Left stick moves, right stick looks. Left trigger aims, right trigger shoots. Start usually opens a menu.
Control in most video games is second nature, most genres have a defined control scheme – and though there is some variation there is a huge amount of overlap. Some games boast innovative controls, but the aim here is usually to make the interaction in game easier or more effective. The focus is not on the control scheme itself but on what it facilitates. Control is usually separated from the game itself as it exists in your reality rather than it. What you are doing with the controller is rarely important, what is important is what your input makes the character do.
Some games go against this though, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is one of these. Control matters in Brothers, it is purposefully unconventional and is a part of the storytelling. In fact, everything matters in Brothers; this is why it’s so special.
There is a cohesiveness to Brothers. Every element is working towards the same thing and separating one part from any other would dull the impact. The focus of Brothers is narrative, though how it pulls this focus off is what is of interest. There is no real dialogue in this game, the characters speak in gibberish that gives an idea of what they are trying to convey but only that. For this reason the weight of the storytelling is hoisted onto other elements.
Due to the lack of dialogue, visuals play an important role. Brothers is a stunningly beautiful game on an artistic level, but the visual storytelling is just as noteworthy. Brothers uses a number of impressive techniques to evoke an atmosphere and to establish a clear narrative. Characters emote really nicely and expertly designed environments cement whatever tone is needed at the time. It’s also full of a lot of impressive little touches, small interactions which say so much.
Brothers also manages to deliver a huge emotional impact without ever saying a word. The game is uplifting at times, but utterly devastating at others. The tale is rather simple, two brothers go on a journey because their father is ill (the impetus being that some remedy will lie at the end that they can use to save him). It’s basic stuff, but it’s told excellently and goes in interesting directions. There are clear themes at play in the narrative, but there is a lot of subtlety also. It’s a game you will want to talk about and analyse, one with messages in its story – both clear and understated.
Another part of the storytelling comes from interaction with the game. The eponymous brothers are the star of the show, and their personalities and character arcs are very important to the narrative. Visuals, and the way in which they act and interact, go a long way to show us who these brothers are, but the act of controlling them gives us a greater idea. This is a journey where the two must work together to progress, cooperation and coordination is a theme of the story and the player must display these characteristics to succeed.
Each Brother is controlled by a thumbstick, left for the big brother and right for the smaller. This has a number of key effects, first of all you have to physically coordinate in order to get the Brothers to coordinate in the game. This hammers home one of the game’s major themes, and is a very interesting way of handling things that is game specific. On top of this the sticks themselves carry importance. You are used to moving with the left stick, but not so much with the right. For this reason the more able older brother is moved by the left, but the smaller more awkward brother is consigned to the right. Part of their personality is conveyed in how they are controlled, this displays a level of attention to detail and depth to the experience that makes Brothers truly special.
Brothers goes on to make the most of its control scheme throughout its duration. Using button presses to actually tell the story is the height of its achievements, and something which demonstrates the unique nature of games as a storytelling medium. The interaction with the game is tied to the story and themes of the game, the result being that these parts are accentuated in a way you couldn’t get from another medium.
The gameplay itself is based around solving environmental puzzles in order to progress on your journey. You are constantly working towards a goal, but a number of small obstacles lie in your way. Getting around these obstacles involves cooperation between the two characters, and Brothers impresses by constantly finding interesting ways to leverage its control scheme. The puzzles are good on their own terms, but the way they force you to interact with the game makes it excellent. They are mostly rather simple, meaning that working out what to do is never the issue. The challenge becomes doing them, and this helps to make this journey feel like an epic one and something you earn. You have had to properly coordinate and work together, and this has been conveyed perfectly.
Brothers is a really special game. It makes the most of its medium and uses everything available to it to tell an emotional and engaging story. It’s full of tiny moments that will stick with you, as well as larger story moments that will leave a huge impact. It’s a very emotional experience, and it’s made even more so by truly expert story telling. It’s a game that makes sense, everything is there for a reason and everything is working together to make something really excellent. It’s not a long game, but it doesn’t outstay its welcome. It does all it needs to do in its time frame and doesn’t feel at all deficient. It’s a beautiful and memorable experience, with superb art and sound design, that is easily one of the year’s best.