the game picks up speed, the locales will vary from forest, to frozen tundra, and more fantastical areas that not only look imposing but feel imbued with darker backstories for the player to piece together.

Beyond the great variety and artistic design, this is an indie title that looks great on a technical level.  Investigative players can spot some mushy textures but it’s altogether a striking piece of art that does a marvelous job of emphasizing the scale of the world and making dozens of picturesque moments, many found by numerous benches scattered across the game’s world.


Even for being the “weakest” category, sound design does an exemplary job of capturing the tone. In the same way other indie titles may pare down on AAA expectations, Brothers' artistic liberties in removing both any known-language dialogue and subtitles to rely solely on the inflections of each character is a less-is-more approach that’s fascinating to me. It’s able to be a prompt way to focus more on the mechanics as metaphor and it distances itself away from feeling pompous; it doesn't attempt to overstep its bounds by rewriting what is a relatively typical story with a grandiloquent script.

The score is lingering and one that has a fine distinction thanks to its somber chants, strings, and flutes across most of the game. It can certainly be overbearing at times, but there’s a fine distinction in how it perfectly complements the atmosphere, giving it a slightly different character from other titles in this genre.

While only part of the picture, the way Brothers is able to craft its scenes on a technical level is one thing; having something more is what gets it into such treasured territory for me. Not only does it have a skilful eye in framing every scene, it also counters so many expectations one can have with such an expected genre, literary or game. The average runtime of three hours with limited replay value may annoy ardent consumerists, but it burdens me with a question: if I’m able to remember each moment from this game upon completion should cost over runtime even be considered?


In this age of quieter titles that, instead of using fresh mechanics for complex challenges, focus more of their energy on giving the player a grander sense of place and meaningful mechanics, Brothers' goals are much harder to pull off; those goals have been accomplished and then some. It’s an innovative game that employs the game system's rote mechanical understanding as the means of subtly reinforcing a specific motif to deliver a thoughtful conclusion. As being an emotionally charged game that conveys those emotions in a unique way, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons feels like one of the best modern examples of saying so much by saying both nothing through common modes of communication and yet everything through the unique qualities of the medium.


 

Despite being one of newest writers on VGChartz, Lee has been a part of the community for over a decade. His gaming history spans several console generations: N64 & NES at home while enjoying some PlayStation, SEGA, and PC titles elsewhere. Being an Independent Contractor by trade (electric, plumbing, etc.) affords him more gaming luxuries today though. Reader warning: each click given to his articles only helps to inflate his Texas-sized ego.


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5 Comments
Mr Puggsly (on 23 February 2020)

I played this back when it launched on 360 and I really enjoyed it.

  • +1
siebensus4 (on 22 February 2020)

I really have to play Brothers. I already bought it during a christmas sale, but haven't got the time. I think this game is more focused on gameplay instead of story, compared to Life is Strange 2. But that could be a wrong impression. I bookmarked this article. Haven't read it to avoid spoilers.

  • +1
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PAOerfulone (on 22 February 2020)

So THIS is where Square Enix and Dontnod got the idea for Life is Strange 2.

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