Playing Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is the best way to simulate the role of the middle child.
From experience, the brother that arrives between first and last gets the pleasure and the burden of acting out both parts at once. To the older brother, he is a companion, a student; to the younger, a mentor and a close friend. Being in that position is to know two very different halves of one’s self, with an obligation to embody and appreciate both extremes.
Brothers takes this concept to a literal level, asking you to perform as an older/younger sibling pair in concert. It’s a cooperative experience, but one made distinct by being self-contained. Instead of inviting another party to play as one of two adventure-bound boys, it halves your available attention and doubles your input, pouring you evenly into the actions of each brother by mapping control of their respective movements to the analog sticks of a single controller.
Controlling two bodies at once in a game is a curious exercise. A single player directs them, but the common incoordination between hands often keeps the boys dashing off on opposed paths. Even from a perspective set high overhead, it takes patience to move the brothers in any kind of decent unison.
After some time, I found myself leading with the left stick, the one usually set as the default for movement, and following its trail closely with the right—which happened to result in the older brother setting the pace and direction, with the younger brother bounding at his heels.
Narratively, a blood relationship takes minimal effort to establish—you can just come out and say it. The trouble is in portraying kinship, the messier, long-term share of the sibling dynamic, without it smacking of triteness and cliché. Brothers does it by not saying much of anything at all.
What language is this? I found myself wondering aloud in the game’s early minutes. What are these two boys actually saying to each other?
The patter between them, like most aspects of Brothers, is intentionally vague. It’s less a voiced exchange than a shorthand of tones, calls and gestures. Instead of direction, the boys point and wave. In place of explanation, they sound their emotions in gasps and cries.
This pantomime, however limited, is not short on expressiveness, and sets an example followed by the game’s wider narrative. In the first 15 minutes, Brothers lays bare its characters’ histories and the motivations for their journey, then proceeds to tell a story backed by the philosophy that the most powerful truths are those shown or inferred, not belabored.
Aside from its use in negotiating obstacles, the outcome of a trigger press also changes with certain contexts, often to complement each sibling’s personality. Older brother can only clutch a villager’s cat awkwardly at arm’s length, but younger brother can hug and cradle it to a deep purring. Older brother will wash his face in the stream, but younger brother will still splash and yell. Where one will do a chore, the other will do a trick.
Many of the game’s early moments are such innocent profiles of the brothers. It helps that they look the way they do: the older brother with trimmed hair, long gait and deeper voice; the younger brother, with a head of moppish blond hair and a more fragile physique. There is little mistaking each one’s role.
Brothers is a travel story, a trek up to there and back through shades of a Tolkien-esque fantasy framework. Its world gains layers as the pair navigates their way, chapter by chapter, from a Shire-like village to heavy forests, rocky outcroppings and other less accommodating corners of the world outside their home. Through it all, the terrain remains a cohesive backdrop, believably constructed and framed, with subtle, automatic shifts of view that recall and foreshadow. Looking in either direction can be comforting, breathtaking or terrifying.
Brothers cuts defined paths through these far-reaching sights, dotting them with natural and manmade obstacles that require ever more coordinated and risky use of the siblings to pass.
Many involve actions that call for two participants pushing or pulling in tandem, or acting as the end points on a long object, balancing their direction and motion as they move through a tight area. Often, one brother will need to open or hold something in place while the other advances and does the same.
There is an easy phrasing to even the simplest of the brothers’ actions, a sense of close reliance set between the two that makes them eminently believably as kin, even in relative silence.
What begin as playful, low-stakes teamwork exercises—boosting one brother to grab a ledge, or cooperating to open a village gate—build to life-or-death situations near the journey’s culmination. The separation between brothers grows wider, and your liability to their placement and actions that much more pressing.
At every precarious hang-up, the empathic bonds of the brothers are tried. In moments of immediate danger, there is a creep of powerlessness, sickly and horrifying. But in moments of triumph, the euphoria is shared.
The sensation created from this modest relationship is Brothers’ greatest accomplishment: You control the fate of both boys simultaneously, but are worried and protective on behalf of each—one hand, pleading for the safety of the other.
Brothers’ is not wholly a land of fairytale innocence and hospitality. Tragedy and bloodshed and loss are some of its most prevalent landmarks. Guilt and fear and uncertainty blot its map all over. But there is so much joy in tracing each step of Brothers’ brief path, and the shared awe it embraces.
Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons was developed by Starbreeze Studios and published by 505 Games. It is available for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC.
Nate Andrews is a freelance writer and critic based in East Lansing whose work has also appeared in Unwinnable, Medium Difficulty and Nintendo World Report. He writes at nandrews.tumblr.com and tweets @_nandrews.