Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons review: both hands

The mechanic is the message in Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons.

Game Info
Platform 360, PS3, Win
Publisher 505 Games
Developer Starbreeze Studios
Release Date Sep 3, 2013

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is one of the most moving and wonderful games I've played this year.

We've often heard the idiom "they're sharing a brain" applied to siblings who are exceptionally close, each seeming to know what the other is thinking or feeling without exchanging a word. But developer Starbreeze (of The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay and The Darkness) asks a difficult question: What happens when that bond is tested?

Two unnamed siblings, referred to only as Little Brother and Big Brother, are united by a common quest: to find a cure for their father's mysterious ailment. Thrust out of their village and into a gorgeous storybook-reality, their only weapons are their minds, and their only resource is each other.

You'd be forgiven for thinking it sounds like a cooperative game, but Brothers is actually something much more. The player controls both brothers simultaneously, each mapped to a thumbstick. As that makes pressing any face buttons impossible, every action from "grab the ledge above" to "play the harp" is performed with the triggers.


It may sound simple, but you'll appreciate the streamlining once you realize your brain is in no way wired to control two characters simultaneously. In the beginning, I had such a hard time just getting both the brothers to a ledge I was thankful I just had to pull left trigger for Big Brother to offer a boost up, and right trigger for Little Brother to accept the lift to higher ground.

The brothers are literally sharing a brain, your brain, and it's accustomed to working solo.


But a curious thing happens as you help the siblings solve puzzles and work in concert to skirt danger. You learn. You get better at controlling these two disparate entities and, in turn, they appear to work together more seamlessly. This is not a new story, two people drawn closer by extraordinary circumstances, but what's amazing is that this well-worn narrative is being communicated non-verbally. Little and Big don't speak a single recognizable word in the entire game.

Your perception of the brothers' evolving relationship is shaped by your own brain's ever-improving ability to control them. Put simply: It's a story told almost entirely through game mechanics.

We see so many games striving to be interactive movies, but Brothers is something more akin to poetry. Mechanics are stanzas, and together they pack more of an emotional wallop than some scripts achieve with thousands upon thousands of hollow words.

Brothers keeps the mechanical story moving forward by constantly introducing new gameplay elements (my favorite was when the brothers were bound together by rope and had to swing from ledge to ledge, using each other as anchors). But unlike so many of its counterparts, Brothers' mechanics never have a chance to become mundane; they are introduced, they make their point, the game moves on. The brief running time (I finished in just under three hours) is palatable largely because Brothers packs in more original gameplay ideas than other games twice its length.


It's equally generous visually, rarely letting a few minutes pass without offering some sort of staggeringly gorgeous landscape to ogle. The vistas are not only beautiful, they ram home how vast a world Big and Little have to traverse and, by extension, how vital their relationship is to their own survival.

That relationship is further developed in the form of several vignettes. In one hamlet, the brothers come across a woman sweeping outside her house. Pulling the left trigger prompts Big Brother to help with the chore. Pull the right and Little Brother attempts to impress her by balancing her broom in the palm of his hand. These moments are essential to understanding the two brothers' characters. Those willing to seek them out will be rewarded with a far richer emotional experience.

If there's anything that threatens the new, beautiful thing that Starbreeze has created, it's the irritating reliance on an antiquated trope. When the story turns its sole female character into a wedge to drive between the two brothers, it's a really unfortunate, outdated turn in an otherwise very ambitious game. Rather than create a universal experience everyone can connect to, Starbreeze is running the risk of alienating players.

Wrap Up:

Brothers: a Tale of Two Sons is an emotional journey without the schmaltz

Brothers tests the limits of what games are capable of communicating and, in doing so, strengthens the medium as a whole, if only a little. The game's final moments moved me to tears in the act of pressing a button. Not because it triggered some heart-wrenching dialogue or sorrowful music, but by the implications of the mechanic itself. I'm not sure there's a better compliment I can pay or a better indicator of how important of a game Brothers is.

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons was reviewed using a pre-release code provided by 505 Games. You can read more about Polygon's ethics policy here.

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