Brothers: A Tale of Wait What the Hell?

WTF is Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons?

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is a 2013 game from Starbreeze Studios, focussed on two brothers who have to find a McGuffin to save their dying father. As the player, you control both brothers with separate sides of your X-Box controller and get them to work in tandem to solve location-based puzzles. The puzzles aren’t hard to figure out – the challenge is in getting your hands to cooperate so that the brothers perform simultaneous actions.

Part interactive artwork and part traditional videogame, Brothers sees its brothers travel across a sullen-but-beautiful landscape, encountering wonders and dangers along the way. Most of the story is communicated to players through non-verbal cues, like body language, music, tone, and colour. It’s a story about childhood encountering the harsh reality of death.

Sounds like that’s right up your tree

It is.

99% of Brothers is amazing. The gameplay is innovative, the story is emotionally resonant, and the two things reinforce each other. Having to coordinate both brothers as you play makes you feel their connection, and how they depend on each other to survive. It’s a way of letting the player participate in the characters’ relationship in an organic way, and it’s really, really clever.

The graphics are also beautiful, and the sad little set pieces the brothers move through – including a field of dead bodies where some giants went to war, and an otherwise empty stretch of pasture where some random dude just kills himself – are well thought-out and affecting. The game walks a very fine line between being upsetting to play, and being a magical, super fun experience. That’s something that’s hard to pull off, and it feels existentially Important.

There were two things that made me uncomfortable, though, and not in a thought-provoking This Is The Beauty And Tragedy Of Life kind of way. They just made me uncomfortable in a regular way, like I wasn’t quite sure what the game was trying to tell me, and it didn’t seem to make sense in relation to the rest of the content.

The first uncomfortable thing is that the game has you do battle with two enemies – a troll and an intelligent, human-like spider – and, both times, the battle is “won” by disabling the enemy and then brutally killing them even after they can’t hurt you anymore. It’s the second part that gets me. Like, I’ve played lots of video games where you have to kill the enemy you’re fighting to advance, but, in 99% of them, that I can remember, the enemy keeps attacking you until they’re dead. You have no choice – it’s kill or be killed. In Brothers, it seems like the progression of the battle is deliberately set up so that the characters could be somewhat merciful but aren’t. And I don’t at all understand why.

The second uncomfortable thing is a really big spoiler for the end.

The spider they kill is a girl who ruins both their lives by being someone the older brother wants to spend time with (and then killing him when he tries to rip off her legs).

See, in the last segment of the game, the brothers rescue a girl who’s about to be killed by some kind of blood-god worshipping army. She then demonstrates super speed and super agility while leading them through many cool adventure-type settings, where she flirts with the older brother. Eventually, she takes them to a cave where she’s like, “Go on in ahead of me. It’s totally great in this dark scary crawlspace – don’t let the stench of death put you off.”

The younger brother is suspicious and doesn’t want to go inside the cave, but the older brother’s like, “Get with the program – I want to make out with this girl in the cave!”

So, they go inside the cave, and she turns into a spider and it’s scary and unexpected (hence the spoilers) and they obviously have to defend themselves, so they start trying to rip off her spider legs, and then, once she’s disabled, and flopping around on two spider legs, totally unable to kill them or really even move, they’re like, “Fuck it, let’s rip off her other legs, too!” And then she stabs the older brother when he gets close to her and (a few scenes later) he dies.

After that, the ending is a total fucking downer, but also pretty good. The younger brother finishes the quest by himself, and it’s sad but also heart-warming and well-executed in terms of game mechanics. It’s also super surprising and a nice inversion of narrative expectations that the older brother actually dies. It retroactively puts the rest of the game in perspective as being symbolic of the younger brother processing grief and loss.

I’m just stuck on the part with the spider.

When I first encountered the girl character, I didn’t realize the game was almost over, so I thought, “It’ll be interesting to see how this dynamic develops, and whether she’ll drive a wedge in their relationship or something.” I noticed that she seemed to have super powers, and, retrospectively, I think that was some nice foreshadowing of her turning out not to be human, but, when she turned out to be the Death Spider, I was just like “!!!” and then “???” and then “Why do we have to kill her when we just ripped off six of her legs!?!?”

Brothers is a really short game, so it might not be fair to complain that this portion of the story arc felt a little rushed, but, because this is the event that kills off one of the main player characters, it carries a lot of weight in the story, and I’m left thinking, “What are you trying to say?” Is this karmic justice because the older brother liked a girl and that intruded on his relationship with the younger brother? Is this a lesson about how you should never trust girls, even if you kind of want to kiss them? Is this, like, a fancy way of saying “Bros before hoes?” I ask because I honestly don’t know.

I get that the game is sort of told from a child’s perspective, but it still feels kind of dramatic to me to say, “My older brother’s girlfriend was the worst! It’s as though she turned into a giant spider and stabbed him in the heart!” And then I almost saved him but he died! And then I dug his grave! And then I imagined he came back to life but it was just a trick cutscene and he was still dead! And then I dragged his body to the grave! And then I pushed the dirt back in the grave! And then everything was grey and my father and I cried and cried and cried. His girlfriend was just like that.

Compared to other moments of tragedy in the game, which are more subtle and unknowable and causeless, the spider thing felt very specific and pointed. It was less about the idea that bad things happen in life than it was suggestive of a parable – like there’s supposed to be a lesson in here about what the brothers should have done differently, and I’m not sure what the lesson is.

I think the ending might have been a stronger if the death blow wasn’t so pointed – if the older brother just got killed somehow while they were on this horrible quest, and it wasn’t steeped in meaning, and mistakes, and a disagreement about whether to go in the cave. I think it might have been stronger if bad, tragic, horrible things just happen sometimes, because that is the world we live in.

That said, Brothers is a really beautiful game – or, a really beautiful piece of interactive art – and I’m not sorry I played it. I don’t feel like I desperately want to play again, mostly because it was such a downer, but I’m glad I made it through once.

Image: Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons; Starbreeze Studios | April 3, 2015