In a medium increasingly failing to convey any kind of real emotional resonance; Brother’s A Tale of Two Sons delivers a narrative full of fresh ideas that illustrates just how impactful video games can be.
Before we start; let me just give you all a fair Spoiler Alert. This piece will be talking at length and in-depth about the ending to Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons so if you haven’t played it; please come back once you have. The game is only 4 to 5 hours long, so it is not an epic hill to climb by any stretch of the imagination. It is also well worth the time and money required.
If you have read any of the reviews about Brothers, than you probably know that it’s a single player co-op game, in that you use each of the analog thumb sticks to control one brother individually. You may also have heard of its beautiful art style and how the game features no dialogue except for a ‘simlish’ language spoken by the characters. The problem with Brothers is that it’s a game whose selling points aren’t easily translated beyond the experience itself. There are major reasons to play this game, but if revealed the experience is immediately weakened. Even upon reading reviews of the game myself, the game never struck me as a must play, but boy was I wrong.
This article however, will address the major reasons for playing Brothers and why the experience is so rewarding. To do that, this piece is going straight to the heart of the matter… the ending. So again Spoiler Alert because if you haven’t played this game it’s going to be ruined now.
If you still aren't going to play this but want to know what happens, the main ending sequence is viewable in this clip.
I love; absolutely love how this game handled the death of Big Brother. Plain and simple, Big Brother’s death was handled with a manner of respect and decency seldom seen in gaming these days. This medium has been increasingly failing to give emotional resonance and the concept of death in video games has almost been rendered meaningless. How can players in video games mourn the death of a character when in that same game, the player lays waste to hundreds of thousands of others? In 2013, I have played BioShock Infinite, Borderlands DLC’s, Sleeping Dogs, Saint’s Row 4, Far Cry 3 and GTA V and have probably seen half a million people die (most of them murdered by me). These characters die, and I shrug my shoulders because the concept of death has become so mundane. How can any death cast against thousands of others be significant?
Brothers corrects this issue by having very little death in this game. Three people die in this game; 5 hours of a gameplay in a modern video game that result in 3 deaths. If this was Saint’s Row IV I would have wiped out half the population of New York in 5 hours of gameplay. In Brothers there is no combat, you do not kill NPC’s on you journey and when death is referenced it always has weight or consequence around it. Little Brother is still haunted by the drowning of his mother and when their griffin dies he is mourned by both brothers even though they knew him for just a short time. However, it is the death of Big Brother that makes this game great. It was amazing for three major reasons which I will go into now.
Avoided cliché #1 – The False Death:
When that spider woman’s tentacle pierced into the abdomen of Big Brother I was certain he would not die. With their mother already dead, the game indicated that Little Brother blamed himself and was still dealing with it. In most narratives, this would be Little Brother’s story of redemption, how he faces danger with his Big Brother and saves his father’s life restoring the family unit and redeem himself amongst his internal demons. Also they were at the “tree of life” and when Little Brother scales the tree and obtains the magical serum, it was all set up to pour the serum into Big Brothers mouth and save him. Little Brother does attempt this and I was truly expecting him to start coughing, embrace his Little Brother and laughingly share a “that was close” moment. This clearly did not happen. Big Brother was dead and at that moment this game completely changed the direction I thought it was going.
Avoided cliché #2 – Dealing with the Departed:
Possibly more impressive than the point above, was how this game made you deal with death. When it was clear that Big Brother had died, traditional narratives again guided my expectations the events to follow. The scene, I assumed would feature Little Brother crying over or holding his brother while the screen faded to black. The scene would then open again after a passage of time with Little Brother standing over the grave and you would move on. Stories, movies and games seldom go into detail about having to deal with the remains of a loved one.
Yet, you are hit in the face with the fact that you now have to drag your brother into his grave. With your gameplay, you lift your brother slowly across the ground laying him into his final resting place. That would have been enough of a departure from standard video game deaths to set this game apart, but they keep going. That I personally as the player had to lay the dirt in the grave of my fallen brother is the reason this game has stuck with me. There were four piles of dirt to move. I didn’t have to fact check that, I remember vividly. I remember because I had to do it and in burying this person, it became extremely more impactful.
Four piles of dirt must be moved into the grave before your brother can rest.
Avoided cliché #3 – The Dead’s Guidance:
In narratives, often times when a dead person comes back they help a character through a hard time. The spirit of the dead gives guidance and helps our heroes overcome obstacles. This has happened in Harry Potter, Star Wars, Final Fantasy etc… In most cases the hero gets to talk with the deceased and see them again. Form an audience perspective, this comforts us as we are able to see our favorite characters again and weakens the impact of their death as we get to know they are going to a better place.
This again is handled in a master stroke by Brothers. First they tease us that Big Brother is alive by showing him hug Little Brother, only to reveal it is in the mind’s eye of Little Brother and Big Brother is shown dead and not moving. Next, when little brother arrives back at his home in the cold rain he is faced with water. The entire game Little Brother has not been able to swim alone so the player is immediately faced with an impossible task. You mother appears but her words are nonsensical and as you hug her she vanishes, offering no comfort. As you get in the water, frustration sets in as you can’t pass and it angers you. Then the haunting voice of your brother comes in, but it is inaudible, it does not help and you cannot see his face or his body. Little Brother must cross the lake alone to save his father but still cannot swim and Big Brothers voice from beyond the grave offers no help he remains stuck in a watery prison.
Then it happens, you move the left analog stick; the same stick that was used to control your Big Brother the entire game, which was rendered useless when he died. You move the stick and Little Brother finds the strength to move on, somehow getting through the water. Little brother pulls the heavy leaver with the aid of the left stick also and conquers jumping a high ledge, all using the right stick. Little Brother is forced to find the strength within him, now that he can no longer rely on his brother. The symbolism of controlling Little Brother with the left analog stick is such a prime example of narrative impacting gameplay that it should be written in text books for video game writers to study for years to come.
In Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, in the ending the art style that was so colorful and Disney influenced is suddenly ripped away revealing a dark undertones. This is a story about a boy learning harsh lesson that really doesn’t have a happy ending. It reveals itself to be a coming of age tale and one about the loss of innocence. At the end when Little Brother stands over the grave of his mother and brother, he stands in silence able to weather the terrible storm of emotional loss. This is in stark contrast to his father, who falls to his knees in pain and cries. Little Brother has grown up and is no longer the childish and carefree friend of animals at the beginning of the game. He is now on his path to manhood.
Brother's is one of the few games that has a very defined character ark, where the main protagonist has changed from where they were at the start of the game to where they were at the end.
If one wanted to be overly cynically about this game and say that it didn’t develop the characters enough (like our good friend Yahtzee) and just merely goes for the heartstrings. There is some truth to that, as this game is so short it does move pretty fast, but I think it proved the point it was trying to set out forth. Without dialogue there was not too many more ways to explore the dynamics of the family to get us more interested. Sure there could have been a few more cut scenes to build the relation, but it wouldn’t have drastically improved this game.
Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons more than earns all the acclaim it has received. For me this is the best ending to a video game in 2013 so far. It utilized tired gaming narratives, turned them on their heads and delivered a deep, haunted story wholes emotional beats are earned. Earlier this year, many people talked about The Last of Us containing a great story destined to be 2013’s best. In 5 short hours, and three important, impactful and meaningful deaths, Brothers took that acclaim without even breaking a sweat.
DanimalCart’s Soapbox: 09/25/13