Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons (Video Game Literary Classics 101)

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons was originally published in 2013 and was developed by Starbreeze Studies, published by 505 Games and released to widespread critical acclaim. Brothers garnered a number of indie and professional awards not least amongst them a 2014 BAFTA for Best Game Innovation Award.

Brothers originally launched on the Xbox 360 with PC Windows, and PS3 versions following the same year.  Later platforms included the PS4 and Xbox One with the latest port being announced for the Switch in May 2019. It was heralded for its empathetic characters, innovative controls, as well as its heavy focus on visual storytelling without any spoken dialogue or written exposition. This wordless storytelling was intentional on the part of the games director Josef Fares, a Swedish film director and his desire to experiment with the medium.

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons has a fairly simplistic narrative. It relies on the traditional quest arc, with two young boys setting out to find a magical elixir to cure their father. It’s the simplicity of this narrative arc that allows the game to get away with its lack of dialogue, or exposition. Language is heard in the game, but it isn’t comprehensible, though it does borrow heavily from proto-indo-European sounds. Rather the focus is on the visual language with cuts, angles and scenes carrying the weight of the burden to deliver important moments and highlight the characters.

This shift becomes immensely important when establishing the games themes, because Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is of course about relationships.

In terms of delivery the game shifts seamlessly between cut scenes and gameplay. Unlike games like Dead Space which was famed for introducing this seamlessness, Brothers will shift the camera to indicate the player has lost control, before shifting back to its default position. The cut scenes use standard film shots such as close-ups or medium shots to draw the player in and focus on the characters animations revealing their emotions whilst general gameplay consists of high angle shots, positioned at a near 60 degree angle that mirrors an isometric game perspective. This is largely due to the need to focus on both of the brothers at the same time.

This creates something of a problem. In most early 3D games the camera was not controlled, which made for some rather awkward gameplay sections, slowly overtime 3D camera’s improved their angles and directions and eventually allowed players positional control over the camera themselves. Brothers came up against this issue, due to its control scheme (more on this later) that meant they were only able to offer the player partial control over the camera. Keeping both boys on the screen simultaneously became a problem, and this was resolved by allowing the character to zoom in when the brothers were close, and zoom out as the brothers move apart. As the boys separate so the player too, is distanced from them, creating an inadvertent triangular relationship between the player and the boys. This shift becomes immensely important when establishing the games themes, because Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is of course about relationships.

The title, of course, is the first giveaway, establishing the sibling relationship that takes centre stage throughout the rest of the story. Narratively though the game explores further dimensions and relationship in more depth. The starting cut scene indicates that their mother is already passed on, with the Younger Brother having a silent moment of grief beside her grave. This is quickly transitions when the older brother arrives lifting a heavier man (their father) onto a cart. Through animations and sound the story quickly establishes that he is ill, and unable to move. The stakes are set; if he cannot improve it is clear the two boys will be entirely orphaned. Narratively this works as often it is only when we are going to lose something (or have lost something) that we can establish its true importance to us and how much it is (or was) valued. The following segment serves as a short tutorial to the games mechanics. The boys are united, not only through their quest to get their father to a doctor but also through the controller.

Unlike most games Brothers requires the use of a controller. The reason is primarily due to its use of both analogue sticks and additional haptic feedback if the player’s controller supports it. The analogue sticks independently control each of the boys. It’s this that makes the player lose control of the camera, and it’s this that gives both of the boys the agency so necessary to the execution of its themes and transcendence from what would be simply a escort mission into a fully fledged single player co-op game. This is immensely important to some of the critical appraisal of the game, since this is the primary area of innovation, since there is nothing particularly original in other areas such as graphics or narrative. It also rests upon the idea that escort missions in games are usually singularly frustrating experiences, as evinced in critical reactions to games like Shadwen where inconsistent AI makes the experience rather frustrating. This can be largely overcome through good characterisation and storytelling such as in the recently released A Plague Tale Innocence, but Brothers overcame those issues by allowing the boys to have agency by having the player simultaneously control both. It does feel awkward at first, much like playing a musical instrument for the first time having to co-ordinate both hands, yet practise makes perfect, and the game doesn’t push the players reflexes to hard, instead creating its difficulty through the environmental puzzles you face. The tutorial has you carrying your father on his cart with one brother pushing and one pulling it to reach the Doctor’s. The game offers a few prompts for contextual interactions here, but quickly shifts to allowing the characters to prompt themselves when there is something to interact with, by shifting their animations and having them respond to elements of their environment. After reaching a lift the boys realise they need to work together to get to the lift controls. Big brother boosts little brother up a cliff face and he in turn can drop a rope down for his brother to climb up so that together they can turn the winch to raise up their Dad on the cart. These sorts of character skill based puzzles are well established in gaming, most notably in games like the Trine series, where character skill sets and shifting between them play an important role in overcoming obstacles.

A pastoral haven

Throughout this sequence and the beginning of the first act we see quite clearly the differences in the two brothers’ characters. Their animations the way they respond to the environment and the contextual clues give away little details about them. There isn’t much to subvert notions here, Big Brother is the more responsible of the two, the one driving them forward and acting as support, whereas little Brother is inclined to scamper off and play, performing both good and bad natured tricks, such as splashing a bucket over the sleeping Bridge guard to wake him up before Big Brother apologises and asks him to lower it so they can cross, or in side interactions such as Little Brother balancing a broom in his hand whilst Big Brother uses it to sweep away some dirt. This shift of responsibility and light heartedness shapes the two’s interactions, and it’s clear the Older Brother is far more aware of the gravity of their circumstance than Little Bro. Their co-dependency is also established at this stage. Whilst navigating the town, Little Brother can slip through fences whilst Big Brother can carry him over the water since Little Brother has not yet learnt to swim. These early scenes quickly establish them as individuals whilst allowing the player to see them interacting harmoniously to overcome the minor obstacles they face. Much of the early humour and engagement comes from Little Brother, acting much as the comic relief, whether he’s gob spitting into wells or laughing maliciously at his Bully who tormented him earlier. These interactions entice the player into checking what will happen in each location, testing to see what amusing event will follow with each brother when they interact.

This shift of responsibility and light heartedness shapes the two’s interactions, and it’s clear the Older Brother is far more aware of the gravity of their circumstance

However it does create some narrative dissonance, though coherency is well sacrificed at this point. Because the start of the game is so serious in tone, the shift to light hearted exploration here seems out of place, yet it creates a suitable slow-paced environment to allow the player to become comfortable with the controls as well as encourage them to explore interactions not only because it reveals more of the boys characters (important to a non-text narrative) and familiarises the player with the abnormal control. This bears fruit as well since the game does repeat various puzzles and interactions making them slightly different each time, encouraging the player to constantly test the limits of the controls. This is most apparent with the wall climbing puzzles in the early game. With the first wall allowing you to move straight up and the second one encouraging not only vertical movement but diagonal as well. This however brings into the questions of the environment against which the boys (and the player) test their ingenuity.

Mountain vistas

The environments themselves are based upon a medieval European environment, and in particular a mountainous one. The inspiration for this becomes clear when one is aware that the studio is of course Swedish and are drawing from the Alpine environment they call home. From the high crags and cliffs the boys scale to mining operations and castles it is a testament to the love of their home. Possibly much of the verisimilitude felt when playing the game comes from the authenticity of the design itself since it draws upon the real world inspiration of the artists. The villages are less authentic and slightly more generic medieval however it lends credence to the choice of the fantasy setting. This is only briefly apparent at the beginning when the mother’s ghost is seen but quickly becomes apparent as the two young boys encounter a troll. The hesitant approach and fear of the player upon encountering it is of course deeply rooted in European folklore and the game takes a rare chance at subverting this expectation by soon indicating that he is a friendly albeit sad troll. Later on in the narrative there are more severe consequences of this that ties into the young boys own narrative.

This encounter though does prompt a shift in the games tone. Where the village life depicted so far has been simplistic and innocent, painted with bold sunlight, and muted pastel browns that seem to reflect similar colours to those chosen by Swedish artists like John Bauer. The game begins to shift, to a rather more sombre tone and palette of dull greys, later on colours will again add emotional value and weight such as red rivers of blood during one particularly harrowing scene that portrays the culmination of a battle.

Asssistance arrive from an unexpected quarter
Look at them, mother Troll said. Look at my sons! You won’t find more beautiful trolls on this side of the moon, 1915, watercolor by John Bauer (wikimedia)

It’s these elements that add to the games figurative storytelling, the building up of the environments and world showcase the transition of the two boys from innocence and naiveté in the beginning, with the pastoral scenes to experience as they encounter the horrors of the environments they venture through. As such the game is as much a coming of age story as it is about the boys’ relationship, and how it is impacted over time. The constant dependency of each boy upon the other becomes integral to this, and particularly in the case of the younger brother as his light-hearted approach in earlier scenes becomes juxtaposed with the greater responsibility he bears in later scenes after his older brother is injured.

The environments also become more hazardous as you progress; the mine sequence which occurs directly after the Village quickly showcases dangerous environments with platforming segments that could lead to the boys plummeting to their deaths.  Again the safety of the beginning area representative of their sheltered innocence is challenged just as the player begins to find controlling the two to be more onerous. The ambidexterity required to control both boys whilst avoiding a sequence of falling rocks or clinging to chains above a yawning chasm requires more intense concentration than one would think. These new environmental dangers only increase as the game continues and the player becomes more familiar with controlling both boys.

the environments and world showcase the transition of the two boys from innocence and naiveté

After the mines and a brush with death, the two boys are confronted by a graveyard, it’s a potent reminder of the stakes at play, and this is followed by a reminder of their own mortality through a near drowning experience which leads to one of the most important scenes of the game. As the unconscious younger brother enters a dream state, and confronts the harshness of his situation and fears in his dream. The symbolic weight of this scene is arguably overdone with his mother looming largely across the scene and her hand covering his father. This stands in immense juxtaposition against his normal cheerful nature when playing and hints at the fact that he is aware of his circumstances. It also marks a position roughly half-way through the game, serving to introduce the more serious second half.

A brief moment of rest

This sequence is literally followed by a dark night, (navigating it with only a torch despite the howling of wolves around them that will devour them if they aren’t within the lights circumferences (a mechanic that the more recent A Plague Tale: Innocence uses but with rats) before shifting to a larger mythical setting. The grandiose expansion conveys the young boys’ broader confrontation with the world and hints at their expanding horizons as they advance. This is mirrored for the player visually by allowing the camera to draw back further and see the vast mountain landscape that unfolds before your visions. It’s another abrupt shift from the simplicity of the village and enclosed caverns of the mines.

Yet the game is not without moments of levity. The goat riding sequence through the mountains and the enhanced folk music that rises to a crescendo during this sequence complements the young boys’ cries of excitement and joy and is swiftly followed by another transportation sequence by glider, where they boys control its direction by shifting their weight back and forth across the bars. But again these moments are brief and quickly transition back to the two youth’s confrontation with mortality. This time by entering one of the most visceral and disturbing environments of the game.

The Giant’s Valley depicts the aftermath of war. And whilst the two boys have had violent confrontations before, such as with the ogre in the mines, there is no actual violence in this scene, only the depictions of the aftermath of violence. Manipulating and moving across the corpses, including dismembering them bring a totally different level of shock value than outright violence. The boys’ characters of course have already shown that they do understand death and mourn the loss of life, whether it’s their mother, the churchyard visitation just before the night sequence or the ability to mourn their griffin friend after his assistance that results in his death through exertion. So having them mutilate corpses to advance as well as accompanying animations that shows their surprise and dismay help assist this scene. It continues with the establishment of their characters due to their capacity to both witness and commit violence when necessary to achieve their ultimate goal which is of course to save their father. The morality here is not explored in any deep measure, taking a backseat to the player’s emotional reaction to such scenes rather it’s one of those moments where players are able to decide for themselves the morality and ethics of what they are doing. The mutability of interpretations in such scenarios is of course amongst the greatest strengths of the medium.

The aftermath

However the mythical underpinnings are still there, with the next segment featuring tribal goblinoids engaging in a sacrifice, incredibly reminiscent of Andromeda. Disguising themselves in blood the two boys rescue “Andromeda” and escape with her to safety. And subsequently an encounter with the abominable snowman and what appears to be a burgeoning romance that interferes with the relationship between the two brothers.

The old saying of two’s company and three’s a crowd becomes quickly apparent. The outsider becomes a disruptive force between the previous harmonious unity between the two. And ultimately her reveal as a spider, the weaver of webs of manipulation leads to the demise of the family unit. The quick breakaway at the culmination of this climactic fight to focus on the father however ‘weaves’ back the concept of family connection as he senses his sons injury. The emphasis here is laid upon the concept of the integrity of the family unit and its destruction at the face of malevolent external forces. That this injury comes so close the final conclusion and success of the quest underpins the tragedy of the tale as they do finally reach the tree, the ancient symbol of life.

Yet as you finish off the journey the final signifier comes into play. It is not visual, or auditory but rather the controls themselves. For now with only one Brother too move… the second control still allows him to proceed. The controls themselves signify the lingering ghost of his brothers abilities now invested in him. Facing the original tutorial puzzles one went through in the beginning are a sharp reminder of loss as you complete them solo.

Much like many of the tales of the past, that focus on quests and their failure, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is unafraid to establish the tragedy of the human condition, in hindsight the game seems Quixotic and yet during the playthrough the hope and determination of the two boys seems as grand as any chivalric tale. As the tale moves into its diminuendo, the flashback of the younger brothers memory of his father and his love for him creates a stirring moment of quiet empathy before the game has you complete the tale by burying his brother. These acts of veneration, both with the small Griffin and now with your own brother are what ground the player deeply into the world.

These relationship links are deeply tied into various conceptions of brotherly love and friendship. Plutarch describes Brotherly love as “natural” in his essay De fraterno Amore a smaller section of his Moralia. In it he states that “Brothers should not be like the scales of a balance, the one rising upon the other’s sinking; but rather like numbers in arithmetic, the lesser and greater mutually helping and improving each other”.–Chapter 15 This is clearly a large influence behind the mechanics of the game which has the young boys mutually helping. This is all the more poignant in the final moment where the younger brother begins to perform the acts his older brother once did. The game took great care to establish the Brothers different skills in the early game, only to subvert this at the end, allowing the younger Brother to swim and pull levers on his own. It is at once uplifting to see him become so capable, something other stories often celebrate in their protagonists but here it feels like a loss. Not only is the control partially simplified and diminished by the loss of one character to control but also a testament to what his brother had taught him.

The brothers death is not just a narrative act but the death of your own investment in controlling him. Characters in games may simply be objects, at the whim of the players own agency yet withing the narrative and the world they become invested with autonomy that makes gaming as a medium so compelling.

Questions for review

  1. What interactions allowed you to develop a feeling of intimacy with the characters through the controls?
  2. How are the characters animated to allow you to quickly identify with them, based on characteristics and expectations from the real world.
  3. What is the importance of establishing mythical elements in fairytales and how does this cultural framework of symbolism add to effective and clear storytelling.

This article is produced in collaboration with BacklogCrusader and their Community Collab: Video Game Literary Classics 101

4 Comments

  1. Coming of age, strength of relationships, and the human condition – what a lovely story! I never got around to playing this one back when it came out. I didn’t realize how heavy it was on the visual story telling rather that using narrative dialogue. Thanks for your post! 🙂

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    1. It’s just been released for the Switch, but is probably cheaper to pick up on PS4 or Xbox One as an older game! If you do buy the PC version make sure you have a controller! It’s integral to the game, if slightly impeding accessibility).

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  2. This was so well done! I haven’t played this one, but the way you talked in-depth about the increase in gravity/responsibility as the game progresses, and its ability to convey the coming of age story (visually and thematically) was great. I love indie games that are able to communicate so much with visuals alone. Again, fantastic write up 🙂

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