Brothers is a recent installment in the burgeoning genre best described as “feelsy indie games,” though mainstream critics might use a more dignified-sounding term like “art games” or sometimes the uselessly undescriptive “indie games.” (An alternative I particularly like, due to Jonathon Blow, is “arty games.”) After discovering Braid, I made a respectable effort to explore this genre, only to be consistently disappointed. Brothers gives me renewed hope for its future without giving me confidence that its hopeful future has arrived.
Brothers is the coming-of-age story of two boys in a fairy tale world of the “holy fuck you let children see this?” tradition. The dark tone is established in the opening cut scene, but it grows into its own alongside the two heroes over the course of their adventure. The boys initially have opportunities to be distracted by the other residents of their idyllic village, but the safety of their environment slowly evaporates as they traverse farther into unfamiliar territory. The children retain some of their capacity for innocent pleasure, but it seems expressed in different ways. This growth is subtle and I didn’t realize it was happening until the game was over, but in the end it was convincing.
Feelsy indie games are always criticized for pushing the boundaries of their medium until one wonders whether they should be called games at all. Brothers cannot escape this question. The story only barely works as a game, but the choice of medium is redeemed by the realization that it wouldn’t work at all as anything else. The sense that something is amiss probably stems from the fact that the mechanics are as lackluster as they are unusual. The player controls both brothers at once and guides them to overcome obstacles cooperatively. Everything aside from movement is executed using an “action” button for each brother. The obstacles are presented as puzzles, but the design is too shallow for this to feel like the correct description. Difficulties I encountered were of two types: first, controlling both characters simultaneously was clunky and confusing enough that I sometimes needed multiple attempts just to get my mental decisions to line up with the correct fingers on my keyboard. Second, the all-purpose nature of the action buttons left me expecting to have certain abilities that it turned out were not programmed in. Both of these difficulties, of course, compromised my immersion without adding anything substantive to the game experience.
The ease of the remainder of the game also seemed out of place. The world is grand, dangerous, surprising, and conspicuously constructed for these boys’ adventure. Ropes and chains are placed just where they’re needed, with no apparent alternative purpose. It was mystifying that every way of proceeding requires exactly two people, time and time again. This aspect prevented me from ever buying into the environment as an independent world despite its production of scene after beautiful scene. Brothers plays like a movie, partly because of the lack of difficulty and partly because of the impression that there are few genuine choices to be made. There are some optional tangents apparently intended for characterization, but I didn’t explore most of them since I found them to actually be out of character for the boys. Childlike spirit or not, I know that at least I wouldn’t stop to play with my neighbor’s cat if I were on an urgent mission to save my father’s life.
The cinematic impression is used well, however. The staging is careful, with diverse landscapes that are each uniquely gorgeous, disturbing, and mysterious. The environmental diversity along the journey is the game’s strongest element. It is important that the boys seem to be new to most of the territory, as well, since I felt my understanding of the world expand simultaneously with their own.
Much like Heart of Darkness, the grim adventure in Brothers doesn’t come together unless you’ve seen it through to the end. Only then is the focus redrawn from the magnificent world back to the point of the game, which was always the sons’ growth. The game skillfully builds on itself, toying with our now-broken intuition separating fantasy from reality. Further, the dual-control mechanics are finally used to a powerful effect, making a small but ultimately insufficient step toward redeeming their awkwardness throughout the rest of the game.
Brothers took me less than three hours to play. It’s a story simple enough to suit its fairy tale setting along with its length, though I suspect that nothing would be lost if it were 30% shorter. In this time, it shows us a world that almost animately begs us to be believed—sadly without full success. The impact of the world that matters, however, is on the brothers rather than on us. In the tiniest of ways, we see them forced by it to separately confront the childish trust that everything exists solely for their exploration, to discover what they can do and understand just what kind of difference they’re capable of making.