A tale of two control sticks

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The previous year really was an indie haven, and yet another indie darling that I haven’t yet played has finally reached the top of my “yet to play” pile. 

Developed by Swedish developer Starbreeze, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons was recently placed as one of the free games on the PlayStation 3 with a subscription to PlayStation Plus, and is also available on Xbox 360 and PC. 

Brothers owes itself to the structure of Journey in a lot of ways: it’s a short, highly linear experience that focuses more on the setpieces the players walk through and the implicit narrative that comes from your surroundings and the way you interact with them. 

The story is simple, told through Shadow of the Colossus, styled in descript mumbles and pantomime. Essentially, the younger blond brother is lamenting the death of their mother, feeling responsible since he was there, unable to help her as she drowned. Unfortunately, their father is sick, and can only be cured by some curative MacGuffin far away. Of course, this begins the heroes’ journey that the two must go through. 

The art style has the tone of a European storybook, the brothers themselves in coloured pastel colours, contrasting from the harvest browns, rocky cave greys, and tundra whites they journey through. 

Subtlety is the name of the game. Each setpiece has unspoken evils peeking from the surface that often don’t directly explain themselves. Why is this town abandoned? Never explained. What are these hanging bodies doing here? Who knows? The brothers are wandering into the unknown, and, just as they are clueless, we are also wandering in confusion.

Oddly enough, the controls of this game fill in the greatest part of the story, and are easily the most standout feature of the game. Each brother is controlled with a different thumbstick, forcing you to control both at the same time to traverse the environment and solve puzzles. It’s confusing, often making one brother bump into the wall while trying to get another to the right place. 

And perhaps that’s the point.

It’s hard to control. The two brothers have a really awkward time co-operating. And yet, once you start getting the hang of it, the two of them start working together well, doing things the other couldn’t do alone. Your own connection with the brothers is in direct relation to how well you can control them.

Each brother, of course, has his own specialities and quirks. The older brother garbed in blue is stronger, able to activate switches that only he can pull. The younger brother with the blond hair able to fit into smaller gaps, and since he isn’t as strong, hilariously he’s usually the one forced to distract a big bad guy while the older brother is occupied. 

A fun little addition to the story is the way each brother interacts with people. Having the older brother interact with NPCs often just has him asking for directions. The younger brother is far more playful, playing or even pranking the people he interacts with. Organically, I know the older brother is stronger, more focused, shouldering much for his younger brother. The younger brother is still very much a kid, but makes attempts to use his few skills to help his brother. 

I’ll need to dance around spoilers, but it wouldn’t be too spoiling to mention that at points you may be forced to have only one brother available at a time. Seeing a character on the TV stumble around is tough because they are missing half of their team, but you are missing half of your controller. The turmoil of the character happens directly to you. You suddenly can’t do much; you can’t use the other brother’s specific skills. You even miss them despite how the controls could be confusing.

The game’s not perfect, performance issues and screen tearing abound, and, coming off of an experience like Journey, it doesn’t feel quite as effective. Yet the element of control  actually becoming an element of storytelling is enough for me to recommend it. I’ve never seen a story told in quite this way, and the ending is a damn stroke of genius, seeing how the bond of two brothers can be so strong has never been told so vividly.

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