Brothers: Narratively Self-Satisfied, Narratively Bankrupt

Fifteen dollars for a gorgeous, varied, and engaging platformer may not seem like anything special in 2015 (you can look at Steam for five minutes and find a few games that check at least two of those boxes), but few of them are the same sort of thing as Brothers: A Tale Of Two Sons. Brothers is more like a film than any platformer I’ve played, for better or for worse, and in more ways than one. It doesn’t seem to know what to do with its story ambitions however, and despite having an extremely solid footing when it comes to core gameplay, still reaches for that extra boost of narrative excellence that always evades its grasp.

Henceforth: Spoilers.

I think my main issue with Brothers is that clearly the emphasis is placed on its story, which from where I’m sitting is a boilerplate “deeply moving” video game story. It seems that only the bare minimum in storytelling prowess is required to garner universal acclaim from people hungry to let everyone know they appreciated a story once. If you told me that the game was originally animated short film that went awry somewhere narratively and was turned into a video game because “those chumps will love any story they’re thrown”, I would totally believe you. I found Brothers’ story actually quite confusing as to what it was supposed to be saying about overcoming trauma, taking into account the fate of one of the titular brothers.

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Naiee thinking about mom and stuff.

Naiee, the younger brother, ultimately overcame the crippling guilt of his inability to save his drowning mother, and consequently, his hydrophobia – but at what cost? His only sibling and closest friend? …at the end of a game whose central mechanic is the simultaneous control and synergy between two brothers? Even if Brothers is trying to say something about the shaking off of old safety gear and being able to finally take control of yourself, as Naiee does at the end, it seems odd that the game chooses to illustrate this through killing off half of what its thematic centerpiece seems to be up until that point.

And I think this is why Brothers’ ending was sort of a wet fart for me. I wasn’t paralyzed in sadness for Naiee’s loss of his only companion, and not because the game failed to play up the moment (though the burial itself did leave something to be desired), but because all that sadness I was supposed to feel was replaced with confusion. After this perilous journey across what must have been an enormous chunk of land compressed for time’s sake, and after building up the expectation that the game is a meditation on brotherhood and companionship, to have one brother die in a complete reversal of everything the game set up is a bit thematically puzzling, not to mention disappointing.

There is, of course, an excellent game at the forefront for much of Brothers’ runtime. The game captures scope and scale like few others, and the winding journey through its whimsical world clearly inhabited by people much larger than yourself is an enthralling one. It’s at its best when it is merely a whimsical adventure, and not trying to pander to the The Walking Dead/The Last Of Us-inspired wave of easily pleased story hounds, because what it’s doing the pandering with is all bone, and no meat.

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Brothers’ “benches” provide some genuinely jaw-dropping vistas. Especially once you consider, “wait, I’m going to be there in 20 minutes”.

The meat is in its moments and in its setpieces, when it twitches from motif to motif as frantically as Half-Life 2, culminating in a jigsaw puzzle made of pieces that don’t fit, but still produce a clear image. Wondering at the intricacies and myths of its world is a much more evocative experience than what its story and its themes provide, and for something riding so heavily on those two elements, that really is a shame.

Still, it isn’t as if its narrative is being outdone by some slouch who phoned it in just a little bit harder – the game is beautiful, and it’s extremely well-made mechanically. The true slouching is in its resolution where it knocks over the preceding three hours of thematic building blocks, in favor of a completely new objective that doesn’t mesh at all with what it had set in place. It’s the equivalent of an artsy-fartsy silent animation on Vimeo, and you all ate it right up for $15 a pop.

But that’s okay, it’s a pretty fun game.

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