It’s All Relative
I started playing Brothers as part of PlayStation Plus’s downloadable games promotion. I started playing it, and immediately disliked it. Like that big present you’ve saved for last to unwrap on Christmas morning, I was expecting to be bowled over by some great force of nature as soon as the title screen faded and the game proper began. After all, this game surely hadn’t received so many ‘Game of the Year’ awards for nothing, right? Well, as I was playing through the game’s opening scenes of two young brothers carting their sick father through an apparent fantasy world to the nearby village to receive attention from the healer, I felt underwhelmed. The game did seem pretty to look at, but what was up with these simplistic yet utterly confusing controls? Why couldn’t I understand a single word anybody was saying? And if the whole game revolved around one brother moving while the other pulled a lever, I was in for a boring time indeed.
Luckily for me, first-brush appearances can be deceiving, and rarely have I been so fooled.
By the time I reached the game’s end (scant hours later), I was utterly enthralled by the events unfolding on-screen in front of my eyes. Moreover, I found myself pleasantly aware that I felt like the third point of a triangle of shared experiences between the two brothers and myself. What I was quick to initially dismiss as an awkward control scheme charmed the pants off me as I realized that controlling both brothers simultaneously like this broke down some of the digital barriers between us and let me forge a much stronger emotional bond with them – which really paid off as the game reached its amazing conclusion.
More than the control scheme it’s really hats off to developers Starbreeze Studios for pulling all the right emotional strings throughout the game and playing me like a pro. There’s not much groundbreaking in terms of setting or events, and yet I found myself cheering the brothers on during a thrilling jaunt on a hang glider and gasping in terror as giant invisible ice monsters crashed their way through a deserted town, heading right towards me. I found myself genuinely concerned as one brother had to cling to another’s back to make it across a rushing stream due to a fear of swimming. At times, the simple act of the brothers’ giddy giggling as something tickled their humor felt so refreshingly honest in a way not many games achieve, or even try to. It’s not that Brothers is a sob fest, but the moments that resonate on an emotional level are carefully chosen and beautifully realized; often I didn’t even know I cared about an incidental character until they passed away and a pang of grieving just snuck up on me, catching me unawares.
The crowning moment, of course, is the charged climax, which wasn’t entirely unpredictable but still hit hard through its implementation. I’ll try to tread carefully here and not give too great of a spoiler, but if you haven’t yet played the game then proceed at your own risk! As much as cinematics serve as great story-telling tools and many game endings are full of them as a way to tie up the story and reward the player, it really was wise for the Brothers development team to use them sparingly, as controlling the character during the actual ending – though it existed purely for narrative purpose – gave it infinitely more of an impact than just watching a cutscene would have done. I liken it to one of the final scenes in Metal Gear Solid 4, where the player is forced to make Snake crawl through a gargantuan microwave oven, torturing him and all but cooking him alive. But then, as now, doing stuck to my ribs much more than seeing would have. And this, at the end of the day, put the game over the top for me.
Brothers was incredibly short and didn’t offer any degree of difficulty beyond a novice level, even for a puzzle platformer. And yet its redeeming qualities are so strong and undeniable, I can now fully understand why the game received all of its accolades. It easily stands high on my list of recent favorites as well. In the words of Andy Samberg as Nicolas Cage: “That’s high praise!”