The great thing about the gaming industry is the number of curveballs it throws. For every expected bestseller, every technically sound but soulless retooling of Call of Duty or Assassin’s Creed, there are titles not even on your radar which end up captivating, surprising, and ultimately leave you feeling a little less hollow. The key word is feeling. Sometimes it takes a game of such raw emotion to make you realise that there is an alternative to brainless button-mashing or perpetuating an endless, faceless cycle of carnage. Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is one such game, which fully deserves to be feted amongst the likes of Journey and The Walking Dead as it treads the line between game and film.
Death is the framework holding Starbreeze Studios’ adventure firmly together. Not since Planescape: Torment has there been such a purposeful study of mortality, yet it is portrayed tenderly, almost reverently, and without a single line of text or word of English. You’ll encounter death in various guises along the way: a distraught widower, a blood sacrifice, a forest of hanging corpses. It begins at a graveside with a young son mourning the loss of his mother. His father is struck down by a mysterious illness soon after, and it is up to him and his elder brother to find a tree containing life-sustaining water, the only cure for their father’s condition. With no alternative they set off, leaving the control of each in your hands.
Two thumbsticks and two trigger buttons are all you need to complete the game, with the left side controlling the elder boy and the right the youngest. It is a surprisingly simple mapping to learn and you’ll be fluent by the end of the tutorial section, which sees you trying to leave the village whilst the neighbourhood bully blocks your way at every step. This also sets up delightful interactions with the other townsfolk, their conversations translated via Sims-style non-language through mime and action. The youngest brother doesn’t do much to endear himself to you to start with; when he's not smashing pot plants or spitting in wells, he's stomping on thatched roofs and grabbing rabbits by their ears.
But this is a journey of growth and discovery and it won’t be long before the strengths and weaknesses of one sibling are called upon to balance the other out. Puzzles are primarily driven by the necessity to progress, with the youngest’s small frame squeezing through railings or being boosted onto ledges, whilst the eldest manipulates heavy levers and carries his little brother across rivers. You’ll team up to dodge an angry dog, navigate vertiginous drops whilst joined by a single rope and operate a suspiciously large number of devices which require two people. The challenge is brisk and shouldn’t trouble any but the most casual of gamers, but then the challenge plays second fiddle to the narrative’s themes. There’s no energy bar, no inventory - the focus is entirely on the environment and the brothers’ activity within it. It’s as pure a gaming experience as you’re likely to experience, with an absorbing cinematic feel that keeps you rooted firmly in place until its four hours are over.
The art direction is simply stunning. Whilst reminiscent of Fable, it transcends this style with lushly detailed and varying environments which belie its indie trappings. Fire, water, shadow and smoke are all wonderfully realised and the company’s Scandinavian roots are clear in its depiction of rustic villages, snow-topped mountains and verdant countrysides filled with fireflies. Character animations are charming, earning different reactions to the environments and other NPCs depending on which brother you’re controlling. As the game progresses you’ll delve into fantastical landscapes filled with lovelorn ogres and fierce wolves, and pick your way through the aftermath of a huge giant battle in one gruesomely inventive sequence.
None of this would have quite the same effect without the haunting soundtrack which accompanies the journey. By equal turns sombre, evocative and ethereal, the mournful violins and heartfelt vocal cries combine to produce a fitting score for the tale, perfectly underlining the pathos throughout. Here is art in game form, each chapter within its narrative awash with nuance and purpose. Even achievements are encompassed in the overall themes: a white rabbit amongst black brethren ostracised until you coat it with ash; a caged bird waiting to be freed and rediscovered later on; the recovery of a family memento providing a tortured soul with something to cling to. It is brave storytelling, directed with flair and passion by Josef Fares, an award-winning Swedish filmmaker.
It isn’t all downbeat - there are flashes of humour and joy scattered within and the game never becomes maudlin. There are thrilling rides along overhead rails and down rapids, and soaring flights on both beast and machine as enjoyable as any triple-A title. If anything, the lighter tones only serve to intensify the darker moments further, stirring up feelings of such anguish and sadness that you’ll begin to wonder if you’re actually the one being played. The final thirty minutes are a devastating tour de force, a terrific callback to the game’s beginning rendered so effortlessly that you’ll find yourself shaking your head in wonder as you’re left stunned, bewildered and utterly, irrevocably drained.
Critics may bemoan the simplicity of the gameplay and the relatively short playing time but they would be missing the point entirely. Not since Ico has there been such a vivid combination of poetic storytelling and platforming, but drawing deeper comparisons would be doing a disservice to Brothers, whose superior writing evokes far greater impact. Family is important here, not only indicated by the overall quest but in every action and gesture the elder brother takes to protect his younger kin. Love, loss, determination, despair, reunion; the game covers all of these and more with both a subtle touch and a sympathetic eye. Brothers is nothing short of a triumph, glowing brightly in the embers of the dying fire of this console generation and reminding us all why we started playing games in the first place.