I am a child. I run down a hillside in my home town, weaving in and out of white-barked trees. As I stop to pick on an old woman in a rocking chair, my brother looks on. Now I am my brother, asking the woman for directions and help deciphering a dusty parchment. We move through the town and I am the younger again, taking a ball from a small girl and trying in vain to get it through a nearby hoop. I am the older, drawing on years of practice to get a perfect shot. Now I am both myself and my brother, passing the ball back and forth before returning it to its owner. We open the gate and leave our home.
The impossibly simple concept behind Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is so subtly and humbly presented that one almost has to trip over it in the course of playing. You control two brothers who are on a quest of great importance; they travel across a vast and beautiful fantasy land in search of something, and to find it you need to operate the boys independently and as a well-oiled, cooperative machine. Each thumbstick controls one brother’s movement, while each trigger acts as a contextual interaction.
But boiling this game down to mechanical details is boorish and rather offensive to the Starbreeze creation, so I’ll sum it up a little better: Brothers is a defining moment in interactive storytelling.
Brothers is a cooperative game played alone, meaning there is a small learning curve to deal with as you attempt to wrap your mind around the idea of simultaneously guiding two characters around three-dimensional space. What appears, at first, to be an exercise in patting your head while rubbing your stomach slowly reveals itself as more like walking while chewing gum. The two brothers are complementary extensions of your fingers, each one doing what he needs to do in any given situation. I mistakenly thought that my inability to get the little brother to make a basket in the earlier example was a lack of player skill, when it was, in fact, just an example of something big brother has an aptitude for.
The game is filled with these types of contrasting interactions. While the older brother might get an idea of where to go next from a friendly farmer, the younger might stomp on his nicely thatched roof just because he thinks it’s funny. Conversely, the little one can entertain an old harpist with a surprising musical ability, where his sibling can only strangle cats. Almost any object, person or creature in the game has their own interaction for each brother, and the game places equal importance on those that further your quest and those that simply enrich your experience. Brothers invites you to simply live through the world, rather than signposting everything as mission critical or sidequest, or dragging you from one event to another.
Similarly, there is no delineation between cooperative actions and singular ones, as you might find in a more literal co-op title. Everything you accomplish in the game requires some form of teamwork from the two lads, be it something as simple as getting the smaller one to climb up onto a ledge and drop down a rope, or as complex and coordination-reliant as carrying a large pillar across a crowded room. When you manage to outwit an angry troll or pilot a boat down an icy river you really do feel like you are both the boys’ guardian and the boys themselves. It’s a very strange feeling to identify as two characters simultaneously, even as someone who has spent decades controlling large RPG parties.
What Brothers achieves with this setup goes beyond just solid mechanics — although the game controls beautifully for the most part and would be a delight even stripped to the bare essentials. Everything the player does and experiences as the two boys make their way through this oddly familiar land full of giants, griffins and magical trees informs their characters, their relationship and the story Starbreeze is trying to tell. Not a single word of English is spoken in the game, and no written information is offered outside of some brief tutorial messages, but I found myself with a deeper understanding of the characters involved than any game in recent memory.
The older brother has to carry the younger through deep water, for example. This isn’t only because he’s bigger, it’s because we know the younger boy watched his mother drown in an accident and still holds onto the trauma. It’s also the younger brother’s interaction button we hold down here, while the older moves to shore. The player is invited to imagine themselves clinging to a family member for dear life, while also imagining being that secure anchor. When the duo discover some livestock can be ridden to the top of a nearby mountain it isn’t simply a convenient way to get to the next section of the video game, it’s a moment of levity and bonding amid some rather depressing events.
Brothers‘ environment is a character all on its own as well, while still feeling like an integral part of the main characters’ journey. The views are certainly beautiful and varied — quaint forests give way to misty cliffs and large stone structures, rivers run red with the blood of recent battles, caves are sprinkled with the telltale signs of industry — but they also speak to the details of the fantasy. Pretty lanterns floating down the river suggest ritualistic behaviour nearby; books covered with drawings of birds sit inside a tower, contrasting a nearby battlefield. Starbreeze have taken many of the familiar fantasy tropes and used them to their advantage, telling a wordless story with the aid of hundreds of years of well-trodden ground. It all comes together in a world I was completely captivated by, yet always made me feel slightly unsettled thanks to some stark depictions of horrible events and people. One section in particular gave me awful flashbacks to Narnia’s White Witch.
What really stands out when playing this game is a complete dedication to a cohesive experience. It does great service to the core concept of a game where you control two characters at the same time that each part of the whole works like a vital organ, an inseparable piece of the machine. Even the unlockable achievements — arguably the most perpendicular and immersion-breaking feature of modern gaming — have been expertly slotted into the concept and made to work for the developers’ vision. Of the 12 achievements on offer, none are unlocked through straightforward play. Instead, each one unlocks when the brothers wander off the beaten path and simply do something in the world. One appears when you sound a long-abandoned battle horn and are deafened by the silence of an absent responder; another comes from simply experimenting with a wind-powered musical instrument.
It’s difficult to properly convey the feeling I got from playing Brothers while also keeping the experience intact for future players. So often in this review I’ve bitten my tongue to avoid revealing something amazing the game showed me in its short stay, but I still feel like I’ve said too much as it is.
As someone who rates narrative rather highly on the grand list of important game components, Brothers feels like a magnificent distillation of what gaming itself means. The developers at Starbreeze have presented very powerful and intriguing ideas with their story, and have used the peculiar mechanic of simultaneous control to get it across. This is a game that could potentially be summarised in prose or on film, but there is such an amazing interplay between the actions of the player and the narrative that it would be lesser for the change. Brothers is a story that simply could not exist without the medium of video games, and it is a game that could not exist as it does without the story it tells. The standards have been raised.