Video games can be great and important works, but not all of them are. Games For Adults is Playboy.com’s regular column highlighting the ones that can make you think about more than hit points and head shots.
There are two brothers in Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, and they must work together to solve puzzles. One turns a crank while the other pulls a lever; one holds a rope while the other swings across. The puzzles are mostly physical, and they rely on the brothers’ individual abilities. The Big Brother is stronger and knows how to swim; the Little Brother is weaker but can squeeze into tight places.
The best puzzles incorporate both of their unique qualities, and you get used to controlling both—so accustomed to it, in fact, that it’s jarring when control of one brother is wrested away from you.
It’s a physical shift that enunciates an emotional gut-punch, and it’s terribly effective. But the first several times that creator and director Josef Fares pitched Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons to game publishing companies, he was rejected and met with confusion. Despite the clever puzzles and emotional authenticity, publishers couldn’t wrap their heads around the core mechanic—a single game controller operating both characters. No two player mode, no multiplayer—single player mode was the only option. But today, Brothers is an unqualified critical and commercial hit, and Fares’ patience, ambition, and courage have been rewarded.
“I was so sure that Brothers was going to be a great game,” says Fares. “Even when we went to London and talked to the press, I was kind of cocky: ‘Look, if you don’t understand this game now, you will in five years.’”
“I was so confident that the game would be good,” he says.
It’s a common artistic trap—putting so much of oneself into a creation. And though Brothers is fantasy—fiction—the circumstances and relationship of the brothers have basis in Fares’s reality.
“You could definitely say that the relation between the brothers is very similar to the one between me and my big brother,” Fares says. “I’m more of a childish person, and he’s more of a grown up, responsible person.”
There is also a single, specific incident that had an undeniable influence. Fares spent his childhood in civil-war-ravaged Lebanon. During this time, tragedy struck his family. Fares always wanted a little brother, but his younger brother died during birth, and it fell to Fares to bury his tiny body. Late in the game, there is a scene that directly alludes to this memory. And it’s simply devastating.
LIFE BECOMES ART
That scene in the game is eventually reflected in the way you play it. Including the touchpad and the triggers, there are 15 buttons on a PS4 controller. Brothers only uses four of them to control its two characters. You control the Big Brother with your left hand: left joystick to move, and left trigger to perform an action. You control Little Brother with your right hand: ditto above.
It’s a bit unprecedented, and controlling two characters to accomplish two different, simultaneous tasks is sort of like patting your head and rubbing your belly at the same time. But eventually, you get the hang of it. If you put the Little Brother on the right hand side of the screen, and the Big Brother on the left side of the screen, it gets much easier to adjust your brain.
The placement of the brothers’ controls, according to Fares, was deliberate. Most people are accustomed to moving their characters with the left side of their controller, which is why Big Brother, the more authoritative, mature one, is on the left. When, at key points in the game, you play only as Little Brother, using the right half of the controller but not the left, it feels awkward and unnatural. But that, of course, is the point—to make it feel like half of you is missing.
TRUE FAIRY TALES
When Americans tell fairytales, the stories are always sentimental—the villains always die and the good guys always win, despite their terrible decisions. But many European fables, on the other hand, are pitch dark. Brothers takes after the latter, and there is a nightmarish menace in the game’s most beautiful images.
The game adheres to a sort of steampunk dream mood; everything is operated by gears and turning parts, and is lit by lanterns and candlelight. Trolls chase you with clubs. Shadowy wolves hunt you at night. You traverse a Land of Giants, and climb over the arms and legs of massive corpses;it’s disturbing to see the rivers of blood flowing from their open wounds.
“The visuals in Brothers are based on the Swedish folklore, the dark and Nordic style,” says Claes Engdal, the game’s art director. “It’s the sort of folklore where you don’t always have a happy ending. It’s more of a ‘teaching’ folklore that parents told their kids as cautionary tales when they were young to make them stay out of the forest.”
The scenery is dramatically varied, and concludes with a snowy winterscape. This, too, was deliberate, and is meant to parallel the brothers’ journey from innocence to maturity—from happy idyllic childhood to the darker realities that lie beyond.
Fares recently founded Hazelight Studios, and he recruited the same team that worked with him on Brothers up to its August 2013 release. They’re working on something “unique” that’s currently anticipated for 2017. And as for Brothers, it continues to endure. It’s available on nearly every platform; in August, it became available on the Playstation 4 and Xbox One, and it will become available on iOS, Android, and Windows Phone before the end of the year.
It’s difficult to conceive that one could draw such raw emotion from a game with no dialogue and no written text. It’s just visuals and sounds, and a control scheme that integrates itself into the story. Just goes to show that inference over explicitness is a beautiful thing.
Wing-Man has written about video games and popular culture since 2013, and has been published in multiple online and print publications. Follow him on Twitter to learn more.
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