Just a warning, I will be spoiling Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons in this post.
Brothers is an exceptional game because of its dedication to its theme – loss. Every segment and encounter is in service of developing the titular characters and exposing them to new variants of loss. From the opening scene of the mother drowning while one of her sons looks helplessly on, to later experiencing the loss of wonder and myth in the world, to the final mechanical twist the game pushes it’s theme to the fore time and again in a way few other games dare to.
When we first meet them, despite the clear threat to their remaining parent, the Brothers interactions with the world around them are lighthearted and joking – they clearly look forward to their adventure and spend their time playing pranks on others and laughing off the danger of their early encounters. The risk of loss is largely ignored at this point – your father might be ill, but the apothecary says you just have to get to the Yggdrasil to get the magic ingredients that will save him. No biggie.
It was not until I met the Troll that I started to realise how different Brothers was. We see the Troll is upset, there are two beds there but no sign of another Troll. He helps you after you explain your quest – there’s no reason for him to help, except to try and prevent others from feeling the loss he has experienced. It’s simple enough, but there’s no attention drawn to any of the subtext or minor details. When you later free, then help his partner and see them reunited, the game lets you experience hope. These emotional highs, in brief moments of hope, glee and wonder expertly break up the otherwise gruelling journey through a landscape dominated by loss. The sheer joy of bounding up a mountainside on the back of pilfered goats. Riding a mad inventor’s glider across a huge, glacier carved valley to what you come to realise is a giant’s castle. Any of the moments where the brothers just take a moment to sit on a bench and look at the landscape. All of it builds the connection between the brothers and brings their exuberance and wonderment to the fore, even momentarily. The world around us however, grows increasingly bleak.
I save a man from hanging himself and have him weeping before me – completely inconsolable despite the attempts of both brothers. Then I walk a little further and find a burned house and a blanket barely covering several charred bodies. The reason for his attempted suicide is laid bare and there is nothing more we can do. We leave him, weeping as what remains of his family still smoulder nearby. We watch as our momentary ally dies – the gryphon we had saved from torture and who in turn, helps us collapses after carrying us a short distance. We pass through a battlefield of giants – the loss of a whole race it seems, all killed in some recent titanic struggle. We wander through a lost whole city, it’s citizens frozen and it’s buildings destroyed by the cold and some invisible titan. We help a turtle recover it’s lost children. We lose hope as an ally turns on us. Then we lose a brother.
In many games the theme is simply left in the hands of the narrative. Sometimes the level design and art will serve to support the theme as well. In Brothers, the very mechanics of the game are in service of the theme. The complete reliance on each other to survive and advance – not just in terms of simple cooperation, but in conquering phobias and imparting strength are taught and built upon and tested throughout. The left stick/left trigger combination for the big brother and right stick/right trigger for the little brother become so ingrained that when the big brother dies it’s natural to just leave that side of the gamepad idle, there is no purpose to it any longer.
But then comes the moment that it feels like the entire game has been building to, where you use that “empty” trigger to summon the courage to overcome a fear and finally, after being through so much, complete your quest..
And it all comes together. Every puzzle solved. Each character met. It has all been for this one moment, where your loss no longer restrains you, but empowers you. And in that moment, Brothers delivered one of the most powerful emotional beats I’ve experienced in any media. It’s a dazzling climax to a game which had already delivered a series of emotional highs and lows.
In researching more about the game I’ve come to realise just how much more there was – you can help an ostracised rabbit, reunite a separated pair of songbirds – apparently you can even give closure to the grief-stricken man. The fact that I missed this content doesn’t disappoint me. I will be playing Brothers again, seeking out these minor events and enjoying the company of my Brother again – for as long as I can keep him around.
*Apologies for any terrible writing and grammar in this piece. I wanted to get it written and posted while the emotion was still strong.