The first Game Design post! And it’s an analysis of one of my favourite games of all time: Brothers: A Tale of Two sons (http://store.steampowered.com/app/225080/) from 2013. I wrote this for my Game Design course at Utrecht University in april 2014. I will mostly be talking about the Narrative of the game, which is what most impressed me. I kept it as objective as possible.

Please note that this post contains massive spoilers. I can not recommend you to read it until you played it, because it can really ruin the game for you and trust me, it’s absolutely worth to try it.


SPOILERS START HERE

Narrative methods

Before we get started, let’s look at what Brothers really uses to tell its story.

– Cutscenes: All control over the Brothers is taken away, and the game shows the narrative in a presentational way.

– Gameplay Actions: With the triggers the Brothers are able to interact with the game world. The brothers interact in a different manner to emphasize their differences.

– Environmental Storytelling: A lot of what happened with the world around you is not explicitly told, but is hinted at through the environment.

Furthermore, the game does not use any real spoken dialogue: All the dialogue the characters use is utter gibberish. The narrative methods, lack of real dialogue and controls make the narrative feel very interactive. Gameplay Actions make the player an active participant in the story, Environmental Storytelling challenges the player to figure out what happened, and the fact that there is no real dialogue leads to players focusing more actively on the body language and tone of the voices, and makes sure it is easier to relate to the brothers as they will never say anything the player would not. Note that there is no agency at all in the game. While there is some interactive storytelling, it can not change the story in a meaningful way.

 

Intro and level design for teaching

The game starts off with a cutscene explaining the dramatic situation with their mother and how their father is sick.

Then the control is handed to the player for the first time. For the player, this feels really awkward: Even the most seasoned gamer has never controlled two characters with his thumbsticks. Oftenly, the two brothers awkwardly walk opposite ways.

There is some clever level design in the beginning here that explains how the older brother is more powerful: They both have to lift a cart their father is in, and the younger brother starts in front. They then reach a raft they can move by pulling a lever. Only the older brother is strong enough to use the lever, but because the younger brother is in front of the cart, he ends up closest to the lever, which triggers the player to try interacting with the lever using him first, resulting in the player learning that only the older brother can do this.

When they reach the doctor, he tells them through a cutscene that they have to search the tree of life.


This very dramatic start is a bit weird: The game seems to force the player to feel the brothers suffering despite missing all context. The part after the doctor provides a surprisingly large contrast to the melodramatic cutscenes: The brothers travel through their peaceful village, while joking around with the people who live there, which tells how each brother responds to certain situations. It is almost like they do not care about what happened just 10 minutes before this, and it makes one wonder if the order of those events could have been done in a more powerful manner.

Over time, the player masters the control over the brothers. This is done using clever level design: The player will want to have the younger brother that he controls on the right side of the controller on the right side of the screen, to increase the differences between the brothers. The level design assists in this by setting objects that are relevant to the younger brother on the right side. The very cinematic camera also puts extra emphasis on this. For example, there is a part where the brothers are in a rapid flow with a barrier between each other. The camera faces upstream, with the younger brother again at the right side.

When the player is not paying attention to this, it feels very natural, but if he is and does some subversive play (playing against the intent of the Game Designer) he would notice this is enforced quite strongly. There are certain objects the brothers have to interact with at the same time. If the younger brother tries to interact against intuition with the left side of this object, the game will literally refuse this, and it can be very immersion breaking.

As the player gets better at the controls, it seems like the brothers work much more in unison: Their cooperation has improved, and their relationship has bettered. This is a relationship that the player can unconsciously feel through the controls.

Another thing that helps shape a connection to the brothers through controls is that there are a lot of times where the player has to hold on to the interact buttons, usually to make sure the brothers keep holding on to some object. Releasing this button would sometimes even result in their death.

 

Ending

The environment get becomes more lugubrious over time. Clearly, the game is going to be about death, and the environment and people in the world foreshadow this.

The brothers save a girl from a ritual sacrifice and she leads them closer to the tree. She, however, turns out to be a spider human. The brothers manage to kill her, but not before she mortally wounds the older brother.

After the older brother dies, you only control the right part of the controller. The game tries to give the player the perception that his left arm is “killed off”. This feeling is amplified because moving in most games is done using the left thumbstick, rather than the right one.

On the journey back home to the father (cool detail in the level design here: There is a rock he has to climb with two places to climb up next to each other, to emphasize the absence of the older brother), the younger brother has to swim through water. He, however, is afraid of doing it on his own because he is traumatized by the death of his mothers death, and the older brother would have to help him. So, while the controller is heavily vibrating to increase tension, the player has to figure out he has to press the left trigger, the interact button of the older brother, to “channel in” his power: The younger brother has overcome his fear, and has matured.

This part is especially powerful because it gives a definite conclusion to how the story is told through the controls, yet it is something the player has to figure out by himself. After the left arm has “died”, he is resurrected through this single button press. This method of telling meaningful narrative through controls is very unique to games at this moment, and greatly amplifies the narrative quality of the game in general. There is in fact a large amount of non-interactive cutscenes, even in parts where I think it was not necessary, such as running away from wolves that attack you and the moment where the younger brother runs towards the older brother that just died. I think it would have been interesting to see how the game would be with a much lower amount of those. However, there is really only one point in which the brothers do something the player might not have, that being the older brother falling in love with the spider lady and following her in her cave.

The challenges

Brothers is not a game that wants to challenge you. It wants to further the player in the story without making it a “walking simulator”, ie a game without any real gameplay. There are a lot of mechanics in the game that the player explores for a minute before they are dropped again: The amount of repetition is bizarrely low. This of course really supports the Discovery aspect of the game. The gameplay never is particularly complex to make sure the player still knows what to do. At times, one may wonder if this is a bit too extreme: If the player is rather quick, he can ride goats, use a Da-Vinci like flying machine and dangle on a rope above a huge chasm all within 10 minutes, giving the game almost rollercoaster-like characteristics. While very fun, it can feel rushed to some players. The parts of the game that have less gameplay, for example where the brothers traverse a mountain where a war between giants has been, offer a clear change of pace where immersion and environmental storytelling is the focus. There are other parts, however, where the game does not strike the perfect balance, and returns to more typical gamey puzzles or action. The boss fight with the spider especially is in sharp contrast with the parts around it, and it tells a story within it (the brothers are so mad for revenge they continue killing her even when she is barely capable to move), the gameplay feels very much like a boss fight one would see in for example Zelda. Other puzzles can create a comparable sentiment, where you wonder what the game would have been if it would give the player larger parts without something to do.

Conclusion

In conclusion Brothers is a remarkable, artsy game that puts immersion and story before Challenge using clever design, while making sure the gameplay matches the narrative. It uses controls and gameplay in an emotionally meaningful way to further immerse the player. The vision, for the most part is clearly kept in scope during the whole development, however, it would have been interesting to see what the game could have been with a lower amount of cutscenes and less typical gamey gameplay.

Personally, I think Brothers is one of the best games so far at tackling Narrative in games without sacrificing the rest of it. Never does the game feel like it shifts its focus too much to the story, and always gives the player something new and diverse to do. Games like these make me really interested in the future of games, and I really hope this more narrative focused approach will inspire many other Game Designers.

 

A closer look at the narrative of Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons

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