Genre: Adventure
Year: 2013
Developed by: Starbreeze Studios
Published by: 505 Games
Platforms: XBOX 360, PC, PS3, PS4, Switch, XBOX ONE, Amazon Luna (what the hell is Amazon Luna?)
Feeling Like: A tale worth telling

Tying gameplay directly to story is one of the most difficult things a video game can do.

Games like the Uncharted series star a charming rogue and a cast of characters that are gung-ho about adventure, treasure and quips. All the while killing hundreds of enemies with guns and melee attacks. It didn’t diminish my enjoyment, but there is a dissonance there. Nathan Drake probably needs therapy at this point, not a pile of gold.

Games like Hades, Pyre, both Portal games, Journey and Spec Ops: The Line are a few examples off the top of my head I can think of that brilliantly exhibit this. The lack of it doesn’t hurt, but presence of it greatly elevates my enjoyment.

I try not to outright spoil games I discuss on the 500 but to discuss Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons without them is impossible, or at least I can’t explain why Brothers is so high up on the 500 without them. So fair warning, I’m about the spoil the entire game.

After reviewing my old notes and refreshing myself on the gameplay, I am saddened to report that Brothers is way too low on the 500. Should be in the top 100, easily. I made a mistake. I suppose the fleeting, short experience was outweighed by many other games simply because of recency bias, or multiplayer shenanigans. Brothers is a fantastic game, it never overstays its welcome, the puzzles are satisfying, the core mechanic is innovative and it contains one of the all-time great gaming moments. As much as I forgot the setting, or even the premise of trying to find a cure for your father’s disease, I will never, ever forget that.

It’s described as a single player cooperative experience because you control two brothers at the same time, each one tied directly to a joystick on the controller. I have no idea how you’d play this with a keyboard and mouse because it’s clearly designed outright to be played with a controller. The pivotal moment relies on it, so don’t be persuaded to go off-book here.

I immediately loved the look. It has a fairy tale feel to it, with vibrant colors and exaggerated features though not to the point of it being unappealing. It also contains no English dialogue, everybody speaks in gibberish which is a trope I really enjoy. You can always tell what people/creatures are saying thanks to gestures and body language anyway. Less is more.

The game does a terrific job varying up the puzzles and mechanics and I was never lost or confused thanks to the camera, clear direction and the overall design. I always know I have a brother and there’s going to be some trick to each area where the older brother may have to distract a dog while the younger brother speeds across a farm. Or something to do with pulleys, or carrying something or jumping at the same time. Rote video game material, but it’s done so well that I didn’t mind at all.

Controlling two characters at once isn’t easy and goes against your natural instincts, but I promise you it’s worth it. Once you get beyond the initial “pat your head while rubbing your belly” challenge, you’ll feel completely at ease and each subsequent puzzle feels exciting because you almost immediately know what to do, yet because of the game’s unique mechanic, it feels fresh and exciting.

Now comes the coup de grace, the culmination of the entire game’s experience. My overall enjoyment skyrocketed as a result of this and it’s why I recommend you play this game the entire way through. If you’re at all keen on giving it a try, leave now and come back only after you’ve seen the end credits.

After you confront the final boss, the older brother is killed. I was shaken and surprised by how emotionally impactful it was. Not only did I empathize with the little brother’s loss, but immediately after you regain control, you start moving the left joystick, since that is always the one that’s mapped to control in every other video game. There’s only one of you now, so that should work, right?

Not here.

I moved the left joystick and…nothing. No movement. There was no older brother to control. So, I used the right joystick. Ah, there we go. Movement.

It’s such a simple, yet brilliant design choice. It felt off using the right joystick to control my lone brother because a) I was used to using both joysticks, so that was jarring and b) every video game I’ve ever played uses the left joystick.

Brothers doesn’t let you off easy. You’re not just moving by yourself, you have to drag your older brother’s corpse into the grave you dug, with the little brother sobbing the entire time. Brutal.

Your gryphon buddy eventually flies you home, and the game still doesn’t let you off the hook. You come upon some water to cross, but the little brother is terrified of the water. He initially won’t budge.

Until you activate the left joystick. You hear your brother’s voice urging you on, or I assume he’s urging you on since you can’t understand exactly what they’re saying, but the little brother gets enough bravery to swim across the passage.

It’s so difficult to describe how incredible this moment is in writing, you really do have to feel it. It highlights what makes video games a unique medium – it’s interactive. You’re not watching the story, you’re playing the story. In this case, you are the story. Because the game has forced you to get used to using the two joysticks it makes taking one away feel strange and alienating, then heartwarming when you have to use it again to help the little brother cross the water.

There are a few more puzzles that won’t work if you just use the one joystick. Something the little brother couldn’t have done on his own he now can – but only at the spiritual behest and encouragement of his recently deceased big brother. It’s a powerful, earned moment and belongs right up there with the best use of tying mechanics to story I’ve ever seen.

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons won’t be for everybody. Its pacing is slow and there’s not a ton of thrilling set pieces or amazing action sequences. It can be janky at times, with the brothers snapping into place when the game wants you to stand in a particular spot to figure out a solution.

Minor complaints. It still looks incredible 10 years later. There’s no fat on the game, each area is lush and detailed. You get to interact with the people and animals of the world in creative, fun ways. The storytelling is minimalist, but perfectly done. There’s no exposition dumps, or swaths of cut-scenes that take control away from you. You understand everything that’s going on and what is at stake.

Most importantly, Starbreeze found a way to tell a story through a video game’s mechanics resulting in that phenomenal double gut punch in the final twenty minutes. It truly is unforgettable just for that, but the rest is great too. I won’t play it again, there isn’t much replay value here, but there is plenty of value to be found in a game that costs $15 and eclipses most AAA budget games in terms of emotional impact, creativity and design.


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