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PLATFORM: XBox Live Arcade (reviewed), Playstation Network, PC (Steam)
PRICE: $14.99/1200 MS pts
ESRB RATING: T
DEVELOPER: Starbreeze Studios
PUBLISHER: 505 Games
A while ago, I asked the question of The Last of Us to aid in thinking about that game as the new supposed apex of gaming as capital A Art: What does this game do in terms of storytelling that no other medium is capable of? The Last of Us doesn’t answer that question. Brothers, however, is a good example of a game that has an answer.
Brothers, without euphemism or poetic allegory or Bill Nunn punching your screen, is the story of left hand and right hand; Two brothers, unnamed, speaking an indiscernible and untranslated foreign tongue, on a quest across vast country to save their ailing father, controlled by the left and right sticks. Left hand is the older brother, a teenager; right hand the younger, maybe 9 or 10. Left hand is often impatient, demanding; Right hand is more playful, and yet more cautious. The tragedy that acts as the source of that caution–the younger brother doesn’t know how to swim, which contributed to the death of their mother out on the open water–colors their interactions with others, and one another.
More than this, however, the difference is reflected in gameplay. Each side of the controller performs all the actions for each brother. Granted, you only have one button to interact, with the shoulder buttons reserved for the camera, but getting the brain to wire itself to accommodate two people at once makes this more of a game of skill than the usual “find the color coded next ledge” hiking excursions Tomb Raider or Uncharted turn into. It starts simple enough when just getting the ropes, running around sleepy villages, learning each brother’s limitations, and how they will interact to objects and people. Whichever brother interacts with an object determines whether to simply peer down a well, or spit and see how far till it goes plop. It determines whether to simply wash your face in a fountain, or splash around and scare the fish. It determines whether to speak to a crazy old man in the mountains about his inventions, or to play Rock-Paper-Scissors with him.
More often than not, however, the game demands cooperation between the two to solve puzzles, and it does its best work in this area. Some obstacles are simple enough to navigate one brother at a time until reaching the goal, like one brother distracting an angry dog, while the other sneaks around behind him. Others are tricky, but the inherent logic is strong enough to be intuitive. One section involves the brothers being tethered together, and needing to swing themselves along ledges, one after the other, to proceed. Sounds easy on paper. Remembering which hand controls which brother is far from it. And then there’s the sections of tense, blood-pressure raising peril, where you have one brother turning a crank to control whether an industrial press is running, while the other brother holds on for dear life with a time limit until the two are too far away to coordinate. I can only think of one game that does the whole single-player-co-op thing for more than a few minutes at a time–a cutesy buried treasure on PS2/Nintendo DS called The Adventures of Cookie and Cream–and even that game went kid gloves on the player. Brothers requires the player to exercise honest-to-god hand-eye coordination in a very new way, and the feel of experiencing a genuinely innovative twist on an established mechanic is exhilarating. It’s a fantastic twist on a formula that the current indie scene is starting to dilute of effectiveness.
That exhilaration carries over to the world itself. The atmosphere, in general, owes much to Fable and Ico–the game even shamelessly steals the random couch thing from Ico in particular–but it is definitely still its own world. The aforementioned sleepy villages give way to blue skies and craggy mountains, wide, pine-laden valleys, and still frozen waters. While, especially for a review, it’s tempting to just critical path the whole thing, I was often waylaid by stepping over some clearing, or taking the other un-prompted fork in the road, and there’s some new environment or element that just takes the breath away. Sometimes it’s just in pure beauty; There’s even a couple of achievements that award the player for taking the time out to watch whales sing to each other, or enjoy the aurora borealis until a shooting star falls. There’s a stretch of the final act that I can’t imagine wasn’t inspired by The Fountain. Sometimes it’s, well, less pretty. Finding yourself face to face with dead, carrion warrior giants, and needing to save a man from hanging himself over losing his wife and child in a fire. All of which are stories told with zero exposition I might add, aside from the details plainly onscreen. We are never explicitly told what kind of world we’re in. The world just *is*, which is 100% the best approach to this kind of fantasy.
The game could very easily fall into the indie game trap of darker = better, but thankfully, it’s smarter than that. The game does start with tragedy, and is often punctuated by it, but it is far from being the permeating tone of the whole thing. The world is the world, with pointless but vibrant moments of levity and curiosity as myriad as the dangers. And much of the levity is completely within the player’s sphere to control. The human drama is less so, but even then, the interactivity adds a flavor to the proceedings that telling the story straightforward would not provide. That said, it absolutely points in the right direction the medium needs to go in one particular section: the epilogue. I won’t spoil the solution to the final obstacles, but without a doubt, the emotional climax to the game is entirely in the player’s hands. It’s heart rending, and strong, and almost frustrating in how no one thought of it prior.
The game itself is the brain child of one Josef Fares, a Swedish director whose work I haven’t seen, but I may need to change that. There’s a cinephile’s heart behind this game, but one that absolutely knows what medium it’s currently working in and adjusts accordingly. The result is exuberant. Like Journey before it, this is the kind of experience that pushes the medium forward, and the kind of experience there needs to be more of.