Brothers: A Tale Of Two Sons was written and directed by Swedish filmmaker Josef Fares, and it’s tempting to view this story-focused adventure exclusively through that wide-angle lens. There’s certainly a director’s eye to the visuals: as well as gorgeous individual moments (when the siblings swim beneath a bridge early on, the camera ducks beneath the stonework, too, picking out shafts of light as the pair lazily float by), Fares tells Brothers’ story with the aid of economic visual techniques. The camera, for instance, tilts when the pair crest a mountain, letting players pick out their village far in the mist-shrouded distance.
Yet to dismiss this as a filmmaker’s dabble with interactive media is unfair. At precisely zero words long – everyone speaks in a nonsensical fantasy tongue – Brothers’ script relies less on dialogue than the vast majority of games with cinematic ambitions, and the game shows a powerful understanding of environmental storytelling. Meanwhile, those who find ‘ludonarrative dissonance’ an awkwardly academic term needn’t worry, there’s none to talk about here. That’s probably because Starbreeze wraps a conservative, simple game around Fares’ story, a puzzle-platformer with sparingly little of either genre. But even so, at Brothers’ heart rests a control scheme that understands what it means to communicate meaning through interaction.
Two sticks and two shoulder buttons are all you need to journey through Brothers, and that covers you for two protagonists, too. There’s something slightly dislocating about not having control of a specific brother at first, since it denies you a singular anchor point to Brothers’ world, making you a spectator to their relationship, not a participant in it. Then there’s the practical consideration. Your fingers may get used to controlling two characters at once, but your eyes will not. Inevitably, you’ll get muddled, mistakenly attributing the wrong stick to each brother as they scamper past one another. It’s so rare for both brothers to be in direct danger that this isn’t really a problem, though, and the unusual control scheme understatedly affirms the close bond between the pair.
It’s a little bit too close, perhaps: these brothers are essentially twins. Yes, the younger one can squeeze through tinier gaps, while the older boy’s stronger muscles mean he can wrench levers the other can’t, but some greater distinction in their movements might have helped underscore the elder brother’s protective role. Instead, the younger boy clambers across mountains with the same athletic confidence as the firstborn. Brothers is still right not to encumber the pair with too big a set of context-sensitive actions for the sake of drawing distinction, though, since its puzzles are nothing more than gently engaging filler.
Like Journey, this quest narrative glorifies the adventure itself, not the challenges encountered along the way. But whereas thatgamecompany’s title was built around a core of delightfully flowing movement, Starbreeze’s game flows from one novelty to the next, never sticking with a mechanic longer than it takes to build a scene around it. Relatively early on, the older brother must fend off wolves with a burning torch while his younger brother sticks close behind him; two minutes later, he casts the blazing branch to the ground, never to pick one up again. No task in Brothers could be honestly described as involved or challenging, but every fresh conceit brings more than just visual novelty to each chapter, and nothing sticks around long enough to become boring – except, perhaps, for the platforming. Clambering up buildings and cliff faces is Brothers’ crutch, its go-to interaction in a game that wants to immerse you in its world above all. But at times Starbreeze can’t quite summon the confidence to give you nothing to do. It’s no coincidence that Brothers’ dullest moments, its switch-and-lever platform puzzles, are also its most typically gamelike.
Something that isn’t typical, however, is Brothers’ marvellous, engrossing sense of pace. Sure, the game doesn’t last long – three to four hours, perhaps – and nor is its fantasy world particularly original, though the Scandinavian tinge to the fiction means you’ll meet unsettlingly human-looking trolls rather than identikit Tolkienesque monsters along the way. But over its short length, Brothers carefully stage-manages a move away from the pastoral, Fable-reminiscent early chapters into the realm of the genuinely fantastical. The second half of the game sees the brothers journey through a series of locations that are both visually imaginative and clearly suffused with backstory, yet Brothers leaves it up to you to figure out the tale being told, and to make connections to what you’ve seen before. There’s a conjurer’s timing to the way the game lures the audience in before unveiling its most magical, mysterious sights, just as there’s wise caution to the way it sprinkles a handful of action sequences and dramatic scenes across its relatively brief duration. Perhaps it’s down to Fares’ influence (though Starbreeze has always been a confident digital storyteller), but Brothers understands restraint. And that makes its last half hour all the more effective.
Another entrant in that quietly, confidently expanding genre of games that, rather than build complex challenges around novel mechanics, simply use the existence of interactivity to more deeply immerse you in another world, Brothers: A Tale Of Two Sons’ quest doesn’t quite scale the definition-busting heights of Journey or Dear Esther. Still, this is a puzzle-platform game pared down to its base essentials, with a sweet, simple tale and an artfully imagined world wrapped around that core.
Brothers: A Tale Of Two Sons is out now on XBLA, with PC and PS3 releases to come. PS3 version tested.