How mechanics can enrich a story, foster relationships and underwrite an entire experience
PLEASE BE AWARE OF THE SPOILERZ WOT FEATURE HEAVILY IN THIS PIECE OF WRITING
My mum is, thankfully, still alive as of this writing. If she were to die I’d be terribly upset. She brought me up, fed me, clothed me, drove me places, steered me in the right direction, supported me, let me drink in the house as a teenager because I’d “do it anyway, so may as well do it safely”: she sorted me out basically. My dad did all these things too (‘cept the driving), but he doesn’t work as well within this situation, but he’s still a very upstanding chap. If my mum were to die it would be pretty horrible for me. You, however, wouldn’t really care. I don’t hold that against you, you simply don’t have any of the necessary context (see above) for it to concern you. Likewise, that’s why the one-two dead mother and a dying dad opening of Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons didn’t wash in my house of unflinching cynicism. By the end of the game, however, I was invested in the characters and their plight, to the point where I genuinely cared about where everyone ended up. That’s not to say that the writing resonated with me any more than it had when it went whizzing past my mark at the beginning, it just means that there were other bits of the game that filled the emotional-investiture deficit.
As a recap: Brothers begins with a Little Lad having a weep at his mother’s graveside. He remembers – in the form of a harrowing visible thought bubble (we, as the audience, need to know: it’s an important part of the story) – her drowning before him while he ineffectually attempted to save her. As if the guilt of being too physically slight to save a parent singlehandedly were contagious, no sooner has he stopped mourning his lack of a mother and personal usefulness, than his Dear Old Dad goes and keels over, struck the buggery down by illness. What, we ask, is a small and seemingly useless young lad to do when beset by these unfortunate turns of events? Feel lucky that he has an Older Brother and embark on a journey of self-discovery, growth and emotional redemption, that’s what! Lucky how these things turn out, innit? It’s as if the whole thing were planned out with the express intention of launching the player into full-on parable territory.
While I hope I sell the whole thing with a decent level of zip and woop, it’s actually really, really earnest, which I think is just asking far too much from an audience thirty seconds removed from their sandwich making or domesticated animal grooming duties. Making players care about your characters is highly recommended for a whole host or reasons (not least the one where video games get to be considered legit by more important groups of people), but killing off one and a half of them we know (care) nothing about in your opening minutes could be considered overstretching one’s narrative just a tad. Much like all the horrible rented houses I’ve inhabited over the years: if I’m not in the slightest bit invested in it then I’m not going to care when the bath overflows and brings down the kitchen ceiling.
As Dad lazes about, bathed in the fuzziness of impending death, Little Brother and Bigger Brother head out to salvage an organic, tree-derived McGuffin in hopes of wrestling their quickly contracting family unit from the jaws of Boo Hoo. You move both brothers at the same time, with each of them having their very own stick on your controller of choice (mine was the PS3 one ‘cos I got Brothers free with PS Plus (I’m poor, remember)). As you run the lads around you’ll likely bump them into stuff for a time – ‘cos it’s really, really difficult to concentrate on two things at once – until your hands and brain adjust to doing things in tandem. Once you’ve got the hang of this you’ll want to graduate up to interacting with stuff. This is done with the triggers: one for each of the bros. That’s it; all the buttons you get.
It’s this wonderfully simple control scheme which makes the brothers instantly rewarding to play with, and it’s what makes each new situation they get themselves into so physically breezy. You’re never at a loss to figure out how to do something (erm, move and/or press that single button, silly), so you can constantly concentrate on what it is you’re doing.
Early on we get to see just how terrified Little Brother is when it comes to water. When you run your boys into anything deep enough to necessitate swimming the Big Bro strides out like a noble sea stallion, while the Little ‘Un flounders about, his guilt weighing on him like a pair of the ol’ emotional cement galoshes. You’ve then got to swim Big over, make Little grab hold of him with his button (holding it down, not tapping it: tapping does nothing useful) and then steer the two of them with Big’s stick. This is one of the more basic maneuvers you’ll need to guide the fatality-magnet brothers around, though it nonetheless instills in you the knowledge that teamwork equals success and everything else leads to failure. Which is death. Failure always means death, so don’t let go of either of those buttons too soon.
The boys are almost constantly in need of one another. There are situations where Little has to slip through a fence or a small gap and guide Big with machines or the like. There are times when they’ll have to to-me-to-you all over a long, heavy object, comically bumping into stuff while their dad lays dying miles and miles away. Sometimes you’ll use one brother to distract an adversary while the other slips past. The best times, I reckon, are always when there’s only one way to go, so the brothers are forced to tackle a spot of climbing one after the other.
Nearing the end of a section set in a mine, the brothers must scale a wall and then shimmy over a precarious looking pipe suspended, as they always are these days, over a proper big pit. There’s not enough space for them to get up to this pipe together though, so you need to send them up one after the other, making sure they never get too separated, because Little gets the willies when he’s alone. I always let Big go first, as if he were showing the way to his less experienced sibling, but their order really doesn’t matter. The only differences between the brothers – except for the swimming, of course – is how they interact with the non-essentials in the world. Big, being more mature, uses objects as they were intended – as an adult would – while Little constantly attempts to have fun or make a joke: Big smells a flower, Little smashes the pot it’s standing in for the japes. So while there’s no physical difference in their abilities, the game makes it pretty clear that Big is markedly more emotionally developed than Little.
What transpires – once you’ve sorted out their climbing order – is a delicate and quite tense dance with death, as you momentarily let go of a brother’s action button to allow him to ascend to a new hold, and then clamp your finger back down on it to anchor him in place. Then you do the same for the other brother. And again for the first brother. And again for the second brother. And again – you let go of the wrong button and Little falls all the way to the bottom of the ostensibly bottomless pit. Like I say: you never have to worry about how to do something, but you might still cock it up as your brain gets itself into tangles and your hands cross over one too many times.
My favorite example of the boys having to move around one another is a bit where they need to scale a massive tower in the middle of a massiver chasm. They find a rope and tie themselves together, then jump onto a couple of handy-holds and start their ascent. At this point you’re clawing at the controller in a way reminiscent of the hairiest parts of Heavy Rain, shifting the boys in tandem with the two sticks whilst making sure you hold both of their buttons down as well, lest they slip and slide to their inevitable, crunchy dooms. Periodically you’ll come to an impasse and have to swing one of the boys around the other, momentarily letting go of a button that up until this point was only ever let go of accidentally. It’s horrifying at first, because you’ve seen firsthand what happens when you get your wires crossed and let go of the wrong brother. Once you get the hang of it though you’re flying; whipping one brother up the wall after the other, ascending this huge structure like a pair of Disney Tarzans, all slippy-slidy grace-and-control-constantly-on-the-verge-of-near-pummelment. It’s truly breathtaking and wonderful to watch and control.
What’s really important to remember here though, whether you’re shimmying, flinging, jumping or playing chicken-ing, is that there’s a tangible weight to the brothers’ movement derived directly from their simple control scheme. The interact button is essentially an on/off switch that molds to any situation, but it’s a switch that much prefers to be off rather than on. Having to hold the button down lends the game’s traversal a tension not often seen in its contemporaries, despite the comparative simplicity of its interactions and environments. Here, even the mundane basics of video game traversal – shimmying and climbing – are given added levels of dread by virtue of them needing constant player input. The game demands something from you at all times, avoiding the type of passive, biscuit/soup/ice pop-eating-while-I-play levels of participation demanded by many of Brothers’ contemporaries.
Take Uncharted 3, for instance. I was playing that a while ago and remember it containing lots of climbing and jumping. You can climb up brick walls, cliffs, wrecked boats, ladders, stone walls, successions of air conditioning units, plaster walls and – I reckon – even a pebble-dash wall at one point. While you’re climbing up this menagerie of surfaces shit is popping off constantly. That’s to the point where I don’t remember climbing any surface without something falling off said surface, something falling down said surface towards me or me almost but not quite falling off said surface all together. It all got a bit much after a while, but it’s understandable why all these things have been implemented; after all, the act of actually climbing things in Uncharted is so user friendly it requires almost no player input at all. Nathan Drake, the man of the hour in all of the games, climbs with a push of the analogue stick and jumps with the press of a button – very much like Brothers, as it happens – however, he’ll hang on his handy-hold indefinitely, pretty much removing any and all traversal-based danger. Yes, there may be baddies shooting at him, but these are dispatched in very much a shooting gallery fashion, with Drake hanging as effortlessly as if he were standing behind a desk, wearing big ear protectors and smoking a succession of tasty Marlboro Reds. Having stuff falling off everywhere simply creates the illusion of added danger, when in actual fact there’s no way Drake can fall off because the game wasn’t designed to allow him to do so.
At this point it’s probably worth looking at just why Brothers might control in such a grain-defying way, eschewing the ‘ease of input’ ideologies propagated by games such as Assassins Creed, InFamous, Prototype and the aforementioned Uncharted. (Yah, they’re all games that seek to combine combat and traversal to differing concentrations, but they all stick their traversal mechanics front and centre, pegging them as at least the equal of cousin combat and able to carry sections of the experience alone.)
Eric Swain said, once upon a time, that Brothers’ beautifully sweeping, mise-en-scène focused camera was clearly designed by an individual with a film background. He was right, of course, and I think this form of visible artistic heritage can be seen to permeate other aspects of the game, especially where the movement of its characters is concerned.
Brothers’ developer, Starbreeze Studios, have a reputation ‘round my way for making protagonists that don’t really control like everyone else’s. Most famously, there’s Jackie Estacado, the bloke from The Darkness, who’s the most solidly made first person shooter I’ve ever inhabited in a game. You know how most of the time it just feels like you’re playing as a floating gun, regardless of whether you can see any arms or legs jiggling about? Well Our Jackie controls as if you are him, or at least as if he’s had a camera jammed into the part of his face where one’s nose/top lip would normally be situated and you’re running him around with a controller.
There’s a lovely little bob when he goes down to crouch, you know, like when you go down to crouch and misjudge its depth, momentarily ducking a bit too far, then coming up just a smidge to where you really wanted to be all along. When he starts running or changes direction there’s this short delay before he gets to full speed, giving the impression that he’s actually full of something and adheres to gravity and physics and stuff. His arms – oh his arms! His arms are the greatest arms ever seen in a video game and still stand unsurpassed, even by the game’s entertaining but nonetheless inferior sequel. Basically, right, whenever Jackie gets close to something, his arms, right, react to being close to something. So, right, imagine he’s just done a little bob crouch behind a dustbin and is now hiding with it to his right-hand side, right. Instead of keeping his arms out straight like other video game characters (at the time) would, thus creating a void of about a foot or so between him and the bin, he, get this, bends his arm, which allows him to get in close, creating a much more realistic lurking/cowering scenario. And his arms do this all over the game, not just when they encounter refuse receptacles! If you really want a show, I’d advise you to walk straight into a wall. This always, always, prompts Jackie to raise both of his arms up in front of him, so that the slides of his guns face toward one another and you/he get a good look at some ‘sick’ weapon textures.
Finally for Jackie, as if he weren’t happy enough having the most awareness-invoking body in all of The Video Game History, there’s his hair. In a game filled with bald men (I’d assume it’s a masculinity thing, it is about the mob after all), Jackie Estacado really has a generous few fistfuls of luxurious, silky, jet-black hair on his head. Strangely though, for an owner of long hair, there’s not a bobble in sight around either of his spatially dextrous wrists. Stranger still though: that isn’t because he’s using it to tie his fucking hair up throughout his shooty-the-bad-men revenge opus. No, it swings around like a normally repressed office worker’s tie at an annual get-together, flicking up into everyone’s (my) face, while Jackie is seemingly impervious to its distracting qualities. As annoying as it is, Christ does it act as a delightful cherry atop Jackie’s wibbly-wobbly, bobby-ducky, army-warmy, bendy-wally, slowy-turny, speedy-getty, beautiful-to-the-point-of-it-being-irreplicable physicality. He’s an all-round pleasure to be inside of, and I defy you to name a better FPS-er when it comes to the comingling of limbs, hair and crouching. LHC, represent (!).
Starbreeze did them Chronicles of Riddick games as well, didn’t they? They were a bit funny, especially in the way you shifted ol’ Vincent (surname, not Christian) about the place; not at all like Jackie, who feels like he looks: all lanky and a bit awkward as he’s high-fiving walls and being a bit of a lovable tit because he’s somewhat unsure of himself and his newly inherited demonism. Vin, on the other hand, is built like a brick shit house and controls just the same. His crouches have tremendous weight behind them, clearly derived from the man’s impressively muscular thighs, making it feel as if Our Diese is Cossack Dancing every time he stoops down for a skulk. It’s not that he’s unwieldy; he just moves as you’d assume he would in real life. Jackie kind of feels like he’s tiptoeing about – which is perfect for his slight build – whereas Riddick moves with the assured heft of an actor primarily paid for his ability to remain in fantastic shape – and before you say anything: there’s no shame in that whatsoever.
This weight imbues Riddick’s every move with a marked sense of intention, heart even. There’s a deliberate nature to the actions he can perform: the takedowns; fisticuffs; hand-over-handing his way across a ledge, powered by those lovely biceps; even his default walk has a degree of purposeful swagger to it. Everything is all very specific, so while I’m not privy to what it feels like to genuinely be Vin Diesel, I get the impression – though this consistency of specificity – that each movement is modeled pretty accurately after the man himself.
Now I’ve managed to (finally) coax Riddick into play, let us get right into the meat of the issue. As Brothers continues, the unique physicality of its characters – just like those of previous Starbreeze games (see above) – creates a wonderful connection between the player and their kindred charges. If the boys were to interact with their perilous peregrination in a way similar to Nathanial Drake or Ezio Auditore da Firenze – i.e. effortlessly gracefully, yet entirely effortlessly – there’d be little room for their physical experiences to foster this engenderment. It would be left up to the writing to tell me why I should become increasingly connected to their plight, which – as I said a few hours ago – would be difficult for Brothers to pull off, seeing as its writing is a bit lacking, at least up front.
Like Jackie and Riddick, the brothers control in a way that feels just right when accompany their stature and age. While Jackie moves with the breathlessness of youth, and Riddick with the considered power of a learned pugilist, the brothers – both Little and Big – control with the endearing smatterings of shakiness and uncertainty you’d expect from a pair of adolescents. Apart from the opening bit in the town, most of the game feels like the lads are constantly Fell Running, as if there’s a reckless momentum to their every step that’s ready to trip them up at will. It’s a bit like that instant you bump into someone in an Assassins Creed game – but all the time; an almost indescribable combination of being drunk and the camera work of Crank, plus one of those inflatable ‘boppers’ of Stone Cold Steve Austin, the ones that almost fall over when they get punched, but always get back up because of their low centre of gravity.
Their jumping and climbing is similar, and feels like they’re trying really, really hard to reach the next handy-hold, as if they could miss it at any point and slip, possibly careening to their untimely deaths. They could actually do this, of course, because of the active-nature of the control scheme and the demands it places on the player’s physical and emotional attention. So while other games are forced to throw a load of shit at their characters while they climb up walls impervious to it all anyway, Brothers manages to create palpable tension on even the simplest ascent through constantly upholding a credible level of danger. This, as we’ve seen, influences everything about the characters; the way they move, the way the player is compelled to move them and, most importantly, the way the player feels about them. For it is their constant vulnerability which nurtures the steadily intensifying relationship between them and the player, not the high stakes the story needs – certainly wants – you to care about.
As the adventure comes to its end, tragedy strikes. Big meets a young girl who turns out to be a spider and he goes and falls in love with her – just before it turns out that she’s a spider. Little, being young and not into all that icky romance stuff, makes it quite clear that he doesn’t approve and just wants to keep on bowling it with his bro, but Big’s only able to think with his willy by this point so chases the personified fanny into a fucking cave. Once it’s clear that she is what she is, a spider, there’s this boss battle which I enjoyed quite a lot. Little gets himself stuck in a perfectly spherical ball of web, while Big is out in the open fighting his lost love with his bare fists. He’s furious to find out that his chosen partner is actually a big bloody spider, so he sets about beating her up as a punishment for disrupting his brotherly bonding and making him get a stiffy that he’s now very embarrassed about. She’s a big bloody spider, though, so of course it’s all really down to Little, who rolls about in his webbing until he can knock his arachnid adversary on the bonce, giving Big enough time to get in there and twat her one for her troubles. And by that I mean rip her fucking legs off. You repeat this process for most of her other legs, until it’s pretty apparent that – especially being an eight-legged individual – she’s almost certainly buggered, destined to hop about for the rest of her days.
BUT OH NOES.
Big isn’t happy with simply leaving her as a cripple, despite his large part in getting involved in the affair making his position less than proper sympathetic. Instead the hot headed, seamen-for-blooded youth goes in to rip off her final leg, making it clear that he’d do the same to any other prospective sexual partner with the temerity to not be a hetronormative female. His rash – and quite frankly a bit bigoted – actions lead to horrible consequences: he pulls her last leg off at a funny angle and impales himself thro the chest, consigning both of their lives to the romantic pit of sexually-fuelled murder/suicide we all quietly suspect we’ll find ourselves in at our own close of play.
This battle further dispels, as their little tiff did earlier, the notion that there is still a hierarchy of physical/emotional maturity between the siblings and that Little is always deferent to his older brother. This clearly isn’t the case by the Final Battle, with Little taking both the more physically active and the more emotionally robust routes within the sordid slobber knocker. It’s still in the context of the brothers as a team, but he’s nonetheless occupying a visibly more assertive role in the partnership, where previously he would have opened, distracted and dodged.
Once Big is dead, this feeling of Little coming into his own is further solidified through a couple of key happenings. Firstly, there’s the burial, which sees you somberly and reverently taking Big’s body, placing it in a grave and then burying him. This is all done in a very slow and measured way, with you having to painfully/numbingly hold Little’s action button down for what seems like an age, as to highlight the emotional weight of the situation. What really did it for me, though, was trying to ding Big’s stick or button only for nothing to happen. I mean, yeah, of course nothing will happen: the lad’s dead, but it is still a pretty big shock; something which really hammers home how alone Little is at this point and how engrained their relationship was in the fabric of the game.
Finally there’s the big moment. Little is conveniently transported back to the beginning of his journey, to within a few hundred metres of his sickly father. He tackles a couple of little jumps, a bit of lovely tumbly-running, some determined traversal, all while it’s raining heavily out of an evil lightening-ing sky. He gets to a chunk of water blocking his path; it’s as ominous as the heavens and being buffeted by coughs of wind into a dangerous looking broth. There’s nowhere to go so I wade him in, hoping that he’s got enough about him after all he’s been through to swim it alone.
He begins floundering: coughing and spluttering as I frantically bash on his action button to make him sidestep death’s soggy grasp.
He’s having none of it.
Out of desperation I hammer down on Big’s button, hoping that somewhere, someone thought it would provide a touching conclusion to Little’s growth and story arc if he had gained new strength from his brother’s memory and that that was manifested through the spontaneous reawakening of Big’s button.
I wasn’t alone in my thinking.
Little swims to safety and saves his dad. And that’s it really. It’s a truly beautiful moment of narrative and mechanical convergence, where a complex potion of emotions has its ingredients listed with the press of a single button, not some overly-long ham-fisted flourish. (Like that sentence, kinduv.)
The ending is the wonderful culmination of Brothers’ mechanics-cum-emotional signifiers, as the game shows its players the true extent of its control scheme’s importance. What could be viewed initially as a gimmick is instead revealed to be integral not only to the playing of the game, but also our full understanding and enjoyment of its narrative. Past this, the simplicity of its input belies a system which demands the player’s physical investiture, in turn transforming this into a strong emotional connection towards the brothers. Through the combination of this unique mode of input and the believable nature of the resulting actions from the characters, we unwittingly become entwined with the brothers’ journey, despite its emotionally abrupt origins. I won’t argue that the writing is bad, because it does simply and effectively build the stakes up around the boys, weaving tragedy into this coming of age story as all good fairytales do. What I will say, however, is that without the deft character mechanics backing it up, the story would be less rewarding and its bittersweet payoff heavily compromised. As it stands, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is a remarkably affecting game, one which starts abruptly, with a hollow, emotionally unearned tragedy and ends, thanks to the fantastic mechanics underpinning its picture-book plot, in triumph for all involved.
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