The original version of this text was first published on FZ.se. It has been republished here with permission.
Publisher: 505 Games
Format: Xbox 360, PC
Released: August 7, 2013
The films of Josef Fares have varied radically in both tone and content since his debut film Jalla Jalla in 2000, but regardless of which genre he’s currently operating in, two distinct themes remain constant in his work. His films are often ones where normal people are forced into extraordinary circumstances for reasons beyond their control, which the story uses to explore the collision between the traditional and the modern. In Jalla Jalla this is explored through the son of an immigrant finding himself torn between his modern Swedish life and his traditional family’s desire for him to agree to an arranged marriage. In Kopps, the police in a Swedish small town are faced with the prospect of their department closing due to it no longer serving a purpose, at which point they decide to turn their sleepy village into a Hollywood style action movie to convince their bosses that they are still needed.
The second and possibly more distinct thread in Fares’ creations is family and the meaning of being a part of a bigger unit, with all the positive and negatives that entails. Considering his previous works through these eyes makes Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons seem so obvious. It’s a completely logical continuation of the concepts and ideas that Fares has brought to all his previous work. And he’s never expressed them more beautifully than here.
Two brothers who have already lost their mother to an accident, the guilt of which the younger brother places squarely on himself, must leave their home village to find a cure for their father’s illness. Each brother is controlled with a different stick and each can interact with objects using their own shoulder button. At first I couldn’t bring my two halves to cooperate and I found myself constantly moving the wrong brother, getting confused and accidentally pressing and letting go of the wrong button, which lead to a couple of frustrating deaths. However, it doesn’t take long for each half of your brain to start collaborating and I was soon completely in sync with the game’s design. Before long it became second nature that right side equals little brother, left side equals older brother.
Every section of the adventure is designed to help you intuitively identify both the problem and the solution without taking the agency away from the player. This creates a rhythm where you are constantly moving forward, which creates an innate relation between the player and the two brothers.
The narrative of any game is always strongest when there’s an inherent connection between player, character, mechanics and story. Brothers puts this into action by establishing the nameless brothers’ personalities and relationship almost exclusively through their actions within the gameplay. The younger of the two can’t swim so he’s forced to cling on to his sibling’s back when a watery obstacle stands in their way, but his slender frame makes him capable of sneaking through bars that are too narrow for his big bro.
Details like these makes all the difference to build empathy with the main characters and make you a part of their companionship. The developers constantly find new ways of implementing this concept, which comes to a startling payoff in the final chapter, when a fantastic twist manages to complete the characters’ thematic arcs through both gameplay and narrative at the same time.
Throughout their journey, the brothers traverse across a gorgeous and beautifully varied landscape that’s not short on references to classic Swedish lore, literature and iconography. Just wandering through the village at the story’s beginning, with the frisky autumn sun basking over the cottage roofs conjures the feeling of strolling through an Astrid Lindgren story come to life. The safety and tranquillity doesn’t last long as you leave the village behind, but every location is memorable and breathtakingly gorgeous.
Starbreeze has created one of the most beautiful game worlds I’ve had the privilege of visiting, with enormous expanses that see the pair move through lush woods, murky coal mines and frosty snowlands. Sprinkled across the world are benches that give you the opportunity to sit down for a moment, exhale, and appreciate your surroundings. The journey really is the destination sometimes.
However, no matter how captivating and beautiful the adventure is, it’s no less dangerous. At first glance it’s easy to expect that Brothers will be a light-hearted escapade, but as you move further away from home, the story takes many dark and unexpected turns. At its core Brothers is a cross of Lindgren’s book The Brothers Lionheart and Journey. It’s Limbo meets Nils Holgersson. The traditionally Swedish, the safe and naive, clashes against a cold-hearted reality where magic is no longer the solution to all problems.
Death is the only constant on your journey, and it’s never further away than what a hungry wolf could pounce, but Brothers is equally a story about new beginnings. To leave a broken past behind but become stronger through the memories and experiences you’ve gathered on the way that have brought you where you are now. Where many indie games have a problem tying up loose ends for a satisfying conclusion, the last half hour of Brothers is one of the most well-constructed finales in any video games I’ve ever seen.
That’s not to say that the story is without it’s problems. The twist that kicks off the third act is clumsy and unearned for how suddenly it arrives, but apart from a few stumbles, Brothers is a remarkably complete experience. It’s driven forward with a uniquely unified vision that seamlessly blends mechanics, narrative and an emotional punch without sacrificing either. Through the four hours it takes to complete, Brothers offers more emotional impact and creativity than most games can manage in twice that time or more.