Brothers is a game of moments: moments of quiet beauty, moments of joyful levity, moments of cloying dread. There's one moment that stands out above all the others, though. It's one of those moments, the ones you'll remember in years to come, a moment of revelation where you suddenly see how various threads of the game have woven together. It's also a moment that's very difficult to talk about, as it comes very close to the end of Starbreeze's compact adventure, and its details are tangled in potential spoilers.
Let's start on safer territory, then. Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons puts the player in control of two nameless siblings, living by the sea in a quaint and gently fantastical kingdom. We see them lose their mother in the opening scene, and then skip forward to them wheeling their sick father to the local doctor. This task also introduces us to the game's most eye-catching innovation: it's a single-player co-op game. You control both brothers at the same time, with the left stick and trigger moving the elder brother and making him interact with objects, while the same controls on the right manipulate the younger of the two.
It takes some getting used to, and introducing it by forcing the player to co-ordinate both brothers while pushing and pulling a cart is a pretty bold move. It's like rubbing your head and patting your stomach, but it forces you to immediately grasp the idea that you'll need to work together to survive what follows.
And what follows is a quest that could be pulled from Grimm's Fairy Tales. The brothers are sent to retrieve the only thing that will cure their ailing father, and it's this journey that forms the basis of the rest of the game. From the bucolic charm of the boys' home village to the farmland beyond, and on through mountains, forests, caves, rivers and snow, you guide them both to their destiny.
To begin with, the tone is light and fun, encouraging you to explore and fool around. Particularly impressive is how the game lets the personality of the brothers emerge through movement. Everyone speaks in a nonsense language not dissimilar to The Sims' expressive burbling, so this really is a game where actions speak louder than words. If the older brother interacts with an old well, he'll examine it and be done. The younger and more mischievous of the pair will peer inside, lean back and let fly with a big gob of spit into the inky depths. "Show, don't tell," is the adage that screenwriters live by, and Brothers adapts it to the interactive realm beautifully.
Brothers settles into a very gentle rhythm early on and never really deviates from it
It's just a shame that the gameplay doesn't evolve in kind. Brothers settles into a very gentle rhythm early on and never really deviates from it. Simple physics puzzles and linear exploration - all ledge-grabbing and wall-climbing - are the order of the day, and there's not a lot of escalation to be found. One brother might need to turn a handle to clear a path for the other. The younger brother can squeeze through bars, while the eldest is stronger and can do more physical work.
The occasions when the brothers truly need to work together are more successful, but come around too infrequently to justify the peculiar control scheme. One memorable scene has them riding a makeshift hang-glider, shifting their bodies to steer. Not long after, they're joined by a rope and using each other as anchors as they swing and ascend a crumbling tower. It's in these moments that engaging with the unusual control system becomes a pleasure rather than a distraction. But for too much of the game, progress simply isn't that tough, and beyond simply steering the pair along the path, the dual control aspect often lies fallow for long stretches.
The further the brothers venture from their home, the stranger the world becomes. You'll meet trolls, pick your way through the bloody aftermath of a battle between giants and ride on the back of a gryphon, but the shallow learning curve means that narrative and gameplay start to drift apart. We see the brothers facing ever greater challenges, but as players, we don't feel it.
If the journey isn't difficult, it's pretty, at least. This is a visually sumptuous game, and one that delights in showing off its views. Not for nothing does the game offer up stone benches along your path, allowing the brothers to sit down and drink in the scenery for no reason beyond simply chilling out.
Brothers continues in this vein for a good few hours, serving up a series of beguiling vignettes in which the brothers encounter some new character or obstacle, and in helping or overcoming it move closer to their goal of curing their father (a goal that seems to become less urgent the further they get). The scenery changes, and we get a sense that the boys have changed too. The game may only last a few hours, but it feels suitably epic in scope and squeezes a lot in.
Then you reach the moment.
I'm not about to mention anything specific that might spoil it for you, but there is a chance that simply by discussing it, even in the broadest terms, your enjoyment will be impacted. So much of the game's worth hangs on this moment, however, that I have to explore it a little. So be warned, spoilerphobes: leave now and come back when you've finished the game.
This moment comes at a point when the narrative feels like it has peaked, and all that's left is denouement. It's a moment that relies on the fact that you've become used to the dual controls and have used those controls to get past a certain kind of obstacle several times - only now there doesn't seem to be any way to proceed.
Brothers' crowning moment is magnificent - as potent an example of games as an emotional storytelling tool as I've ever seen
When you work it out - and it's arguably the only point in the game where you really do need to work out what needs to be done - it's a revelation, and you realise what that odd control system was in service of. It's a moment that has been gracefully foreshadowed right from the start, one that is utterly rooted in character, and yet is completely dependent on player interaction for its meaning. It's magnificent - as potent an example of games as an emotional storytelling tool as I've ever seen.
As a moment in itself, it's a masterpiece. Mechanics and meaning, completely intertwined. I wanted to stand up and applaud. Yet that moment is so strong that it immediately throws the rest of the game - all those rote puzzles, the basic jump-and-grab exploration - into sharp relief. The climax is superb, but what leads up to it is merely pleasant, charming and rarely challenging.
I was reminded of WayForward's Wii remake of A Boy and his Blob. That game had a button that simply made the Boy hug the Blob, a pure and emotional action performed at the player's whim. It meant nothing in gameplay terms, yet it meant everything. It's notable that while the young heroes of Brothers grab dozens of switches and levers, pull ropes, hang from ledges, open cages and even carry sheep, if the player stands them next to each other and pulls the interaction triggers, they simply shrug or point at their next objective. In a game built on the interaction of two brothers, you can never actually make the brothers interact with each other, and that feels like a terrible omission.
Can a single, amazing moment redeem and justify a game that is otherwise merely OK, or is it undersold by it? Does time spent making characters jump through metaphorical hoops automatically count as time spent exploring those characters? I'm still not sure, but I'm glad there's a game that invites such a question.
Had the game allowed a more direct emotional engagement between the boys, using the player to really underline and feel their connection, that triumphant flash of comprehension at the game's end would have pushed it to classic status - a fresh watershed in a maturing medium. Instead, it feels like the pay-off to a rather more ambitious game than the one it's attached to. The game as a whole is lacking in substance and rough around the edges, but Brothers' fantastic ending makes it a triumph all the same.