Not running a gaming website has its perks. For one, I get to deal with a mythical monster all contemporary gamers know: my backlog. And that’s exactly what I started doing in 2020. Which brings me to Brothers: A Tale Of Two Sons.
The game came out 7 years and (technically, based on when I’m writing this) 2 generations of console hardware ago, so it’s not going to set any eyes on fire. But that’s fine. I kept hearing by friends and online acquaintances that it’s something special, noticed that the overall critical consensus was positive etc. But what really got me curious is that Brothers: A Tale Of Two Sons is the first game Josef Fares had ever worked on back then. Josef Fares is known as the colourful game creator that somehow has a great relationship with EA and an even greater relationship with f-bombs. Josef Fares is easy to warm up on in the age of the internet and I bet his Lebanese disposition also has something to do about it.
Interestingly, Josef Fares started out as a filmmaker. He managed to shoot five of them before trying his luck at games. The fact that Brothers was his first game is something of a personal triumph but also indicative of what it means to land in games with cinematic sensibilities in tow. I recommend watching the commented walkthrough video that comes packed with the game. Josef Fares is exactly the kind of narrator you imagined he’d be and provides information and insights that range from interesting to heartbreaking.
So, a filmmaker is a story teller, first and foremost. Naturally a filmmaker’s instinct is to use whatever tools a medium provides, maybe make a couple of new if possible, in service of the story that needs telling. Playing Brothers (I’ll call it Brothers going forward, just as Josef Fares would want me to). And that’s exactly what Josef Fares did.
A videogame’s defining characteristic is its interactivity. And Fares gets that so he leans on it accordingly. Which is why Brothers’ defining characteristic is its control system. The player controls both brothers at the same time. One analogue stick is reserved for each brother’s movement. Each brother has one action button; the trigger on the same side as the stick the player used to move him.
O brother, where art thou?
I’ve run across players but also critics that disliked this approach as it makes it easy for people to get confused at what controls who and when, with camera angles complicating things along the way. It’s true, I face similar issues myself while playing and ended up focusing on one brother while I was pushing the wrong stick and sending both in any direction but the one I had in mind. Examined in isolation, this is clearly frustrating. But is this a failure in design? I don’t think so. And I’ll venture to explain why.
In Brothers, the camera is slow. Slow to auto-adjust, slow when controlled manually. It has pretty clear purpose, to keep both brothers in the same frame. In fact the game doesn’t let the brothers get too far away from each other, going as far as to stop their movement if the distance between them goes beyond a certain limit. This reinforces the invisible brotherly bond while also keeping things manageable for such a simple camera system. Upping the complexity here would have been a nightmare for a new team and a rookie game designer. Josef Fares himself has said he wasn’t accustomed to the idea that parts of the game start out as a buggy mess and he thought the project was doomed before finally internalising game code that doesn’t function correctly isn’t as lost a cause as a messed up shot on film.
Camera, (little) action!
The team behind the game is obviously conscious on what all of the above should mean about the role action can play within the canvas it has to work with. One can’t really expect players to properly handle two different characters as they need to move in different directions, towards different parts of the frame. Which is why the game almost never rushes you. Many gamers are wired to shoot for the proverbial moon even when there’s no moon to shoot for, which translated in trying to be quick about doing what needs to be done within a game. In the case of Brothers, this approach only breeds frustration. But there is frustration and then there is frustration aka nominal and actual respectively.
Actual frustration would stem from a game that sabotages you as you’re genuinely trying to do what it expects of you. Nominal frustration is just some displeasure about something not working as you’d expect, before taking into account whether it’s working correctly or not for whatever it is it’s aiming for.
So whenever you catch yourself trying to control two characters at once in the game, just stop and move one after the other. Soon enough you’ll realise there’s no scenario in which this proves to be a disadvantage. Which means you’ll also realise it’s all been accounted for in design. Granted, there are some very light chase sequences and an awkward boat ride to content with but in those cases the camera moves even more conservatively, just enough to make the player feel some pressure but not really rely on his ability to accurately control two different characters located at different parts of the frame, with a single controller and no option for cooperative play. In other words, the design is well enough informed to try its best to keep that nominal frustration from turning into actual. All the while —of course— the game keeps drilling in that no progress is possible without getting the brothers to work together.
The joke (aka brace for spoilers)
I’ve come across some reviews (by “reviews” I mean Press reviews — always) that highlight the control system as the game’s low point, with it being demonstrably awkward and whatnot. I’ve also come across people that have played the game, loved it but wish the controls were better, meaning they too feel that’s a net negative for the game as a whole. Were those comments for almost any other game, I’d be inclined to agree. In the case of Brothers, I don’t. Nay. I simply can’t.
You see, the big brother dies. With him dies one side of the control. The corresponding analog stick and action buttons are left soulless, unable to control anything, unable to interact with anything. At that moment, controls become part of the narrative, highlighting, perhaps, how cinematic Fares’ sensibilities in terms of storytelling really are. It’s ironic in a way, as cinematic storytelling in games tends to be understood very differently, mostly as some structure that harkens back to cinematic tools, first and foremost, before defaulting back to or even in spite of gameplay. And yet, we’re still in the set-up.
Quite soon the player —as the mourning little brother— has no choice but to reach the dying father and give him the water of life his big brother died for. The trek back home is short but puts the little brother in front of a couple of simple platforming challenges (if they can even called that) that the player has been trained by then to know that overcoming them required the help of the now absent big brother. The little brother tries and fails. Until some distant and otherworldly voice pushes him to remember what he learnt from his big brother. At that point the trigger that was the big brother’s way to interact with the world comes back to life. It has to be held along with the little brother’s trigger for the young one to power through the few obstacles that remain. In those moments a controller trigger feels like a phantom limb, underlining both the loss of the brother and the triumph of brotherly love all at once. And that is the real punch.
Brothers, then, is no joke.