[27 September 2013]
The idea of loss is a common theme in video games, but rarely is it used to make a point. I can speak from personal experience about the lack of care that I feel whenever my avatar dies, the people around them die, or I slaughter hundreds for the sake of progressing through the narrative or topping the multiplayer rankings. Starbreeze Studios newest downloadable title, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, takes on the theme of loss, the emotional weight that comes with it, and combines these elements in a deeply rich, modernist approach to storytelling that simultaneously breaks conventions associated with many of today’s interactive experiences. All in the hope it seems to deliver a true representation of what art might look like in a video game.
It’s no secret that there has been an ongoing debate, in and out of the industry, regarding video games and their ability to truly be a form of art. But how do you define art? Personally, I prefer the definition of art as something created that has the ability to reach someone at an emotional level. In the modernist era, as a society, we saw a new interpretation of how the world should be represented with increasing questions about what was thought of as natural conventions as well as an increasing sense of disillusionment or loss of faith in conventional thinking, stemming from the disintegration of civilization represented by events like two world wars, the Great Depression, and the like. If we can look at paintings or literature from this period of time and define them as art, then we should also include the experience that is Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons within that definition.
We are introduced to the idea of loss very early on in Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons and the natural, strong emotions that are attached when that sense of loss specifically is associated with someone you love. The opening cinematic revolves around the youngest brother in the game, who is grieving above a tombstone. A flashback allows us to see that he was next to his mother as she drowned, but because he couldn’t swim, she died. Shortly after this sequence, we are introduced to this man’s older brother and both of them run off to find their father, who is also losing a battle with a fatal illness. Cue the quest to save your father. What’s important to note is that in these cinematic sequences there is no actual dialogue, so you have to interpret the narrative for yourself.
Similar to the Sims games, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons adopts the use of a form of gibberish as opposed to a familiar language that its characters speak, which forces the player to decipher the meaning behind these sequences using visual, audio, and interactive cues to illustrate the gravity of the situation presented. While the Sims used a more exaggerated, mime-like caricature to define human emotion, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons takes a more subtle approach, which is demonstrated by the octave of the characters’ voices as well as through their body language. Initially, the inclusion of gibberish in a story driven, emotional beginning had me thinking that I would be pulled out of the narrative, but instead I found myself filling in the blanks just as I have been accustomed to doing in other forms of art, a common enough necessity in modernist works, for example. While this may not resonate with every player, the control scheme is something that will.
The game uses a dual controlling mechanic that will take some getting used to, but ultimately it acts as a defining piece of storytelling and can be used as an example to highlight the unique interactive ability that is specific to the medium. The control scheme is actually very simple, though. You control both brothers independently, the older brother’s actions are enacted with the left analog stick and the younger brother with the right stick. Each brother also has one interactive button that is context sensitive to the area or person it is being used on. There is a very brief introduction to the controls, which becomes a very strong narrative choice because it allows the player to naturally grow with the brothers on their journey and experiment a little more, revealing layers of their characters.
As the story proceeds so does the subtle nuances that are expressed in the context sensitive scenarios, giving each brother their own role in the world around them as well as their own sense of purpose. This purpose includes the growth we get to see in the perspectives of the brothers as the narrative and puzzles evolve. On one hand you have the older brother, taking on the role of the father, looking at everything through a very realistic lens. On the other hand, you have the younger brother who is able to take a more youthful, imaginative approach to the world, offering some unique and sometimes funny sequences when juxtaposed to those of the other brother. Anyone that has siblings can recall this same, unmentioned role we play in the family, and it is through these naturally defined relationships that you start to care for each brother because now they have been lifted off of the screen and into our personal lives. I even found myself, very early on, using the older brother to sort of scout ahead because it naturally felt right (I am an older brother). This could stem from my natural “older brother tendencies,” or it could also be due to the fact that control of the older brother is placed on the video game dominant left analog. Coincidence or not, the relationship between these brothers and the control scheme results in a narrative narrative that unfolds in sometimes powerful sequences. I won’t spoil it, but at some point, without the expected hand holding, the game presents a situation of growth through the control scheme in an emotional and impactful way that I have never experienced before in a game.
So we have made it this far, but how is Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons a piece of modernist art? Modernity brought about technological and scientific change, and right now the same can be said about the video game industry. We are at a point in our culture in which small groups of artists now have the financial means to deliver a vision first and a game second. I’m not trying to say that mechanic-driven gaming is being left behind or should be, but until this point, we haven’t had this type of game offered in the marketplace so consistently. Specifically, I mean a game like Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, in which the developers are bucking the trend of what has been traditionally defined as an adventure game and replacing it with an artistic vision or story that uses the medium to its fullest potential. This is represented in the alternative control scheme, the lack of tutorials, and the reliance on a common language that each gamer, or more specifically, any human being, can relate to. There are even moments in Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons when you can totally ignore sometimes very heavy, narrative-defining situations, nevertheless, such gaps can be totally rationalized based on the world of the game. Indeed, this is a world that isn’t fully explained but that represents the evil, poverty, and war torn world that we have come to accept. Modernists would be proud.
The idea of acceptance is the only way anyone can begin to be reborn, and it is in representing this idea that Starbreeze Studios’ downloadable experiment comes to it’s rightful close. We must not lament the past but look to the future in order to experience true growth as human beings, a society, or in any corporate body. Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons personifies the current growth and evolving language of games themselves. When you combine a strong narrative that is expertly woven with the interactive elements that set this medium apart along with the ability to truly leave a lasting emotional impact, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is the true definition of art.