Friday, August 23, 2013

In which I spoil Brothers

The further I get from Brothers the more I think it is the most emotionally impactful thing I have played this year, topping even The Last of Us for intensity. The Last of Us made me happy, sad and angry. Brothers damn near made me weep.

Odd things hit my emotional buttons. For the most part I exist on a very even keel, never getting too up or down about things. That doesn't mean I don't have feelings, just that I tend to keep them to myself. The things that should tug at my heartstrings do, take the recent story of the two year old with days to live standing up at his parents wedding and then dying a few days later, but there are other things that make my emotions well up for reasons I do not understand, like the firebird suite from Fantasia 2000. Every time I watch that section I need to make sure that no one else is around for fear of embarrassing myself. Brothers is in the second category: it shouldn't affect me but it does. It is predictable and emotionally manipulative and dammit it does its job well.

All of the complaints about the game parts of Brothers are legitimate. Controlling one brother with each analog stick is not easy. The game is aware of this and never throws anything at the player that is too difficult because in spite of the discomfort, and perhaps because of it, the mechanic was completely necessary. The story would not work if the player was not sold on the brothers acting as a unit, each one making up for the other's weaknesses. Two hands - one controller = two brothers - one task.

If you haven't played Brothers yet this is where you should stop reading.

Killing off one of the parents is a very Disney way of setting up child characters with hardship that they need to overcome. Brothers drowns the mother in front of the younger brother without explaining what happened or whose fault it was. Then it takes the next step of putting the father in peril and tasking the two brother with finding a cure, a task that necessitates the quest on which the game is based. Still pretty standard fare and nothing to get the Kleenex box out for.

The journey from mother's grave to the tree of life teaches us everything that we need to know about the brothers, most importantly that the younger brother cannot swim on his own and rides on his sibling's back when water is too deep to wade through. This first happens right at the beginning and then once or twice more and along with other obstacles continually reminds you that these two really need each other. Every task and every encounter requires both of them and in spite of being children and occasionally acting as such they never waver from their goal.

I will say that the brothers will only act as children if the players allows them to. It is quite possible to play this game as an exercise for getting from point A to point B and miss the majority of what it has to show. A child would not do this, a child will stop and play the harp of a stranger or chase ducks or sit on a bench and look with wonder on how far he has come. This is what my brothers did, they stopped a man from killing himself and then helped him bury his dead loved ones. They dropped a white duck in ash so the black ducks would play with him. They also rolled sheep down a draw bridge because it was hilarious. They enjoyed the journey and it helped them forget the heartache that required it.

And then one of them died.

Towards the end the brothers rescue a woman from savages. The older brother is smitten, following her like a puppy. The younger brother knows something is wrong but is dismissed. When this woman turns out to be a giant spider he is proved right. They work together to kill her but in the battle the older brother is mortally wounded. Still, they stay together, pulling one another to the base of the tree of life.

The younger brother figures out that the elixir that was to have saved his father may save his brother as well so he strikes out on his own. For the first time I was only controlling one of the two. Yes, it was suddenly easier, but my left hand suddenly felt like dead weight on the controller so I took it off. The younger brother makes it to the top of the tree, retrieves the elixir and makes it back down just in time to see his brother die.

Actually having the player control burying the older brother was the height of genius. And cruelty.

I was emotionally spent and I had no idea where the game was going to go next. In a moment of deus ex machina that I will gladly forgive the mate of a flying monster that the brothers had saved appears and flies the younger brother back to where the adventure began: the beach where his mother died and where her tombstone sits. He had the elixir and was almost at the end but there was a problem: the swimming section from the beginning of the game was in the way.

Seriously, if you have not played this game, do not read any further.

I wandered back and forth on the shore, unsure of what to do. Every time I tried to push him into the deeper water the brother stopped and shook his head. Then I remembered that I only had one hand on the controller. When the brothers helped one another, what did I do? I pulled the appropriate trigger and they worked together. So I did what worked before: I pulled the left trigger. The camera zoomed in, the controller vibrated a bit and I heard the older brother's voice urging him on. The surviving one swam

and I cried.

There is no underlying personal tragedy here that  the game unknowingly triggered. Yes, I have a family and a brother but they are all still alive and well. Brothers is a game, just like The Last of Us, that acknowledges that sacrifices must be made for good to be done. In the end the surviving brother healed his father but there is no happy ending. Everyone who is dead stays dead and the father collapsed with grief on their tombstones. The end.

Brothers is three hours long but I will remember it long after the forty plus hour epic JRPGs have been forgotten. In the limited pantheon of tear jerking game moments it sits in the proud company of the endings of Eternal Sonata and Metal Gear Solid 3.

And it did it in three hours, with characters who have no names and that you cannot understand.

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