Double Take: Brothers

(Spoiler alert! The following feature reveals many plot details from Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons. Any readers interested in experiencing the game firsthand for themselves are encouraged to do so before continuing.)

SWEEN: Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons was a critical darling in 2013, racking up a few year-end awards and receiving positive comparisons to downloadable puzzle-adventure classics like Limbo and Journey, yet for most of the gametimebro contributors it still flew under the radar. I recently got around to checking it out and was quickly impressed by how effortlessly the game told its moving story of two young brothers on a quest to save their father, and how innovative the gameplay was, controlling two characters simultaneously in a game specifically designed for a single player. Knowing this was right up Steve’s alley, I gave it a strong recommendation and he immediately jumped right in, enjoying the game just as much as I did. Brothers is a short game, clocking in at around four hours or so. It doesn’t offer much in terms of replay value or hidden content, but the story told here is certainly worth experiencing, even if in retrospect it can seem like a brutal series of gut punches. To me, the story is one of the main components that cements Brothers as an excellent gaming experience, so Steve, what did you like about the story here?

STEVE: Mostly, I loved how minimalistic and straightforward it was. A one-sentence summary apt enough to describe the plot of Brothers would be “two young men go to the ends of the earth to find an antidote for their ailing father.” This much is conveyed – along with everything else in the game – without any written or spoken words. The characters talk in a fictional garbled language that leaves you to infer their discussions through body language and tone alone. A simple prologue implies that the boys’ mother drowned some time ago, leaving the younger brother with a crippling fear of water that comes up several times during the course of the game.

Beyond this early exposition, however – dead mom, sick dad – the story in Brothers is entirely about the relationship between these two brothers. Their adventure unfolds linearly, without much room for the player to wander off into an open world or even do anything out of order. Still, the game invites you to take your time and explore the environments around you. There are dozens of completely nonessential interactions you can make that add nothing but tonal flourishes. One such moment that sticks out to me in particular comes in the first ten minutes of the game or so, when you’re making your way through a village and come across an old woman sweeping the street with a broom. Talk to her with the older brother, and he’ll take the broom from her and begin sweeping the street himself like a true gentleman. Engage her with the younger brother instead, and he’ll grab the broom from her and try to balance it upside down on the palm of his hand just to play around. This contrasting pair of actions tells you everything you need to know about the personalities of our two heroes, and while it’s entirely optional and perhaps even easy to miss, there are plenty of other similar moments that really lend definition to who these kids are.

Sween, I know you’re a fan of a good puzzle in the midst of any gaming experience, and Brothers boasted several of them. Were there any puzzles in the game, or even just brief examples of teamwork and codependency, that helped you understand the camaraderie shared by the brothers? And were there any clever or well-designed puzzles that stand out to you in hindsight?

SWEEN: The game does a great job of using its puzzles to emphasize the relationship between the two brothers, and that’s apparent right from the tutorial when the puzzles are at their simplest and teaching you how to play the game. Each individual brother is controlled by either the left or right analog stick, and the corresponding trigger buttons lets each of them perform a single context-specific action like turning a crank or climbing a wall; as such the introductory puzzles give you plenty of time to work out how to control the two brothers simultaneously to not just move around together as a unit, but to make their way past the many obstacles they will encounter on their journey. It’s impossible to ever get far in the game relying on one brother as a primary character doing most of the work – they’re a team, and every puzzle requires both of their skillsets in order to be beaten.

One of the best early examples of their teamwork comes from the first “enemy” encounter in the game, an angry dog in the brothers’ own village. The dog chases the two through the village and eventually down into a pit. If either brother tries running to the exit the dog could easily catch him or his brother, ending the game; only through trial and error does it become clear that the brothers need to time their runs against each other, luring the dog into chasing after one while the other makes progress as slowly but surely both of them make it out unscathed.

Later puzzles get much more advanced but always feature the brothers working together, and maybe my favorite of all had them find a length of rope to tie themselves together, adding an intriguing new dynamic to the basic act of climbing walls and ledges. As the brothers climb up a mountain and through the ruins of a castle, one will hang onto a ledge allowing the other to freely swing back and forth like a pendulum and grab onto a previously-unreachable ledge. The final portion of the rope-attached climb takes this mechanic to its natural conclusion and has the brothers quickly grabbing and letting go of ledges as they rhythmically spin around each other five or six times.

STEVE: I loved that epic wall-scaling sequence. By that point, you’re familiar enough with the control scheme and the physics engine to just launch the brothers around one another and into thin air like an inverted slinky, but you’re only capable of such caution-free trapeze acts because of all the bumps and bruises you’ve taken along the way. The first time you reach a climbable facade, you’re free to scale it with one brother at a time at a leisurely pace. And even if you fall, you don’t die. You just try again. But like any great game, Brothers begins to increase the difficulty, always trying to keep its challenges one step ahead of your growing competence as a player.

For instance, you’ve mentioned how awkward it was to control both brothers at once with two different thumbsticks; it was easy for me to lose control of one or both of the brothers when trying to run in divergent directions with them. And there’s a particular hazard toward the end of the game that just makes hay out of that issue. I’m talking about the chase sequence where an invisible yeti is stomping after the brothers, and only through precisely timed turns are you able to outrun him. I must have failed that sequence half a dozen times before nailing it – and each time, it was the younger brother, who runs just a little bit slower than the older brother, who was caught and presumably eaten. It was only by devoting all of my focus to what I was doing with the right stick that I was able to safely navigate the small obstacle course with both brothers. I actually stopped caring entirely about the older brother’s safety, and maybe I’m giving the game designers too much credit here, but that effect was really kind of profound. For most of the game up until that point, traversing long distances with the brothers had consisted of stopping with the older brother fairly often and waiting for the younger brother to catch up. I often grew annoyed by the younger brother’s pace, but up until the yeti chase, his slowness is merely an inconvenience. Suddenly, it’s a deadly handicap, and it speaks volumes about the game experience that my emotions had quickly one-eightied from aggravation (“come on, catch up already!”) to anxiety (“please make it, please be okay!”) I couldn’t help but project my own feelings onto the older brother here. He’s as powerless to help his little brother run any faster as my left thumb was to operate the right stick.

Talking about the harrowing yeti chase reminds me – Sween, you’ve touched on something that I loved about the game’s design. That cat-and-mouse puzzle with the vicious dog comes out of left field toward the end of the first level, after you’ve spent a good chunk of time running around the village scaling walls and pulling levers. Up until the dog attack, the biggest hazard in the game is a meddlesome villager who keeps running ahead of you and closing gates to impede your progress. I was certainly caught off guard when a dog ran up out of nowhere and killed me. “Game over.” Wait, that could happen? All of a sudden, making a mistake in Brothers was deadly; the risks and the stakes had both risen, and would continue to rise throughout the game.

As the story grew darker and more morose with every passing level, the enemies and hazards followed suit. Soon I was trying to bait big lumbering ogres into falling into open pits, and then fighting off rabid wolves in the darkness with a torch, and then avoiding what I can only describe as zombie trees that reached out from the darkness with icy hand-limbs of some kind. In one memorable puzzle from the later half of the game, you have to save a young woman from a terrifying human sacrifice ritual by covering the brothers in blood and pretending to be a demonic spirit. It’s over-the-top enough to be more funny than horrifying – particularly when the younger brother, riding on the older brother’s shoulders, begins to wave his arms around and growl – but it’s still pretty messed up. Why is there an endless river of blood flowing through this area in the first place? Then of course there’s the aforementioned yeti monster, and after that, well… shit, I’ve rambled enough already. You wanna take this one?

SWEEN: Well, after that the game quickly gets even darker, and yet it’s pulled off so beautifully that it in no way feels like Brothers is going for cheap shocks. Backing up for a bit, there’s a section in the middle of the game in which the younger brother nearly drowns, only for the elder to save him at the last second. What follows is a bizarre scene where the two brothers stumble upon a humongous version of their mother resting on a cliff, and inexplicably their ailing father is there too. It’s already clear that this is a dream sequence, but by far the weirdest thing that happens is that the older brother stops dead in his tracks and refuses to move- after hours of the two working as a team, control is taken from one of the brothers, and instantly you know- something is horribly wrong with this situation. Things get worse when the elder brother suddenly beats the younger down and starts pummeling him on the ground. I was shocked and confused, and then breathed a sigh of relief when seconds later this was all revealed to be a big misunderstanding, the random thoughts of the younger brother’s unconscious mind as he recovered from his near-death experience. But the message was clear – when one brother stops, something’s gone wrong.

This doesn’t come up again until nearly the end of the game, shortly after that yeti chase you detailed. As you also mentioned, the boys save a woman from a human sacrifice, and for a few minutes she joins the duo as a third, uncontrollable party, ably guiding them through a kingdom frozen in ice and past the aforementioned yeti. She’s not only shown off her quick thinking, but unbelievable agility as well, and just after she convinces the brothers to enter into a cave, she’s scurrying up the walls and sprouting extra legs and before you know it the brothers are being attacked by a half-woman-half-spider! It sounds so out of place, and yet the clues were there that something was off about this girl – her inhuman jumping ability, and the fact that she was up for some kind of sacrifice in the first place. Just before the duo finish her off however, she lands a devastating stab on the older brother, which sets the course for the game’s ending. Just when they were mere steps away from the tree that would save their father’s life, the older brother needs to take some time to recover, so he sends his little brother off to climb the tree on his own. He does, but by the time he returns, the older brother is dead.

The scene is devastating, a single shot slowly zooming out as the younger brother comes to grips with what’s happened, attempting to use some of that mythic tree medicine to shake his brother out of it, and finally collapsing on top of him and crying out in anguish. It’s the biggest gut punch in a game that’s already featured a few moving deaths, and the moment is totally earned as we’ve seen how much these two rely on and care for each other. The dagger is twisted as the younger brother goes about digging a grave and burying his brother, and you can feel it yourself, as you’ll play the rest of the game with only half of the controls.

I had an inkling that one of the brothers might die – this is a game that had already had its share of grim moments, and the adventure seemed like it was going to require some sacrifice before it was all over, but the moment still hits hard. What I didn’t expect was the epilogue in which the younger brother pushes on on his own, letting the weight of his brother’s death push his abilities to new heights. What did you think of the elder brother’s death and the following epilogue?

STEVE: That whole sequence was devastating. I agree that the death itself was unsurprising in a game so full of loss and gloom, but when that burial scene became an interactive experience, it hit me on another level. I’m sitting there, digesting the sad aftermath of the spider-woman fight, and the little brother is just sobbing, barely holding it together as he digs a grave. Then he stops moving, and before long I realize it’s up to me to guide him over to his dead brother, grab the body with the action button, drag him over to the grave, dump him in there as gently and respectfully as possible, and then shovel the dirt back into the hole. Damn! I can’t recall an interactive burial in any prior game I’ve played. Plenty of RPGs deal with unexpected character deaths, but always through cutscenes; to actually partake in the immediate aftermath of such a tragedy pulled me that much further into the emotional fallout. It was kind of like the exact opposite of that infamous part in Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare where you’re at a funeral and you’re told to “press X to pay your respects.”

But that’s part of what made Brothers such a powerful game. It was as barebones and simple a story as a story can be, but it was a story told entirely by allowing the player to experience it. Even in the epilogue – a puzzle-free section meant to wrap up the story – the most powerful moment came when I pressed a certain button, completely unprompted. The little brother, almost home, comes to a small waterway that he needs to cross, but as we’ve previously discussed, he’s got a severe fear of swimming and an inability to do so. I must have stood at the edge of the water for five minutes or more pressing the little brother’s action button to no avail, running back and forth and making sure there was no other alternative to crossing the gap. I figured maybe he’d refuse to swim across a few times before finally jumping in – “third time’s a charm” being a classic rule in these types of circumstances and all. Instead, nothing. Frustrated, I finally tried pressing different buttons, even though to this point in the game there had never been a use for anything beyond the thumbsticks and action buttons. The trick, it turns out, was pressing the older brother’s action button. That’s what was required all along, and the game design had once again pulled a fast one on me. In any other game, I’d have been prompted, probably after just five seconds or so, to press the button. In the subtlest case, maybe I’d begin to hear the older brother’s voice or see his face fade into view in the sky. But that’s just not Brothers‘ style. Like the little brother, I was tired, and out of options, and unable to get across that simple obstacle. So I threw up a prayer, and, hey, presto, the older brother was there to answer that prayer – or at the very least, just invoking the older brother’s memory was enough to inspire the little brother to man up and cross the water.

In the end, the father is saved, but there’s no happy ending. The final scene shows the father, cured but heartbroken, falling to his knees in front of his wife’s grave. There’s a second marker there now for the older brother, and the man begins to weep uncontrollably. Credits roll.

But Sween, I don’t want to end on such a down note, even if the game did. When I look back on the time I spent playing Brothers, I’ll remember how powerful it was for reasons beyond the overwhelming sadness. I’ll think of riding a hang glider through a cavern, and of galloping up a mountainside on goat-back. I’ll remember the sense of awe I had when I stumbled into a land of absolute giants. I’ll think of the benevolent ogre couple I reunited and the suicidal man whose life I saved. Most of all, I’ll remember a wide open and mysterious world, fully imagined but entirely unexplained. There were little benches scattered throughout the game that served no real purpose, but if you went up next to them with both brothers and pressed their action buttons at the same time, the pair would take a seat and just admire the view from wherever they were. I tried to do this at every bench. There was no reward for doing so, in-game or otherwise; the only reason I kept doing it was to chew on the beautiful game environments just a little bit longer. All good adventure games provide a sense of wonder, but this was one of the rare ones where the experience felt more important than the gameplay, and I’d venture to say that we’re both emotionally richer for investing a few hours each into Brothers.

Double Take is a recurring gametimebro feature in which two bros have an in-depth conversation about a game they’ve both been playing.

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