Saturday, February 8, 2014

Chamberlain and Chance on Brothers : A Tale of Two Sons.

Chamberlain is a hella cool dude who writes Infinite Backlog, which you should definitely be reading.  Sometimes, we do this thing called... 

A lot of people love Brothers : A Tale of Two Sons.  It got a lot of "best downloadable" awards at the end of 2013, and Chamberlain was encouraging me to play it as soon as it appeared last summer.

~August 15th, 2013~

CHAMBERLAIN : You should take a few hours off of Dragon’s Crown and play Brothers.

Do it in one sitting, like you would a movie.

CHANCE : It... does not appear to be available on PS3, which is where I've got like sixty funbucks.  And in the real world I'm very broke - I can't afford to grab it on 360.  (Checks Wikipedia...) It's not out on PS3 'till Sept 3rd.

Sorry man >.< but I did look.  What's the story - is it good?  All I really heard about it was the PA cartoon

CHAMBERLAIN : The story is very simple but if you have siblings of your own it will touch a nerve: mother drowns leaving two sons with their father. Father falls ill and boys are sent out on a quest to retrieve the medicine that will heal him.

That’s all I can say without spoiling it.

* * *

I did not buy it on September 3rd.  

* * *

~January 25, 2014~
(When Brothers became available for free on PS+.)

CHANCE : Five months later - I have completed Brothers, in one sitting, as I would a movie.

I don't feel this thing should've gotten so many Best Downloadable game nods just because it's so touching.  It's very touching.  I didn't cry.  I certainly welled up - but I can't admit I was really even enjoying the thing until about the last quarter, and that's entirely due to how cool the environments became.

CHAMBERLAIN : What bothered you? Controls?

I may need to play it again to have an intelligent conversation about it.

CHANCE : I liked the simplicity of the controls - one analog stick, one button for each brother.  The idea of single-player co-op is cool.  And sure, this will happen,

-penny arcade-

but the alternative is a mechanic that requires the player to switch back and forth between each brother - Brothers' control scheme is the best choice for the game.

The game itself I found... impotent?  I'll admit - in terms of story - the payoff at the end hits its mark, but the beginning felt a bit ham-handed, and in between, there was this vast emptiness of narrative progression.

All the puzzles were little, airy nothings.  The game takes place in a boring, done-to-death fantasy world that doesn't become visually interesting until the last hour or so.

CHAMBERLAIN : My memory of the game is probably quite rose tinted by now, but I remember the first few sections feeling like ‘home’ in a fantasy game sense. It was comfortable and clichéd and unthreatening. As the game went along everything got darker, less familiar, further from home, culminating in

that spider woman’s lair.  It was a journey like, well, Journey, with the added punch of the brothers’ relationship.

What you see as a lack of narrative progression I see as intentional simplicity. The brothers start out at home, go on a harrowing trip doing good deeds along the way (if the player so chooses) and only one of them makes it back. This is truncated monomyth here.

CHANCE : Is Little Brother really a hero?  All he is is a seething mass of survivor's guilt, no doubt compounded by the ending.  Most of what I got from the story was (1) everything that ginger touches turns to shit and (2) the one time he expressed an opinion - "gosh Nyaa, I don't think we should go into this creepy spider den," he was right - but he was also impotent to actually affect the outcome.

I agree that the journey the siblings embark on has a healthy gradient to it - getting more and more fantastical (and for me, more enjoyable) the further they go from home - but that doesn't excuse the opening from being bland.  Much has been made of the differing interactions the two will have with townsfolk - Little Brother will playfully balance the sweeping woman's broom while Big Brother will dutifully sweep - but none of it effectively deepened the characters for me.  Instead, it was... one-note.  It was the constant reinforcement of what we already knew - Big Brother is slightly stoic, serious and responsible, while Little Brother still has a bit of the child in him, and likes to play.

There is no exploration of the boys.  No growth on either of their parts up until almost the very end, when Naiee trips out and hallucinates Nyaa choking him to death - and we understand that he feels Nyaa blames him for their mother's death.  That's it.  That's all we ever learn about them beyond the understanding that Big Brother is pragmatic and Little Brother is playful.

CHAMBERLAIN : There is growth – little brother gets over his fear of swimming, a side effect of his survivors guilt. He stops screwing around and grows up enough to retrieve the elixir and then bury his brother. He finishes his quest, all be it with help, but he finishes it.

Him failing to save his brother is part of his journey from child to adult, bystander to hero.

CHANCE :  And that moment - pressing L2 (or LT) to use Big Brother's action to give Little Brother the courage to swim - is a profound one.  The ending is marvelous and I was suitably choked up throughout - but instead of being the brilliant end to an enthralling game, for me it was the brilliant end to a largely boring experience.

CHANCE : The ending is brilliant, but it felt like they built an entire game for the sake of that one moment. That's... very Starbreeze, come to think of it. Akin to watching To Kill A Mockingbird with Jenny in The Darkness - it's a wonderful, magical moment - but in The Darkness it was a brilliant punctuation, not the point of the entire game.

Hang on - I'm being too contrarian.  Yes, Little Bro evolves - but it's not an evolution that takes place over the course of their journey.  It's a snap in the last thirty minutes or so of the game.  I guess what I'm saying is that their journey was too much of a literal one for ninety per cent of Brothers, and only a meaningful one for the last half-hour.

* * * 

Brothers isn't a bad game - just a tedious one, whose central mechanic of controlling both siblings at once plays its entire hand in the first thirty minutes of the game, and never becomes more interesting thereafter.  You must have one brother doing one thing while the other brother does something else.  Get it?  Good - you've just solved every single puzzle in the entire game.

It's unique - and that, in and of itself, is valuable in this day and age - but its uniqueness doesn't ensure quality, or engagement, or... fun.

And so, for the first time in our history, Chamberlain is the one trying to sell me on a game while I tear strips out of it. Oh also - women! All women do in this game is (1) die, (2) get damseled, (3) seduce little boys and (4) turn out to be monsters. What the fuck, Starbreeze?

This was a weird one - and odd that our reactions should be so different, given that we both have brothers to speak of and the game received such uniform praise throughout the industry. But hey, it's free with PS+!

Is it worth the three-ish hours it takes to complete?  I say no.  Chamberlain says yes.  Let's hug it out.

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