Brothers: How a film director shook up Starbreeze

Born in the midst of conflict, a refugee set out to tell his story by any means possible.

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Childhood wasn't easy for Josef Fares.

Until the age of 10, he was exposed to violence every day of his life. War forced him to flee his home with what little he could carry. It forced him to start a new life thousands of miles away. While most kids were busy learning long division, Fares was busy learning a third language.

Because for him, growing up also meant moving on. He couldn't change his past. But he could come to grips with it.

So, Fares turned to cinema. Directing films allowed him an outlet where he could use his past as source material. Little by little, his troubled childhood became successful European movies, which became a way to cope. He could finally express what his young self had seen. What he had experienced.

And when he couldn't express himself through film, Fares turned to video games.


The year is 1987. Lebanon is in turmoil.

A civil war is raging, driven by politics as much as it is by religion. It's the manifestation of century-old conflicts plaguing the region, born from foreign intervention and economic strife. Militias shatter alliances on a whim, not so much stabbing each other in the backs as they are twisting a knife embedded 12 years ago when war broke out.

This lack of clear-cut sides means civilians are targeted as much as the militant forces. Artillery shells fall in populated areas, dividing the days into segments of terror and boredom, hiding and waiting. As the war drags on, the justice system degrades, resulting in widespread crime that makes Lebanon one of the world's largest narcotics producers.

It's not an ideal place by any means — especially not for a child.

But 10-year-old Fares can't leave. He doesn't have a choice. Leaving the country is expensive, and the process of attaining the proper paperwork is only short for those with the money to speed it up.

"The war was ..." Fares' hesitates, and you get the sense it's not from a lack of words. "I experienced a lot of things a child should not."

"It was really, really bad. I don't know if you could say it scarred me or anything, but it definitely changed me into the man I am now. I don't know. I just have this very strong confidence now, whenever I go into something new."

"I experienced a lot of things a child should not."

Today, that confidence is apparent, from his firm handshake to his steady eye contact. His native language is Arabic, but Fares drives English conversations forward as if speaking to an old friend. For someone whose childhood home is now abandoned out of necessity, Fares is strikingly composed.

And yet, there's a childish side to him, a side that never grew up. He'll be the first to tell you he was a flighty, irresponsible kid. "The creative one," he says.

The harsh realities of the Lebanese Civil War unlocked a vivid imagination inside young Fares. With so much anger surrounding him, he began to wonder, to fantasize — a kind of internal escape.

"I tried to play around a lot, figure things out from a creative perspective," he says. "I think that's what drives me, to be honest. It helped me deal with everything, without being grounded in that kind of reality."

But Fares never thought he'd have an outlet for that creativity. Opportunities were scarce in war-torn Lebanon, even more so for an aspiring artist. And for years, the idea of leaving was wishful thinking.

But Fares had a grandmother living in Stockholm, Sweden. It was a possible way out, and when things became too difficult for the Fares family, the decision was made to leave, no matter the cost.

"We tried to move from Lebanon to Sweden four times," he says. "It was back-and-forth all the time. It was hard to get the papers right. It was tough, and it cost a lot of money, of course, to get a flight. My father worked in a small bakery, so it took him a year or two to make the money to travel."

Finally, on the fifth try, Fares' father told his family what they had been waiting to hear: "We're leaving."

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons

It's in the name

Josef Fares

Mention the name "Josef Fares" on a street in Stockholm, Sweden, and you'll get the same reaction as if you said "Martin Scorsese" in Queens, NY.

After his family's move, Fares wasted no time reaping the benefits of peacetime. He made his first film when he was 15. He shot more than 50 short films before landing in film school at the age of 21 and, two years later, directed the most popular film in Sweden, Jalla! Jalla!

But like any auteur, Fares didn't slow down after his breakout hit; his sophomore effort, Kopps, was a commercial and critical success as well. Like his first film, this comedy explored the displaced Lebanese community living in Sweden — a marriage of two worlds that Fares knew well.

"The journey from Lebanon to Sweden was definitely a big inspiration [for] how I see the world today," Fares says. "Life in Sweden was different, that's for sure, but a much better place for a kid to grow up — much, much better. I could actually put that creativity to work whenever I wanted."

"It was a great experience, really, going back to my old neighborhood. But it was surreal."

After a time, though, the well ran dry. Fares needed new source material. He needed inspiration. He had exhausted all he could say about his community, so instead, he looked inward.

By doing so, the idea for Zozo was born. Although slightly more dramatic, in order to "make it more exciting," Fares says, the film is largely about his own life. It's the story of a young boy escaping to Sweden from a war-torn Lebanon.

Fares wanted the Lebanese scenes to be authentic. So, he boarded a plane to Beirut. It was the first time he had seen his home country in 17 years.

"It was a great experience, really, going back to my old neighborhood," Fares says. "But it was surreal, because we were so busy shooting. I didn't really have time to think, you know? But [being] able to relive that moment in the movie was special to me."

For the second time in his life, Fares boarded a plane to leave Lebanon. But this time, there was no waiting for papers. Fares wasn't traveling as a means of escape. He was seeing the world on his own terms.

Zozo's debut cemented Fares as a household name in the European film industry. It won him awards from Sweden to Iran, garnering him international praise, setting him up to do whatever he wanted with his next project.

Fares still had plenty of stories left. But there was one in particular he was aching to tell. And it couldn't be told in a film.


The pitch

In 2010, a local school in Orebro, Sweden held a six-week game design and theory program; knowing Fares was nearby, they invited him to come speak from a film perspective.

The lecture went well — so well, in fact, that the group asked him if he'd be interested in designing a prototype. A kind of experiment that could pass his time between films.

"I had always loved games, and the Swedish community that knew me well, not just as this big director, knew that," Fares says. "So after the invitation, I was like, 'That would be a dream come true. To have my own game running, with a controller and everything.' So obviously I said yes."

After six weeks of working with the local design team, Fares had a semblance of what is now Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons. The game is based on a simple concept: There are two brothers — the "Old Brother" and the "Young Brother" — but only one player to control them simultaneously. Each brother's actions are relegated to the analog joystick and trigger on each side of one controller. While an outside viewer might think there are multiple people playing, Fares never had any intention of that happening.

"It's an idea I had been pushing around for a while," he says. "It's unique. Essentially, I wanted to tell a story about relationships but, oddly enough, it had to be played alone."

"They were taking things in a new direction, and I guess Brothers was a good start from their point of view."

This paradox wasn't an easy idea to sell. After the summer program, when Fares realized he might be on to something, he pitched the idea to a couple of studios. The conversations were the same:

"So it's a cooperative game?

"No, it absolutely can't be," Fares would say. "Anything but that."

"Thanks, but it's not what we're looking for right now."

After two strikes, Fares was beginning to doubt the marketability of Brothers. As luck would have it, though, Fares wouldn't need to travel much farther to sell it.

Starbreeze Studios developed games like The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay and Syndicate — IPs established by other teams that Starbreeze subsequently took over.

But the studio wanted its own, fresh IP. It wanted to create something of its own, from the ground up, to establish its name. It needed something different. Something unique. Because of this, Brothers caught the eye of Starbreeze.

"I tried other studios, but Starbreeze was the one that showed interest directly," Fares says. "They were taking things in a new direction, and I guess Brothers was a good start from their point of view."

Baptism by fire


With the green light to begin work on Brothers, Fares dove head first into the life of game development. He wasn't sure what to expect; he was used to long hours on film sets, but this wasn't filmmaking.

As his team tells it, game development, for the most part, came naturally to Fares. Brothers exhibits cinematic traits such as sweeping camera shots and wide open angles, but Fares was working through restraint; he was in unfamiliar territory, so he knew some things had to change.

"There was a time period when Josef was getting adjusted to the technical realities, or limitations, of making a game," says Carl Granberg, the lead programmer on Brothers. "But to be honest, it wasn't a long time period.

"I think [his quick adaptation] has to do a lot with the fact that Josef wanted to make a game, and not a film. I think that's a mistake a lot of others have made."

As Fares learned more about game development, by being in the thick of it, his team began to learn as well. Although Fares was eager to compromise when it came to implementation, Granberg says, he refused to let go of his vision.

"[Josef] always stayed firm to the game he set out to make," Granberg says. "There was a lot of pressure to add 'gamey' things, like collectibles or different game modes. But what I admire most is that Josef never compromised on his original vision."

Fares' commitment to his idea even caused some team members to leave early on. Granberg says Fares has a straightforward way of saying things, and had the tendency to come off as being pushy.

But for those who stayed, the atmosphere became one of respect. And it was dynamic. The team listened to Fares, and he listened to them.

"If you want to make something that stands out and is memorable, you can't do what everyone else is doing."

Little by little, team members began to realize this new project was different. They all had prior experience in the game development arena, but Brothers was an incarnation of Starbreeze's new direction. It was the team's own IP. It was bold. It was daring.

And the team didn't have much time to complete Brothers; as Fares tells it, the project was much more difficult than making a film. But the members were confident. It was a passion project, not just for Fares, but for the entirety of the Starbreeze team.

Claes Engdal worked as the art director on Brothers. He was in charge of creating the fantastical, Middle Earth-like world the two siblings are placed in. His main goal was to make Brothers "as beautiful as possible," he says.

But try as he might, Engdal couldn't ignore the rest of the game.

"If you want to make something that stands out and is memorable, you can't do what everyone else is doing," Engdal says. "It may seem obvious when stated like that, but still — most companies these days do the same thing over and over again because of some perceived sense of safety.

"The fact that Josef disregarded most of the classic game design 'rules' made some people nervous at first, but in the end it was what made the game into something special."

When pre-production began on Brothers three years ago, Fares was "green," as Engdal says. He had film mastered, if his list of awards is any indication, and he had complete freedom to make whatever film he wanted because of it.

But he passed up his next project for a video game. Although he was a creative director from the outset, he had to learn, adapt and change.

"[Brothers] is the story of a little boy growing up to be a man," Fares says, beaming as he remembers the idea that came to him three years ago. "But it's told in an interactive way, a way I couldn't have done in a film. You're physically part of this story. And I'm proud of that."

A past revisited

Themes of family and interpersonal relationships permeate Fares' work. Jalla! Jalla! is about community. Zozo explores the challenges of youth, and the tedium of growing up. Fares' older brother even starred in several of Fares' films . Despite his propensity to retreat into his imagination, Fares places his family and friends foremost among his priorities.

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is set in a fantasy world. It's colorful. Well lit. There are friendly trolls, helpful villagers and children playing basketball. But underneath its playful veneer, grim undertones come closer to the surface as the game progresses.

"You can see there's a death theme pretty much from the beginning to the end."

"You can see there's a death theme pretty much from the beginning to the end," Fares says. "That's all something inspired from my young days."

Knowing Fares' history, you think you'd know what he's alluding to. A particular sequence in Brothers hints at a brutal war that played out in the past — maybe a reference to the fighting Fares witnessed firsthand.

But that's not what he's talking about.


Spoiler warning

Late in the game, you're asked to do something morbid: to bury a character with the unique controls the game provides. For those desensitized by the fantasy backdrop of Brothers, it's a startling, macabre moment. For Fares, it's a memory.

Growing up, he had always wanted a younger brother. Fares' older brother had been a close childhood friend, had taught him everything he knew, and Fares wanted to pass it on. So he was excited when his mother finally went into labor. But she lost the baby during birth. It was a boy.

Knowing Fares' wishes, his mother gave the baby to him to bury.

"I buried a newborn little brother when I was young, quite young myself," Fares says. "It was me and my sister. It wasn't a proper burial. It was something we just found. I mean, those days in Lebanon, with the war, there wasn't any working society, any infrastructure. We had to improvise.

"Of course, that was a very powerful moment from my own life."

"There are so many things to be discovered from a creative perspective. I'm eager, very eager, to keep exploring it."

For the first time since meeting him, Fares loses that childish side he wears so proudly. His voice slows. He struggles to start sentences, let alone finish them. He knows that anyone who has played Brothers by now has seen that burial scene, but to talk about the memory behind it is another matter entirely.

And yet, Brothers is very much a story of moving on, as Fares says. Not only for the characters, but also for Fares himself.

"There are so many things to be discovered from a creative perspective," he says. "I'm eager, very eager, to keep exploring it. That's what's so compelling about games, the fact that it's such a young medium. There's still so much to do."

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is, at its core, the younger brother's coming-of-age tale. It's the story of how he learns the world, becomes his own person and, finally, finds his place in the grand scheme of things.

And if Fares thought he had found that place before, making Brothers reinforced that feeling, he says. What was previously a 10-year-old boy's hobby is now a whole new medium for Fares to explore creatively.

He's already talking about the next game he wants to make, minus any specifics. He has trouble getting rid of the smile on his face, and the excitement is palpable in his voice.

Through film, and now games, Fares speaks about the memories he never thought he could. And in doing so, they become something more. They become stories.

"I think, at the end of the day, it's about existing," Fares says. "It's about saying, 'Here I am. Look at me. Love me.' I think that's the greatest creative goal there is: to express yourself. To let people see who you are." Babykayak

Images: Josef Fares, Starbreeze Studios
Editing: Russ Pitts, Matt Leone

Design / Layout: Warren Schultheis, Matthew Sullivan