Gaming is largely made up of two big landmasses.
On the one hand, we have games that are truly games – with systems and high scores and scores of people to kill.
On the other, there are experiences. The industry hasn’t been kind to these, calling them walking simulators and then writing them off, but these experiences are part of the glue-that-binds. You see, there are just things that cannot be done in a book or movie form. You can only have them as games.
Brothers is a game like this. It straddles a quite-fine line between experience/walking simulator and “game” but it thrives exactly because it’s on that knife edge.
And, in one short play through, it has become one of my very favourite games of 2016.
Let’s start by talking about the bad, because there is bad here and it has to be said:
The name is awful. If you’d said to me that I should go and play a game that basically names itself twice, I would have shrugged and moved on without even thinking about it twice. This is the worst sort of gamey-game name that makes me somewhat frustrated for our industry.
It’s almost as if the guy making the game – who has made films before, by the way – wanted to sell his story short by naming it something atrocious.
Then there is the camera. The camera’s more like a suggestion than anything else. Sometimes, you can swing it around the pair of brothers with no problems. Sometimes, the film maker decided this was the best set of angles for the game to be played in and that was all you were getting, and these moments – where the camera fails you – they’re just unpleasant.
This ties into another mechanic: the brothers can’t be separated very far before the camera stops trying to zoom out. This is incredibly thematic [and we’ll talk about why in a moment] but also a problem. I once got both brothers so stuck that I had to reload a save point.
The design also calls for a no-holds-barred weird difficulty curve. The game is largely gentle and easy to get through, but some sections just have pits of instant death. Touch the side of a mountain while you’re flying on a glider? Great, you get to start that section again because your giant hit box whacked the hit box of the mountain. Fall because you didn’t get the control scheme right? You’re starting at the beginning of that section for your troubles.
But the worst sin here is how sometimes-gamey Brothers feels.
For most of the run-time of the game you are lost to the beauty of the graphics, mesmerized by the wonderful soundtrack and awed by the sheer simplicity of the control method.
So it’s sad when all of that grinds to a halt as soon as there’s a boss battle, because now, suddenly, it’s apparent that you’re playing a game.
These little things take what would have been an amazing experience and dial it back a tiny bit. They’re not game-ending problems, but they certainly are lessons that this studio [and this designer] can learn from, because really, he gets it mostly right otherwise. And how.
In Brothers, you control a pair of young men – a blonde-haired lad and an older, brown-haired youth. They each have very distinct personalities and certainly see the world quite differently from one another. The trick is, you control both of them with the pair of analogue sticks on your controller. The left stick is the older brother and the right stick is the younger. From this thematic whole, the game builds a series of related puzzles: you can’t do anything with just one brother. Both have to be present for anything to work.
Find a gate? Both brothers have to push the gate open to advance. Is there a ledge that’s too high for the brothers? First you need to use big brother to squat, then you need little brother to climb on big brother’s hands and be lifted. All of this happens with just the twin sticks on your controller and your trigger buttons. Bumper buttons for camera rotation. The control method is genius, because it ties the WHOLE game together. The brothers are a unit. Your controller is a unit. You cannot physically move them without mastering the control scheme.
And why are you having this adventure? Well, your father got sick and the healer knows that the only cure lies in healing water that can only be found in a Great Tree.
The story – such as it is – is very simple and follows some quite visual cues, because, of course, no one in this game talks English. So we interpret their actions through the way they point and the stances they take and the situations they find themselves in. Each new revelation about the world helping us to fill in gaps as we go along, but leaving us with some questions at the end: there are giants. Does that make us the small interlopers? Were they here first? There’s a griffin that crops up time and again. Is it always the same griffin? Or is it a different one each time? How big is the griffin population, anyway?
This, really, is why you’re here, because the experience of the story is so very visceral. In the end, the emotional rollercoaster pays off in a way that greater games have tried to aim for and failed at.
So Brothers, for all its problems, is a flawed masterpiece.
You will be left winded by the ending even if you had to suffer some tiny frustrations getting there.
Because Brothers is an experience and I can wholeheartedly recommend it.
I did a Let’s Play of Brothers here.