As a fairy tale, “Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons” at first feels familiar. Unforeseen twists and a pensive tone ultimately abound, and its storybook-like setting has its share of giants, big bad wolves and colossal birds offering free rides.
As a video game, however, the experience is far from typical.
Crafted by Sweden’s Starbreeze Studios, a developer known best for action fare such as “Chronicles of Riddick” tie-ins, “Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons” sees the studio creating its own myths with a shorter, more narrative-driven approach. Themes of love and loss take precedence over puzzles, and the game world is designed to test the emotional conviction of its characters rather than the dexterity of its players.
Players control two brothers, one young and one old. The siblings are on a quest to heal their ailing father and embark on a trek for a magical tonic that has the two walking and climbing through foreboding cemeteries, half-constructed dungeons and deserted battlefields.
Along the way they’ll meet heartbroken giants, heartbroken birds, heartbroken turtles and, in the case of the older brother, one nasty heartbreaker of a woman. They’ll also manage to upend some video game design conventions.
Game director and Swedish-based filmmaker Josef Fares has made the unusual choice of having two characters puppeteered by one controller. Whereas most games have players utilizing the left stick for movement and right stick for looking around, here the left directs the older brother and the right manages the younger brother.
It gives “Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons,” out now on Xbox Live Arcade, a steep learning curve — one that may not be 100% mastered during its refreshingly modest length (the game was about a seven-hour experience for this completist), but that’s reflective of an industry that has conditioned players to expect the familiar rather than the chances taken by Fares or Starbreeze. Each brother has his own strengths and weaknesses — the younger one can’t swim, for instance — and the world progresses by mixing and matching their skills.
Emphasizing exploration, the game offers no guidance via directional cues or even English speakers. The brothers talk only in a made-up language inspired by Fares’ Lebanese roots. Their inflections foretell whether a given scene is playful or treading toward Brothers Grimm-level peril. It encourages trial and error, and personalities are revealed by seeing how the different brothers will interact with strangers and their environment. The younger will joyfully wreak havoc on a garden while the older will carefully restore it.
Throughout the game the brothers will have a chance to do a lot of good, as this is a fairy tale-inspired universe where the kingdom is ruled by selfishness and cynicism. Towns are unwelcoming, kids play alone and help is only offered reluctantly. Here, the brothers are a force of positivity, whether it’s by encouraging a rabbit to gain acceptance via a brief lesson in stereotyping or simply by comforting a widower with a song.
None of the challenges are tricky. If there’s a gripe, it’s that the toughest puzzle doesn’t take more than five to 10 minutes to crack. Also disappointing is that “Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons” doesn’t stray from one unfortunate video game design trend of late, which is that many character-defining challenges are optional, making the world easier to navigate for those who choose to simply run through it.
But it’s hard to fault Fares for wanting to emphasize a mood when he does it so well. In many ways he’s crafted a fairy tale reflective of a time of economic and romantic uncertainty. The workforce, even a prison-guarding giant, is discouraged to the point of lazing on the clock, and — like our read-and-delete world of online dating — this realm views true-love platitudes with skepticism.
When the older brother is whisked away into a sudden moment of charming intimacy that sparks a delightful video game kiss, the younger brother preaches that he keep his head out of the clouds. It may be callous but makes sense because for all its flashes of magic, “Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons” makes sure darker moments are never far behind.
As evidence, the ratio of time played versus time spent watching a character kneel before a gravestone is surprisingly high. This is how the game begins, and though the ending isn’t open-ended, it does aim to linger.
Make no mistake, this is an enchanting story and one that should challenge players and designers to rethink approaches to interactive storytelling. It’s about time someone took long-established video game maneuvers and tossed them. Part of the excitement of “Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons” is in relearning one’s way around a controller.
Consider it an old-fashioned fairy tale delivered with a sometimes painfully modern sheen. For all its hug-giving birds and life-extending elixirs, there is ultimately no cure for the harsh reality of loneliness.
Happily ever after? No, more like, “happily, if only after one can learn to live with loss.” As a moral to a story it lacks a certain pizzazz, but much like real life it’s still fun to play.
— Todd Martens | @toddmartens
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