Brothers-A Tale of Two Sons: All in the family
Brothers-A Tale of Two Sons was critically acclaimed on release. The late Total Biscuit (John Bain, rest in peace) called it his all time favourite game. I cannot disagree with any of those claims. I can see that it is well deserved. There were some points that I seriously considered placing Brothers onto the Hall of Fame. However, I am not sure if I can in good faith. It’s not even because of the game, it has to do with me.
In some fairy tale kingdom two Brothers (the older named Naia and the younger named Naiee respectively), are struggling with the loss of their mother. This serves as the backdrop for their quest to save their sick father. Along the way they have to work together in reaching the magic tree, where the cure can be found. I will examine the two main aspects to the story telling that I believe make the story work.
A story without words: The two brothers
It is important to note that there is no spoken dialogue in the game. Audio indications of speech, are delivered in a Simlish like rendition of Lebanese Arabic. This means that all story has to be brought about through character actions and context. It is the little things that make Naia and Naiee’s relationship believable.
The way Naia hugs his little brother says so much. Or how he keeps Naiee away from possible danger, how he doesn’t hesitate to jump into rapids to save his brother. He loves his brother to the point he is willing to risk his life for him. To protect him from whatever is thrown their way.
He is also in stark contrast to Naiee. He is the mature, level headed member of the duo. Naiee is still a kid who cannot always do what is best in the situation. No more is this better demonstrated in the village. Naiee will pull pranks and generally behave like a child. Naia will ask questions, find out information. Naia needs help getting to the tree. But Naiee cannot be expected to find the tree’s location.
Naiee’s story is one of holding onto innocence in the face of tragedy. He is still struggling to progress through the death of his mother. (Whose drowning he was unable to prevent in the opening cut scene) Now he has to face the real possibility of losing his father as well. The trauma of loss is made clear by his fear of swimming. The unwillingness to go near water is so great that it paralyses him.
This is juxtaposed by his otherwise carefree nature. He struggles noticeably over the course of the game stay happy. But he also comes to terms with his mother’s death. Without uttering a single word. Starbreeze Studios is able to convey so much character.
A story without words: Theme
Loss is baked into every facet of Brother’s theming. Weather it is the coping of loss, the threat of loss or having to cope with the recent loss, it is arguably the main theme. Naiee’s struggle with loss forces him to mature and overcome his phobia of water when his brother dies. His journey starts with the loss of his mother and ends with the loss of his brother. He has to mature in order to prevent the loss of his father. The threat of loss spurs on the adventure, the main motivation for journeying to the tree.
Both Naia and Naiee are motivated on preventing loss. But they are ultimately unable to always do so. (Naia and Naiee could not save their mother. Naiee could not save his brother). The prevalence of loss sends the message to the player that sometimes you cannot avoid or prevent.
But one should never stop trying to prevent it. Loss of family might be traumatic and sometimes you feel utterly helpless. But there is always hope to delay it, loss will always hurt. It will change you and sometimes for the better. Naiee comes back home a more mature and reliable (if extremely traumatized) young man. Loss influences every action in the game.
Brothers is primarily a puzzle game. Perfectly linear in progression and at first glance rather unremarkable in puzzle design. None of the environmental puzzles (climbing up a wall, swinging on a rope) are new. None of the turn wheel puzzles or redirecting timed switch puzzles were new ideas. The unique selling point is with the two brothers. You have to control both of them simultaneously.
Working together: a tale of two struggles
As I have said before, the puzzles themselves are not new or partially hard in design. As a result, the challenge comes in trying to control two characters at the same time. .
Naia is taller then Naiee, meaning that he can reach objects that his brother otherwise cannot do, he is also stronger then Naiee, restricting certain interactions (levers, pulling his own brother from high branches etc). Naiee can squeeze into tight spaces, allowing him to enter places that Naia cannot.
Working together is quite satisfying and enjoyable, having Naia boost up his little brother onto a high place. Then guide Naia to another ledge in time switch is satisfying and fun. I love how Starbreeze continually build up on the basic mechanics. One particular example would be having to pretend to be statues to avoid some medusa like monster. Another would be a boss fight: you have to use Naiee to lure a monster into a trap. Timing the trap in such a way to make sure that Naiee does not die and that the floor falls at the right time.
Please note that this complaint is entirely from my own failures as a person. This will not really effect my opinion outside my reluctance to place Brothers on the hall of fame. My hand to eye coordination proved to be surprisingly...bad.
Just walking down a path proved to be extremely frustrating. My own failings to monitor both brothers resulted in me experiencing some extremely embarrassing deaths. I need to mention this as I suspect that this was not a game made for me. I realise that it is my experience and others have more fun. However I cannot ignore my own experience however. Brothers is an amazing game that is not for me.
The importance of brotherhood
There is a particular moment of gameplay in Brothers that stands out to me. This moment stands out as proto Undertale to me. It marries story and gameplay into a brilliantly emotional moment that, (in honesty) made me cry. At a climactic scene, Naiee finds himself at a large pool of water, in order to save his father he has to cross it. But with Naia dead and the trauma of his dead mother hanging over him, he cannot seem to cross.
However with the encouragement of his mother’s memory tries to. But it is only with the memory of his brother he is able to swim. Only by using Naia’s interact function can Naiee swim. Naiee’s love for family and his brother force him to overcome his hydrophobia.
Even after the death of his brother, he still needs him. He will never stop needing the support of his brother. Through the context of gameplay, Brothers imparts the emotion determination, and brotherhood. Naia will always be there for him, will always help him through his troubles. I cried then.
Art style and graphics:
The bright, cartoonish art style makes for what some might call graphical short comings. The use of colour and light create visuals that are extremely pleasant to look at, not to mention timeless. Unlike a number of ‘realistic’ looking games that will not age well (or haven’t aged well) I can say with confidence that Brothers will look just as good as it does now.
Minor frame rate drops and some crashes after minimising.
Brothers is a frustrating game to review. I know it is a great game. But because of my own short comings in coordination. I just don’t think I can place it in the Hall of Fame in good faith. My own experience was that of battling to move across the map. Brothers is an amazing experience but it is not for me.
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