[28 March 2014]
Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons captures a sense of scope and adventure that few games accomplish, but that many try. Most games focus purely on the size of a world when trying to convey that kind of scope. Big worlds are, after all, big. But that takes a lot of work. The levels in Brothers are tiny compared to games like Skyrim or Dragon Age, but what they lack in size they make up for in art. The game’s levels are specifically designed to convey—as G. Christopher Williams put it in our Brothers Moving Pixels podcast on Brothers—the “story of travel.”
The term “linearity” is not one that many gamers like. There is an assumption among many gamers that open worlds are more freeing and allow for more exploration than more “linear” style games, but “more” doesn’t mean “better.” Linearity is Brothers’s greatest asset. It allows the developers to always know where we are and where we’re going and that allows them to customize our path to ensure that a specific story of travel can be told along its path.
Brothers constantly changes the world around us so that we’re never in the same environment for more than a minute. We’re always seeing something new. Not only does this mean the game can show us a variety of environments in a relatively short period of time, but it also ensures that we remain interested in the world around us. It never repeats itself. Players are, after all, voracious explorers, but we hate exploring the same area twice. The linear path of Brothers is so finely customized that it’s likely that you’ll never even see the same rock twice.
There are examples of this throughout the game, but the best early example is in the second chapter. That chapter opens in a rural town, the kind with a single central road and buildings spaced out unevenly alongside it. This comes just after the brothers spent their time hopping across densely packed rooftops in Chapter 1, so the moment that Chapter 2 begins, it already impresses on us a sense of movement from the dense city center to the more rustic edges of these spaces.
As you run through Chapter 2, you eventually reach a farm, a type of structure defined by space and open areas. As such, it’s the last major piece of human civilization that you see for a long time. From there, you get into a mountainous area, climbing for a bit until you reach an automated bridge; the edge of civilization. Then the land becomes impassable—the cliffs become too steep and the gaps between rocks become too wide to leap across—but there you also meet a troll. he carries you through this extreme environment that exists beyond the human sphere of influence on nature.
It’s important to realize that all of this is presented in a single level. The camera never fades to black to load in a new environment; you travel from a small town to the untamed mountains without a single camera cut or load screen, and the whole level lasts no more than 15 minutes. Since the levels are so carefully designed, those 15 minutes feel like a condensed version of a 15 hour journey, and so in retrospect the level feels longer than it actually is. The density of the world is used to give the illusion of size and time.
The game repeats this trick which occurs in each chapter, but the game also understands that the story of travel isn’t just about movement. It’s about the events that one experiences while moving. On your journey, you’ll do typically adventurous things like running along a crumbling bridge or climbing a steep wall, as well as more fantastical things like fighting trolls or hiding from invisible monsters, and even plenty of mundane things like helping a family of turtles, recovering an heirloom for a stranger, or riding some goats.
Brothers knows how to combine events and movement into the perfect story of travel. For example, at one point you encounter a suicidal man whose family has just died in a fire. You can help him find a memento, but then you have to move on. It’s a dark, sad moment, and it’s followed by a fair bit of walking. Just walking. Then a clever windmill puzzle. Then more walking. And then you meet the goats, who carry you up another impassible path. The brothers race each other, the music swells, they laugh, and it’s a much needed moment of levity that comes not five minutes after the melancholy encounter with the suicidal man. However, in that short time frame we solve a puzzle and watch the environment change drastically, which creates a mental distance between the two events. That distance gives each moment time to breathe.
The game knows that 30 seconds of just running through a level can be made equivalent to 30 minutes of walking through a world and exploring a linear world for four hours can be just as satisfying as exploring an open world for 50 hours. The story of travel is just like any other story. Size is pointless without proper pacing.