[Ending spoilers for Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons]
I originally chose Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons as a game to write about because Transistor had taken a day or two longer than expected and I wanted something I could finish quickly. This made sense since Brothers is just a few hours long – however, it took me a long time to get through those three hours because the beginning of the game was so bland and uninteresting. Brothers picks up a bit as it goes, but I never found it very compelling.
I don’t mean to say that Brothers is a game without merit, but I found it difficult to enjoy its merits when it was full of contrived and railroaded environmental puzzles. After a certain point, I began to enjoy it almost as a parody of itself: Of course this bridge mechanism requires two people on opposite sides of the bridge to operate, despite this making it pretty useless as a bridge. Of course there’s windmills conveniently and nonsensically placed on either side of the chasm, placed in a location that wouldn’t get much wind and serving no logical purpose. This is a world designed solely to be navigated by exactly two people, and it enforces this design in painfully contrived ways. Despite being able to leap six feet vertically from handhold to handhold to scale a sheer cliff face, big brother can’t climb over the cage that small brother can fit through the bars of – nor can he be helped up from below by little brother, who was moments before shown to be easily capable of pulling his body weight as it swung at the edge of a rope, a rope to which they still had access if the height advantage were too acute. The environment, even while being so contrived and arbitrary as to be completely nonsensical by the standards of an actual lived-in world, still suggests at solutions that don’t work simply because they weren’t accounted for.
It’s strange that a game with such an unusual control scheme would feel so incredibly pandering. Perhaps the developers were afraid that challenging the player in any way on top of the control scheme would be too much, but nearly every puzzle in the game is just a matter of moving to the next area, finding out which objects were usable, and using them. There were a couple of scripting events where literally all I had to do to survive them was press the controller in one direction, and if I didn’t start soon enough I would be killed a little while later when whatever catastrophe I was running from caught up with me.
It’s bad enough when it’s puzzles and scripted events, but twice in the game I was forced to finish a defeated opponent off for no discernible reason. Though these were certainly villains, at both points they are soundly defeated, with their ability to even survive already in question, much less to pose a further threat – however, if you don’t murder them in cold blood you cannot progress. Even worse, it’s only when performing one of these executions, on a character I didn’t particularly want to kill at all, that tragedy strikes, and older brother gets stabbed in the stomach with, I dunno, poison or something – at which point it cuts to the father figure we’re supposed to be trying to save waking up and flipping out about about the vision he apparently had about the stabbing, then cuts back and there’s now a hole in the wall that I can go through, with little evidence of causality.
I want to take a moment here to state that some of these events take place in truly beautiful environments. Though earlier portions of this game tend towards generic fantasy village, some of the later areas are, if not quite breathtaking, imaginative and intriguing. A battlefield full of dead giants, a lake of sparkling ice, and the great willowy-white panacea tree that is the object of your quest, these are all impressive. The majesty and imagination of areas like this calls to mind the Dark Souls games – which, unfortunately, calls for unflattering comparisons, since in the Souls games these environments are first and foremost about telling a deep and strange story, whereas in this game they’re first and foremost a contrivance for mediocre environmental puzzles.
If you’ve gotten this far I assume you don’t care about spoilers, so I’ll save you the suspense and tell you that big brother dies. You know, the big one? Wore blue? Was able to swim? Yeah, that’s the guy. Though I understand the intent of using a made-up language for the dialogue, as it forces the player’s attention towards the game mechanics (and probably saved them a chunk of change on localization), it also means the characters are completely generic and forgettable. It would have been relatively easy to have the characters engage in friendly conversation and banter, even if it was all in gibberish, to make them feel like humans instead of a couple of maze-navigating lab-rats – but, as things stand, we understand the characters entirely through the lens of their physical capabilities, which seems like it’s intentional since it drives the prime storytelling moment of the ending, where little brother remembers… you know, whatsisname… the blue kid, or possibly summons his spirit, and in doing so is able to finally swim a lap and leap – well, approximately as high as he’s leaped several other times over the course of the game. This is a potentially powerful storytelling moment, completely undermined by the facts that a) the inconsistency and contrivance behind the environmental navigation thus far has eroded any real sense of my character’s physical limitations, and b) I completely don’t give a shit about any of these generic characters. I honestly liked the spider woman that tried to murder me more than these kids.
So we got back and saved the dad, earning him another 30 years of life or so, at the cost of the life of his young, fit, physically healthy son. I don’t mind the ending being a downer, but at no point did I feel involved. Blue man died because I was forced by the game to murder a defeated opponent. Dad man was saved because I kept doing the things the game told me to do. My role in this endeavor felt entirely ancillary. It was all just a big pantomime put on to get me to that final ending sequence, and I still didn’t care about that payoff because it was a garbled message about characters I didn’t care about at all.
I don’t like being negative about games. I don’t want to be an Enraged Video Games Critic or Perturbed Electronic Entertainment Man, but I can’t play a game like this, a mess of conflicted ideas and goals that add up to noise, without feeling a bit resentful. I don’t understand how someone could approach game design in such a slap-dash and careless way. I don’t understand why someone would try for a big storytelling moment payoff with characters we’re given no reason to care about. I appreciate that the Big Storytelling Moment informed the design in such a fundamental way, right down to the control scheme, but when it came to that moment? It was a total dud. The horse ran into the back of the cart at full speed.
All I can hope is that this game’s ending is a useful illustration of how to communicate intentional meaning through game controls and mechanics, even if the storytelling intent behind that meaning is a non-starter. I hope that, even if I don’t think this game is very good, it can lead the way towards more games using this idea in an interesting and nuanced way – as, indeed, plenty of games already do. I hope this one, blatant, ham-handed example will lead to a wider literacy of understanding the narrative use of game mechanics.
Because honestly, aside from that and some pretty environments, I don’t think this game has a lot going for it.
[next: Neverending Nightmares]