The debate goes on about the potential of video games as art. Oh yes, any form of creative expression can be described as art, but the argument of whether video games can achieve ‘high art’ status is another matter entirely. Nonetheless, plenty of digital game offerings, like Journey, The Unfinished Swan and Limbo have pleaded the case. Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons presents the latest attempt to keep the games-as-art movement pushing forward.
Developed by Starbreeze Studios, of The Darkness and The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay fame, and published by 505 Games, Brothers is a story-driven adventure game with two simultaneously-controlled protagonists. At the time of this writing, Brothers is also a timed exclusive on Xbox Live Arcade, where it kicked off Microsoft’s traditional Summer of Arcade promotion for 2013. It will expand to Steam and the PS3’s PlayStation Store early in September.
Brothers seems like quite an unorthodox choice to headline Summer of Arcade 2013 we’ll admit, particularly since Sony’s competing PLAY 2013 promotion has showcased a bunch of tough-as-nails but hopelessly addictive offerings that are more in line with the ‘arcade’ experience. Brothers on the other hand is on the far opposite end of the spectrum. It’s a relaxed and easygoing experience that is all about telling its story, and even the most uninitiated of players should be able to jump into it with little trouble.
When the game begins, you’ll find yourself in an unnamed fantasy world where everyone speaks a fictional gibberish language, effectively making Brothers dialogue-free in terms of coherent speech. You’ll gaze upon a young boy mourning at his mother’s gravestone. You’re given some quick backstory told entirely in visuals, and from there, you need to help the boy’s older brother wheel their sick father to the doctor.
Turns out that the father is not long for this world. The boys are told of one desperate solution however, and from there, they’re sneaking out of the village to undergo a grand journey for this mysterious cure-all. Unable to rely on dialogue and actual cues from the game, Brothers thus becomes all about solving puzzles and finding paths to proceed, with nothing but your own wits about you.
This may sound intimidating, but the puzzles and obstacles are actually quite simplistic in nature. Nothing is all that difficult to figure out, but, given no feedback, you’ll still feel engaged and amused at finding the correct path to proceed with the two brothers.
As you can imagine, the two boys must work together, as each has a couple of unique advantages. Certain characters will only proceed the plot if you speak to them with the right brother for example, and beyond that, only certain switches and mechanisms can be utilized with one of the brothers, who must stay behind while the other brother tries to open a path ahead. For example, the younger brother is the only one small enough to fit through bars, while the older brother is much stronger, and is the only one who can push heavy levers.
The way that the player controls both characters is quite clever. You use the left thumbstick to move the older brother, and the right thumbstick to move the younger brother. Likewise, you use left trigger to have the older brother interact with something, and the right trigger to have the younger brother interact with something. From there, the bumpers rotate the camera. It’s a very minimalist and inspired set of controls that is very easy to work with and understand, even if you’ve barely touched an Xbox 360 controller before.
While some sections are more tense and timed, most of Brothers is all about losing yourself in the atmosphere. The character models can sometimes look a little shaky up close, but the visuals of the environments are nothing short of breathtaking. You can even sit on benches at various points in the adventure for the sole purpose of taking in the view of your surroundings. If we’re being honest, this may be one of the most gorgeous and detailed worlds ever realized in any Xbox Live Arcade game to date!
The sheer amount of things you can interact with is quite astonishing too! Much of the world around you doesn’t directly proceed the plot, but some of the little side distractions can be quite amusing. You can play with an inventor’s gadgets, play catch with a little girl, pet a cat, listen to some whales dance, and even hassle the town drunk!
Some of the especially funny and memorable actions you can perform in Brothers even award you achievements. In fact, every achievement in the game is optional, and earned from spending time finding interesting ways to interact with the world around you. It’s a clever way to encourage you to mess around with the setting, and not just solely focus on your quest.
Again, none of this affects your main goal, but that’s part of the appeal of Brothers. The world feels so massive and inviting, even on a set, linear path of puzzles and progression. It helps to suck you into the adventure when it feels like you’re rewarded for boyish distraction, in a variety of emotionally fulfilling ways. It’s not purely about reaching the end goal, especially when the achievement roster in particular doesn’t simply reward you for trudging along the beaten path. In fact, going off the beaten path will ultimately make your journey more memorable and satisfying.
Even when just proceeding the game however, Brothers is an exceptional story-driven experience. With no coherent dialogue and the visuals telling the entire story, Brothers is a masterwork of imagination that leaves plenty up to the interpretation and speculation of the player. It has comedy, drama, wonder, suspense, horror… A great mix of story elements that all come together into one breathtaking whole! In fact, the game feels very reminiscent of a brighter and more colourful take on the style of ICO and Shadow of the Colossus in many instances, which are hallmark examples of an interpretive fantasy story done right, as Brothers is.
It’s a shame then that the experience is so disappointingly short. The entire adventure can be feasibly wrapped up in about three to five hours, depending on how thorough you are with interacting with the world, and how many Achievements you try to amass. In fact, if you know where each Achievement is hidden, as all of them are very easy to actually ‘earn’, you can feasibly get all of them on your first playthrough, no sweat.
Worse on this note is the fact that Brothers lacks replay value. Once you finish the story and earn every Achievement, there’s nothing else to do. You’re done. Yes, it’s a fantastic story with a very poignant and striking final result, but it’s also kind of a one-and-done deal too. Yes, you can re-live the story in the future if you have a few hours to kill and want to experience the adventure again, but that’s the only reason to revisit the game. It’s kind of a shame too, considering that the world has so much to discover, but your actual quest is ultimately a linear affair.
Still, if you play video games for the story, or are an advocate of video games as a potential form of high art, then Brothers demands to be experienced for both its beauty and its highly emotional journey. Even as something of an unexpected debut offering for this year’s Summer of Arcade, Brothers is a winning experience that sticks with you long after you finish playing it.
Yes, the $14.99 price does feel a tad steep for a game that you can ultimately exhaust in just a few hours, Achievements/Trophies and all. That’s difficult to argue. Still, the outstanding realization of this adventure still makes it completely worth the price of admission to any enthusiast of potent video game storytelling.
Since Brothers is exclusive to Xbox Live Arcade for now, we couldn’t evaluate how it compares to its upcoming PC and PS3 builds. Still, we will say that the experience feels explicitly tailored for the bumpers and triggers of an Xbox 360 controller, which is why it’s no surprise that Brothers seems to be actively declaring the Xbox 360 to be its flagship platform.
We imagine that the PC version may still support an Xbox 360 controller however, and will hopefully take the beautiful environmental graphics even further on a high-end rig. We can also speculate that the experience will lose none of its magic on PS3, but we can see the controls being a little more questionably optimized to the L1/R1 and L2/R2 buttons on Sony’s platform. If you have the means to play on Xbox 360, you should probably just stick with that version, even when the others arrive.
Regardless however, Brothers is an approachable, but very fulfilling emotional experience. It proves that the value of adventure is about the journey, not the destination. It also proves that the heart of an adventure game is not in challenge or play mechanics necessarily, but simply in the sense of wonder and discovery that comes with losing yourself in a very well-realized world.
Like so many wonderful things, Brothers is sadly fleeting, but it’s just so thoroughly magical while it lasts!