I can’t begin to describe how weird it feels using words to talk about a game that has so little need for them. All the language that is spoken in Brothers, A Tale of Two Sons is totally made up, and therefore the emotion of the game is in the sounds, body language and landscape. Most games tend to express key parts of their emotion in dialogue so from an outsider’s perspective it would seem like Brothers would be unable to evoke an emotional reaction in its audience. You couldn’t be more wrong.
Brothers, A Tale of Two Sons is a game that I’ve been meaning to play for ages and ages. I think it was one of the first games I bought on Steam, but for some reason or another, I never got around to actually playing it. I think it was mostly to do with how much I struggled with the controls the first time I opened it. The game must be played with a controller as the left thumbstick and bumper control the big brother and the right controls the little one. Often they need to be moved in conjunction or combination, and as someone who has struggled with their fine motor skills quite a bit over the years, that was a task that felt almost impossible for me.
Having said that, the controls are an important part of the storytelling in the game, and to make them any easier or more complicated would on some level destroy the story. That simple control system means that the two brothers have to work together to get through many of the obstacles they face. There is no complicated inventory or battle systems, there is only each other. After all, these boys aren’t hardened adventurers or trained warriors, but little boys journeying through a strange mystical world to save their father. Those simple controls reveal to the player how strong the bond is between these two brothers, which is one of the most important points of the whole story.
The other hugely important part of the story is the world itself, particularly the landscape of the world. The game opens in a bright village town, which despite the brother’s sick father and personal tragedy, seems like the typical cheery village fairytale heroes come from. It reminds me of a lot of the art I saw at the Steiner primary school I attended, lots of colours and wonder. As the story progresses, however, the landscape becomes decidedly darker.
As the brothers journey they encounter the land of the giants, and eventually the giant’s battlefield where the rivers are literally awash with blood. Their reaction to this shows two very different personalities that have emerged as a result of their journey. The older brother, Naia has become hardened to the traumas of the road and survives by single-mindedly pushing towards his goal. He doesn’t flinch as he levers arms out of his way with arrows. The younger brother Naiee, however, still shudders every time they come across one of the bloody rivers, and is scared when he has to cross the river of blood. He doesn’t seem comfortable moving the bodies, it’s almost as if his journey through the world has increased his sense of compassion.
That compassion and familial love end up being the strongest part of a game that is at its core a tragedy. There’s isn’t really the same sense of hope that you’d have in a more traditional hero’s journey type of fantasy story, after all, it opens with Naiee sitting at his mother’s grave. Having said that in the side quests and through gesture a huge amount of compassion for the fate of others is shown. The brothers may not fully succeed in their quest, but they certainly make a difference to those they meet along the way and lifts the game to a level of complexity beyond tragedy.
Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is a complex game that does a lot with very little. By presenting a game that contains just enough to tell its story, its studio Starbreeze has given its audience one of the most heartwrenching short narratives I’ve come across in recent years. And it’s all without saying a word.