In recent years, Josef Fares has become known variously for developing co-op prison break adventure A Way Out and his industry folk hero moment cursing the Oscars (among other things) at the 2017 Game Awards. Even with this exposure, his first outing in games remains his most magnificent achievement. I’m speaking, of course, about Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons.
And before we get started, let me just say MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD. I’m going to be talking about the most significant moment in the game, so if you haven’t yet JUST GO PLAY IT NOW. Forget the blog and go right to the source. I promise my feelings won’t be hurt.
The basic premise of Brothers is simple. Following their mother’s drowning, young Naiee and his older brother Naia live with their widowed father in a tiny seaside hamlet in a fantasy world inspired by Scandinavian folklore. When their father falls ill with a mysterious disease, the boys depart in search of the Tree of Life, from which they can acquire a healing elixir to save dear old dad. The setting is gorgeously realized, with the story conveyed through the beautiful animation of the characters. There is no proper dialogue, as all conversation is conducted in an unsubtitled glossolalia.
It is the game’s controls, however, that are truly innovative, making brilliant and elegant use of the gamepad. Brothers requires the player to simultaneously control Naiee and Naia to overcome obstacles. To this end, each brother is controlled with one analog stick for movement and its corresponding trigger for interaction. The player is responsible for coordinating solutions to environmental puzzles and combat challenges.
It’s a fun gameplay loop that provides just enough difficulty to be engaging, without ever feeling clunky or unfair. More than that, it elegantly uses UI to create a connection between the player and the characters, both individually and as a duo.
Each of the brothers has his own beneficial qualities–Naiee is small and nimble, while the older Naia is stronger and braver. Small environmental challenges may cater to just one of the brothers’ abilities, but larger challenges, such as maneuvering a rowboat or flying an ornithopter, require them to work together. The result is a beautiful and tangible fraternal dynamic conveyed almost entirely through gameplay itself.
Nowhere is this conveyed more clearly than through the swimming mechanic. Naiee is terrified of water after witnessing his mother’s drowning and can’t swim. Naia, doesn’t struggle with the same phobia, and so Naiee must cling to his brother’s back as he swims for the both of them. The player is involved in this action at every level: Naiee’s interaction input must be engaged while Naia handles movement input. The presentation involves the player in the dynamics of Naiee’s trauma and his relationship with Naia at a tactile level, a perfect example of the kind of storytelling techniques that are exclusively available to games.
Brothers’ intense ludonarrative consonance provides an incredible opportunity for character development through the controls themselves. In the course of their journey, Naiee and Naia encounter a third companion, a mysterious young woman set to be executed by a mountain tribe.
After rescuing the woman, she attracts the affections of Naia, who in turn begins to neglect his younger brother’s concerns. When the woman turns out to be a monstrous spider-creature in disguise, the brothers must work together to defeat her and escape her web. Tragically, Naia is brutally wounded in the struggle.
For the next brief stretch of the game, Naiee becomes responsible for literally supporting his other brother as he limps along. It’s a heart-wrenching inversion of the swimming mechanic, and it provides a genuine character beat perfectly realized through gameplay. Through hardship and tragedy, Naiee is growing up.
This personal growth is fully encapsulated when Naiee must leave Naia at the base of the Tree of Life and ascend alone to secure the elixir. When he returns to Naia, it’s too late. The older boy has succumbed to his wounds and Naiee is left alone.
With Me in Spirit
Naiee’s journey isn’t over yet. He manages to hitch a ride with a friendly gryphon back to the shores of his village, but his path back to his home is blocked by an inlet from the ocean. With no Naia there to carry him across on his back, Naiee must swim for himself.
When attempting to swim across, the player will discover that Naiee’s navigation won’t cut it. His analog stick will take him waist deep, but no further. It is only when Naia’s analog stick is used in conjunction that Naiee fully commits and launches himself into a breaststroke. The moment is absolutely staggering.
Through just a single input, Brothers creates the experience of Naiee using the memory of his brother, held deep in his heart, to find the courage to overcome his deepest trauma. It works on the player by evoking the memory and association of this character through his input commands, while at the same time implying a “wholeness” achieved by Naiee through adoption of both sticks for movement, something approximating the more traditional third-person controls. The design succeeds in blending the ludic and narrative elements into a single, deeply impactful moment. I’m hard pressed to think of a more perfect and elegant example of emotion through gameplay.
After playing Brothers and being blown away by its quiet genius, I was eagerly awaiting the release of A Way Out. As a diehard couch co-op lover, I wanted to see what sort of innovation the creators of Brothers would bring to a proper two-player experience. And while A Way Out is quite good, it is at its best when it is emulating its predecessor. Working your way through the rapids in a rowboat, coordinating with your friend as you each work your respective oars, or keeping a lookout for each other as you sneak around the infirmary or chisel your way through your cell walls, all of this is great fun and creates a feeling of genuine collaboration.
But nothing in A Way Out achieves the singular heartbreak, the overwhelming emotion of that lone, fateful input as Naiee summons the spirit of his brother and pushes off to conquer the abyss of his fear. This is the benchmark to which we as game designers must aspire if we are to truly realize the potential of our medium.