Gameplay as the Story is a recurring segment that takes a look at the ways in which we interact with video games and how that can dictate a story, tone, or character’s personalities and motivations. These are not reviews as I am not looking at every detail; only the ones which pertain to the topic. No scope is too small, so it may look at one neat mechanic and how that has been employed in several games, or an entire game. Spoilers are to be expected from any of these articles.
Last year’s Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons was one of the most innovative titles of 2013. It even won a BAFTA for its innovation. In all my time playing video games, I cannot think of a better justification for using the medium than Brothers presents. This is the first article in the Gameplay as the Story segment because it is the one game that clearly outlines what I want to examine with this feature. With one simple mechanic, Brothers is able to convey so much information. And in that one mechanic, Josef Fares and his team created a story that gains its impact from the duality of its controls, as well as helping to build the relationship of the characters in the process.
Boiling it down to its basics, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is an adventure game with some puzzles incorporated. You play as two brothers, on a journey to find the cure to their father’s terminal illness. The reason the game is exciting is because you immediately realize the level of dependence between the two sons as you begin to play with the game’s distinct control scheme. The only control inputs ever used are the analog sticks and the triggers, with the left side assigned to the older brother and the right side to the younger one. It is a simple mechanic that immediately creates a bond between the characters and the controls. Trying to maneuver both brothers at the same time is a difficult task that gets easier with more experience. By the end of the game, I was still a bit clumsy with moving the two analog sticks at the same time, but I was far better at it than when I started.
The game provides situations where one brother is incapable of completing a task (for example, the smaller brother can fit through small spaces) and this requires the player to learn each characters strengths and weaknesses. The interesting thing that goes along with that, is that the player is also learning to associate one puzzle with a control input. You know that when there is a large switch, that the left side of the controller (the older brother) will be needed. It is similar to how you know that when an enemy appears on screen in a first-person shooter, that you should move the right stick towards them and hit the right trigger. However, the difference with Brothers is that you are creating a relationship between the controls and an entire character, not a single action of a character. It is a limitation of the controls, but it is also a bonding process.
That bonding process applies to the idea of processing and responding to information with both sides of the player’s brain. It is why it is difficult to master the controls immediately, despite the appearance of simplicity that they employ. Sure, you could cheat the system and just move one character at a time except when necessary to solve a puzzle, but if you want to get things done efficiently and timely, controlling both brothers at the same time is essential. The power of Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is that it is just as much creating a bond between the controls and the characters, as it is creating a bond between the characters and the player.
The impact of this is felt in the final run of the game, as your older brother is dying and you have to hurry and save him as quickly as possible. All of a sudden the left side of the controller has become useless. And when he eventually dies and you try to hurry home with the cure for your father, the left side of the controller remains useless. But then the emotional impact sets in as you encounter a running body of water that you need to pass. Unfortunately, the game has taught you that the younger brother cannot swim across the water, not without help. The water reminds him of his mother, who drowned in front of him, and acts as a trigger for his grief. You can try and try, but he will not swim across. That is, until you use the left trigger. Which I did immediately when I saw the body of water anyways, because I had already associated the water with something that the left side of the controller is required for. And with that, you make it across the water. The moment is wrought with emotion as the younger brother realizes that his older brother is still there with him, even if not physically. Just as the left side of the controller is always going to be there.
When Steven Spielberg said “The second you get the controller something turns off in the heart…”, he clearly had not played Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons. Admittedly, he was using broad strokes when he said that, since that is true with most games. Brothers was not a response to Spielberg’s comments, but a response to the games industry as a whole. The controller is usually a form of disconnect, but the uniqueness of video games is that they can make player interactivity drive the story. Brothers is the game that most wonderfully captures that idea. It recognizes what medium it is using and takes full advantage of it by making player interactivity the focal point, and using the controller to create a bond between character and player.