Brothers: A Tale Of Two Sons

He Ain’t Heavy

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is a thoughtfully crafted simulation of kinship.

By Joe Keiser • August 7, 2013

Somewhere around the middle of Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, the game’s young lead chracter, having just narrowly escaped death, starts to hallucinate. We are shown the twilight of his mind and the things that loom large in it, like his father’s precarious health. The most striking thing that lives in his psyche is his impression of his older brother—what he thinks his older brother feels about him. It’s striking not just because you know he is wrong, but also because the game tells you just how wrong the younger boy is.

Brothers is a game about, well, brothers and their quest to find a cure for their dying father. It’s a tale of brotherhood, a mostly unspoken relationship between two boys who grow up together as both rivals and kin. Unlike many of its emotional contemporaries, Brothers does not take a beloved old game design formula and graft it to some deep emotional core in the hope that somehow one will bolster the other. It very well could have been Super Mario Bros. but with some symbolism and cinema scenes about emotional baggage crammed in.

Brothers: A Tale Of Two Sons

Instead, Brothers finds its own play style to describe the relationship between the two boys. The player controls them both at the same time, one on each hand, using a single joystick and button per brother. It’s novel and more than a little strange. I never quite got used to it, but the occasional bout of brain hemisphere confusion is more than balanced by the feeling of empathy for two characters at the same time the weird control scheme fosters.

This is a fairy tale quest full of puzzles, and while the brothers must solve everything together, they do not necessarily work as equals on each puzzle. There are times when the younger boy cannot do anything—he is too small or too weak. In those moments, I felt the drive of the older brother, who needs to be strong enough for both of them, but the guilt of the younger’s helplessness was still on my mind. Other times, the game will pull your focus the other way, when the older brother is too big or too slow to move forward. And so you it shows you the exhilaration of a little boy eager to prove himself—with the hint of a big brother’s concern. Then, the game balances out, and both brothers are in synchrony. At these moments, you’re reminded, from both siblings, that they were born a team.

Brothers: A Tale Of Two Sons

The game’s quiet moments give a better sense of each boy as an individual, as they react differently to objects in their path. Walking the older brother to certain flowers means he will stop and smell them; walk the younger brother over, and he’ll swipe the flower and break the pot. And there are plenty of things to interact with in their nuanced, softly lit world. Much of their journey takes the brothers through a variety of landscapes, all scarred by some unknown, recent atrocity, such as a town that’s empty save for snowmen, their bodies contorted in fear.

For all its profundity, it still rides a saccharine edge. It’s full of eye-rollable moments of heartfelt candor, and if you think the premise sounds cloying and the characters archetypal, you’re not wrong. Still, there’s a resonant story beneath the schmaltz, and it’s gracefully executed.

When I was a small boy and my brother was no bigger than a bag of Carolina rice, I saved him from a second-story window ledge he had managed to climb out to. He shouldn’t remember this, but I won’t let him forget. I tell him he’s never done anything like that for me and could never repay me. Of course, I’ll never tell him that in fact he has, and that he doesn’t have to. Brothers is the second part of that sentiment, rendered in joysticks and triggers.

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons
Developer: Starbreeze Studios
Publisher: 505 Games
Platforms: Xbox 360 (Available now); PC, PlayStation 3 (Announced)
Reviewed on: Xbox 360
Price: $15
Rating: T

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34 Responses to “He Ain’t Heavy”

  1. SamPlays says:

    I guess everyone’s busy discussing sexism over at the Dragon’s Crown review. Tough break, Joe! But based on your description, it makes me wish Ico had used this collaborative dynamic between the characters rather than having a boy drag a girl to safety.

    • Joe Keiser says:

      While I wouldn’t want to change anything about ICO, you’re correct that the relationship at the core of Brothers is better realized and more affecting because it’s multi-faceted. 

      I am looking forward to the bar side discussions comparing Brothers and ICO! That’s the kind of high-minded rhetoric that can only end in bloodshed.

      • SamPlays says:

        In my humble opinion, Ico is a bit overrated. It was a great game but it feels quaint in retrospect. So begins the bloodshed…

        • PaganPoet says:

          I’d have to agree, having just played it for the first time. I can see how it may have been stunning at the time of its release, but I found its cameras frustrating, controls wonky, puzzles obvious and game play lacking. Exploring a giant abandoned castle and finding out how to use the environment to progress? Awesome. Literally having to drag your companion around by the hand as well? Not so much.

          Shadow of the Colossus, which I’m currently playing for the first time, is a vast improvement and still holds up very, very well. I just wished controlling the damn horse was easier.

        • George_Liquor says:

          Oh, I’d change something about Ico. I’d give Yorda some kind of damned flight instinct! Hey kid, how’s about moving away from the nasty monsters instead of standing in one spot & shrieking like a dental drill as you wait for them to drag you to Hell?

      • Joe and I sat in a bar on Saturday night talking about Brothers and asking over and over again, “Is it better than ICO? Can you say it’s better than ICO? It seems like it’s better than ICO!”

        They’re different beasts ultimately. ICO is about escaping a place to survive, while Brothers is about travel. As a story about the relationship between two people and as a game about interacting with two people, Brothers easily wins out, though.

        Such a good game.

    • Marozeph says:

      I must admit that this game completely flew under my radar so far, but most reviews make it sound like something i would really enjoy (i have to wait for the PS3-Version though).

      As for the comparision with ICO – i think the “girl gets dragged around”-mechanic made sense, story- and gameplaywise. Yorda was apparently locked up in the castle her whole life, so it was understandable that she would be afraid of everything outside. And it probably would’ve lowered the tension of the monster attacks if she had been able to defend herself / run away.

      • PaganPoet says:

        My complaint about Ico is that even someone who is completely weak and afraid will have enough sense to run away from something that is pursuing them.

        I don’t feel completely angry at the game, though, as once the Queen is dead and her power over Yorda is broken, she is shown to be more powerful than you could imagine and ends up saving the boy’s life. It’s a shame we couldn’t have seen glimpses of that part of her before the end of the game, but oh well.

      • SamPlays says:

        I guess I’m still thinking about the video that Fluka posted earlier this week. As far as decisions go regarding story and gameplay, why is Yorda female? Why is she helpless? Why is Ico male? Why does increasing tension mean putting a woman in peril? The mechanic is fine but the gender roles on display make the game a wee bit sexist. I’m sure Yorda can pick up a stick and shoo away those smoke monsters.

        • Marozeph says:

          Yeah, i see your point, it’s not completely defensible – especially considering that the bad guy is also a woman. They were probably going for a classic fairytale scenario (valiant knight, damsel in distress, evil queen) but the result does indeed feel somewhat misogynistic.

        • Girard says:

          Ico’s definitely one of those games that stands as a reminder that just because you think something is great doesn’t mean there’s nothing problematic about it (or that acknowledging something is problematic means you don’t enjoy it for what it does right).

          Ico’s tonally and aesthetically a wonderful game, and the fact that it has a button dedicated to holding another person’s hand is pretty awesome. But the gender representation in the game is cliched and very problematic.

          Likewise, the gender roles in SotC are tired old ‘boy hero adventures to wake the sleeping princess’ ones that have been in games for ages, too (that starting temple is basically the starting temple from Zelda II…). It’s not really better on that front. I was pretty excited when the mis-Anglicized title “Wanda and the Colossus” was being reported, and a little disappointed to see I was just another dude with a sword in that game.

          Both are still totally lovely games, though.

        • thestage says:

          plugplugplug  I have a piece going up on in a few days about Bioshock Infinite that has a lengthy bit on Yorda and why her role isn’t nearly as clear-cut as it looks.  please read it ok /plugplugplug

    • Ack_Ack says:

      I haven’t played Ico before, but I’ve watched a few gameplay videos of Brothers, and I’m intrigued so far.  Based on Joe’s review, I might have to pick it up (and delay my inevitable destruction in Xcom). 
      Graphically, the game has a nice, lush look to it, and I like the idea of controlling two characters at once.  And, since I’m both a little brother and a big brother, I’m sure I’ll be able to relate to the story. 
      This and Flashback are the only two Summer of Arcade games that I’m interested in this year – the rest look pretty blurgh.

    • CrabNaga says:

      Well Yorda (the girl) was instrumental as well, because she had the magic electricity power needed to open doors and activate other machinery. So while you’re leading her around by hand, pulling her up from ledges, beating up shadows that are chasing her, dragging her out of the abyss, and shouting at her from across a room, she is still the only person that is able to help you escape. 

      From a character quirk perspective, Yorda also reacted to the environment around her. I recall that she would often chase after birds, congregate around the prettier areas if left unattended, and react accordingly to your actions (such as shaking her head when you call for her to jump across a just-too-wide gap, or resisting slightly (manifested as controller rumble and a different animation) if you were pulling her along too quickly). 

  2. DrFlimFlam says:

    Brotherhood is such a complicated relationship. It’s such a weird mix of fraternity and competition and spite and solidarity. I like seeing a game try to tackle the dynamic, even if it’s a bit on the nose with the entire conceit.

  3. duwease says:

    I don’t really have a great place to put this, but John Carmack just got named CTO of Oculus Rift, which seems like a *huge* jump towards legitimacy to me:

  4. PaganPoet says:

    Heh, what a great last paragraph, Joe. 

    I’ve got a pretty strained relationship with my own older brother, which is a shame. My older sister was my tormentor at home, but when it was important she stepped up and became my protector when I was small. To this day, as I’m approaching 30 years old, she’ll come to my defense if some of my awful extended family starts to talk about me when I’m not around.

    I’ll have to check this out.

    • stuartsaysstop says:

      My older (and only) brother is currently either an addict or a recently recovered addict (I tend to think it’s the former), draining the finances of my near-retirement age parents so he can pay mysterious “bills” that in my mind can only be indicative of a continuing drug problem. I haven’t talked to him in almost two years, and my general attitude toward him is “fuck you”, so I’d be interested to see what kind of emotions this game brings forth. Looks like I gotta wait for the PS3 version though.

  5. Spacemonkey Mafia says:

    What a fantastic review.

       It’s a little disheartening to read that the game slips into too-obvious melodramatic character moments.  Reading everything up to that point makes it seem the game has enough faith to show and not tell.
       Game tech and game designer experience may only recently be at the level of sophistication where a game’s narrative doesn’t have to be telegraphed with the broadest motions, but it may be a while yet before the necessary confidence is there.  

    • DrFlimFlam says:

      I wonder if the review makes the game sound better than it is because of how good it is.

      • Spacemonkey Mafia says:

        Honestly, I feel that may be the case.

      • Joe Keiser says:

        This would certainly be an interesting way for me to have failed as a reviewer. I don’t think I’ve done this. I think it’s worth your time to find out for yourself though!

        • Spacemonkey Mafia says:

          Look, I know there are a lot of stable but bored poets and magical realism prose writers who have these romantic notions of succeeding in the ‘artistically legitimite’ field of video game journalism. But let’s be honest, it’s not for everyone.
          I know finding soulful and evocative language for exploring the human condition isn’t anyone’s fantasy, not like writing that perfect game review that will allow your name to live on forever; but there’s no shame in it.
          At least you tried.

        • SamPlays says:

          Dumb it down, Joe. I hope you learned your lesson.

    • Effigy_Power says:

      I was thinking the same thing. Few games manage to contain their own implied emotionality to the end. Everyone seems to want to burst out at some point yelling:
      “Look, look you mouth-breathing jerks! Look how nice and emotional and philosophically sound this is! Appreciate our carefully crafted story, you peasants.”
      Dear Esther had the guts to finish its story without ever ruining the (not terribly hard to understand) story with clunky exposition. I think the end was stronger for it.

    • Thirsty says:

      I didn’t find the game melodramatic, at least not in a bad way.

      For what it’s worth.

  6. snazzlenuts says:

    So, the game controls are the equivalent of patting your head and rubbing your stomach, at the same time?

  7. ItsTheShadsy says:

    Starbreeze are great developers, but up until now, every game they’ve put out has been a dark shooter (good dark shooters, of course). I’m really happy to see that have such a range! Even if don’t pick this one up, I’m definitely excited to see what else they do.