Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons Review

brothers: a tale of two sons healing tree

The Brothers Lionheart is my favorite Astrid Lindgren book. It also seems to be the inspiration behind Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, a game by the famous Swedish film maker Josef Fares. Needless to say, I love this game. It tells the story of two brothers from a broken home – their mother had died earlier in a drowning accident – on an adventure to find medicine for their dying father. Their quest takes them through their village, the mountain side, caves, a battlefield after a gruesome war, and more.

The game is a single player co-op, which sounds weird. I thought it was a local co-op game for the longest time and put off playing it until I found someone who would play it with me. Then they couldn’t. What this means is that you control both of the brothers on one control. This can make the game a bit confusing at times when you forget which stick controls which brother. In addition to moving them, you use the R and L trigger. Again, one trigger per brother. This makes the control scheme very simple, but it still takes a while to get used to it.

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If you can do this, the controls are easy

I feel that the story is very Scandinavian in tone and style. It borrows a lot from Scandinavian mythology, and drawing from The Brothers Lionheart, you know it will be both sweet and sad. The fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen that we know, like The Little Mermaid, are tales we don’t really know. Disney and other media creators have re-interpreted a lot of old fairy tales and made them lighter. Originally, a lot of fairy tales had their fair share of darkness and it is from this that Brothers draws from.

That is not to say the game is bleak and depressing. It is quite the opposite. There is no dialogue in the game and no text. All communication between the characters are done via pantomime and speech, which is gibberish but not in the Swedish Chef sense, thankfully. All around you there are things which you can interact with and each brother has their own interactions and this shows the personality so perfectly. The older brother is responsible and caring, the younger is playful and rambunctious. The use of an imaginary language really helps bring you closer to these characters, because it is all about the feeling and display of emotion in gesture and tone. As an older brother, it was easy for me to relate to these characters by remembering growing up with my younger brother. I saw a lot of us in them and I feel that if I had been able to understand or read what they said, I would not have felt so close to them. Watching each brother interact differently with the environment was a delight.

But it is dark. The story is not just about family and adventure, it is about death. The opening cinematic is about how their mother died. Their father is about to die if they can’t a giant, living tree that houses some kind of magical panacea in time. They crawl through a field full of giants, fallen in battle. You will come across hanged bodies, and save someone from committing suicide. There is death around every turn in some form of another, just as there is life around every turn. And in fairy tale fashion, it provides an oddly disturbing contrast, but is also presented as a fact of life. A hard fact, but a fact nonetheless. Early in the game, the brothers come across three bodies hanging from a tree. Besides an exclamation of disgust and surprise, they give it no further thought.

If you like games that are about narrative and exploration more than difficulty and action, then I definitely recommend it.

 

(Spoilers after the images)

brothers: a tale of two sons taking a break in the village brothers: a tale of two sons spooky dream

The best use of controls to hit an emotional peak I have ever come across has been in Brothers. Art the end of the game, despite your best efforts, big brother dies. Whereas most games treat death as a normal part of the game (almost every shooter ever made) or treats it like a shocking, out-of-the-blue event and then everyone carries on as normal (FF VII), Brothers has you experience death. When big brother dies, you need to control the little brother and bury him. This requires you to slowly drag the body of your brother to the grave you have dug. Then, you slowly walk around the grave to push four piles of dirt into the hole to bury him. All the while the little brother hangs his head in sadness.

But what happens next really let the feeling sink in, and it is here that the beautiful culmination of everything about Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons comes together. You have spent the whole game using both sides of your controller to move these two brothers around. Now, you have to make your way back to your father’s but you only have to use one half of the controller. I immediately felt loss at this point, because I was physically only doing half of the things I was doing before. The last part is genius though. To get back to your house, you need to cross a small river. Little brother has always been afraid of water and every time you have to swim, he needs to hold on to big brother’s back. This comes from his mother’s drowning accident which he feels responsible for. I waded around the shore trying to find a path that he could take but I couldn’t find any. I hit his trigger on the controller, to see if I could interact with the water. Little brother shook his head, and the animation perfectly conveyed feeling of stubbornness, fear, and depression. I spent a few minutes walking around trying to find a way to get across. Part of me was getting frustrated with little brother. Come on man, your dad is dying!

I was about to ALT+Tab to look up a walkthrough when I tried hitting the trigger that corresponded to big brother. Immediately it zoomed in and I could hear big brother’s voice. With his support, little brother could make it across the water and save his dad.

I loved that moment. A game was able to perfectly blend story, visuals, controls, and physical action to convey meaning in the loss of a character. When death and killing is such a normalized part of videogames, it is really refreshing to see a game where death is treated with respect, emotion, and care.

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