NOTE: THIS CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR BROTHERS: A TALE OF TWO SONS
I’m not the type of person who normally thinks a lot about game mechanics. I know when there are mechanics that are particularly interesting (like in Papers Please), but other than that it’s not something that makes me think. I focus a lot more on storytelling and the visual aesthetics, things that come from my media degree background. However, it has been something I’ve been thinking about since I finished playing Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons yesterday.
In the game, you simultaneously control two brothers. The controls are relatively simple and intuitive; you control the older brother with the left thumb and trigger, and you control the younger brother with the right thumb and trigger. Both are fairly similar to control, except you learn that the older brother is generally stronger and more capable at doing things than the younger brother. He can lift heavier things, he can swim (whereas the younger brother hangs on) and he can pull heavier levers.
I liked this game a lot throughout the whole thing. It’s really beautiful and the gameplay was enjoyable. There are certain sequences (one where the brothers are connected by a rope comes to mind) I’d like to replay. However, I had the bias of seeing the game on multiple year end lists of 2013 (part of the reason I got the game) and I wondered what made it so remarkable to some. It was beautiful and well-made, but what made it stand out?
At a pivotal moment in the game, the older brother dies. I was shocked; how was I to play a game where suddenly half of it was gone? I knew that the game was near the end, but it seemingly made me keep on going as the younger brother. I got to a point where the younger brother had to swim. I was puzzled; how was I supposed to get this one to swim? I kept trying to go towards the water, wondering if I just hadn’t triggered a cut scene or something.
I’m not sure when the correct answer dawned on me, but that moment of realization is when I realized the brilliance of this death. I used the controls for the older brother, and suddenly the younger brother was able to swim. He was able to jump higher and use the heavier levers with the left trigger. He had grown up, not only in the game but with the mechanics.
This could have been told just narratively if the younger brother was now able to do these stronger things. It would have still resonated, knowing that now he could do things that he was unable to do before. However, this choice of playing with the game’s core mechanics made it all the more surprising and all the more moving. The older brother’s death not only turned the narrative upside down, but it played with the core experience of playing Brothers, which I imagine would make anyone playing take notice.
Looking back at 2013, I’d still put Papers, Please, among others, above Brothers. However, this one moment made the game more memorable, and showed what playing with game mechanics can really do to reinforce the narrative.