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Novelty, Oh Novelty: On Starbreeze Studios’ Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons

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Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is refreshing to play because it is absent of many well-worn video-game tropes: enemy hordes, collectible items, upgradable gear, skill trees, magic powers. It is absent of these tropes because it was not directed by a traditional game designer, but by the Swedish film director Josef Fares. As a self-described, ‘hardcore’ gamer that plays ‘every game’, Fares jumped at the opportunity to design a game when a Swedish university invited him to participate in a prototype development program with some students. During the program, Fares’ developed the idea that eventually became Brothers, and after shopping it around, he began working with Starbreeze studios full-time as the project’s creative director. When Brothers was publicly announced in the fall of 2012, I was astounded by the novelty of its mechanics. When I finally played it after its release at the end of the summer of 2013, I was stunned by what Starbreeze and Fares had accomplished with that novelty.

The story of Brothers is about two brothers’ quest to retrieve a cure for their dying father. Brothers, as a whole, is about two brothers’ adventure, how that adventure bonds the brothers together, and how parts of each are reflected in the other even after that bond is broken. The story itself of Brothers is not what is significant about the game, and, wisely, it is not emphasized. The story is minimally conveyed though character gestures and gibberish. The characters don’t even have names; in fact, there is no text or speech in the game at all.

I cannot bear holding it back any longer (Not very long at all!) so I will get straight to the point: Brothers is a truly unique video game because, while playing it, you control two characters at the same time! When I learned of this mechanic with the game’s announcement, I could barely believe that it had never been done before, just as all revelations of genius seem to impact us. It was so simple and elegant and immediately entertained imaginations of its implementation. I immediately decided I was going to play this game no matter how its bold idea was executed or how it was reviewed.

At first, this dual-avatar mechanic is appreciable for its sheer novelty; after so many third-person adventure games, controlling an additional avatar is a welcome alteration to the formula. With Big Brother on the left stick and Little Brother on the right stick (Modern game-console controllers have two raised, spring-loaded, circular pedestals called ‘joysticks’ that can be independently rocked with each thumb to point in any direction around a circular casing and return to center position when not engaged, which are most often used to facilitate player movement through and perspective of virtual, three-dimensional spaces, and which I am just now realizing, in the act of describing them, just how absurd they really are, as far as real-life objects go.)—even to a seasoned console-controller user—moving both brothers through the world simultaneously in a way that does not make them appear to be raving alcoholics is a bit like that rub-your-belly, pat-your-head game—it requires a small amount of constant focus, but inevitably, you will eventually relax your concentration and quickly turn two young boys into drunks for a short time. However, Starbreeze smartly designed most of the world to be basically hazard free, and navigation through the areas that are not is eased by intelligently programmed avatar behavior and restrictions, so realizing your error in control is comical rather than frustrating.

Plus, it’s hard to get frustrated with a world that is so aesthetically playful. The majesty and vibrancy of the fantastical worlds that Starbreeze has created forBrothers is staggering. However, you spend a majority of the game staring down at the brothers from above with a somewhat limited view of the gorgeous world. To remedy this necessary evil, Starbreeze placed benches throughout the game before particularly eye-catching vistas that, when you sit the brothers down on them for a well-deserved rest from their stressful journey, trigger a repositioning of the perspective of the world that allows the scale and presence of distinctive features to be taken in peacefully. It’s nice.

The brothers’ journey takes them through village, mine, graveyard, cliff, canyon, battlefield, temple, lake, mountain, cave, and grove; there and back again. Along the way, their path is consistently obstructed by puzzling contraptions and environmental elements that they must solve, open, move, trick, or destroy before continuing. These puzzles take many different forms because they are so expertly integrated into each of the varied, lively environments. One particularly memorable sequence requires the brothers to traverse a still battlefield, the dead bodies of literal giants scattered as obstructions, each requiring a more clever shifting from their place of rest than the one before. The puzzles are extremely well-rounded, constantly new, and the action of solving them is simple to perform: refining Fares’ brilliant, dual-avatar control idea, Starbreeze simplified all interaction between a brother and any actionable object to be contextually controlled by one button—Big Brother with the left trigger and Little Brother with the right trigger. (Controllers also have buttons called ‘triggers’ located on their tops that are actuated with the index finger, as opposed to ‘face buttons’ that are pressed with the thumb.) In this way, your left hand becomes Big Brother, your right hand—Little Brother.

Considering it’s dual-avatar control, exciting, breathtaking environments, engaging puzzle-solving, and minimalistic storytelling, the novelty of Brothersnever seems to end. And it doesn’t, but probably not in the way you imagine. You see, there comes a moment near the end of Brothers that you don’t want to be novel. You want more of the same. You would prefer the brothers tag-team puzzle-solve their hearts out all the way back home to sick dad with the magical cure strapped to their belts. But Fares refuses to give you more of the same. He doesn’t simply end it; that wouldn’t be affecting. He forces you to play the opposite of more of the same. At first it seems cruel and unusual and, yes, novel. But then you pull a trigger, and you finally understand.


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