Game Criticism

Playing with Materials and Teary Eyes: On Starbreeze’s Brothers

Brothers - A Tale Of Two Sons - Logo 1-0

Editor’s Note: These thoughts are an expansion of our much larger GOTY post here. It’s already February, so we thought it a bit ridiculous to continue the “Best of 2013″ feature. However, Brothers has been given its own post in order to discuss its important and thoughtful craftsmanship.

If you have heart, and are willing, Brothers and its redundant subtitle will make you cry. Brothers’ greatness shines in a comparatively small moment that reinvigorates the simple puzzle design leading up to it. Josef Fares, a renowned Swedish film director, headed this project and surprisingly it didn’t turn into a David Cage movi—I mean game (Heavy Rain). Fares and Starbreeze actually thought about the gaming materials, not merely deconstruct as Stanley did, but about how to mold them into something significant and emotionally effective. This is a momentous move on their part, as the medium continues to fallback on the useful, but relatively easy cinematic devices to provoke the sentimental side of human beings.

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We all know how to cry to movies, but to cry during gameplay, a performative act, that has been the Higgs boson. This question of tears has been an increasingly important part of the now passe games as art debate, but yet, it remains a salient concern for developers and players alike. The greatest mediums run the emotional gamut, so in order to fall in those lines games must make us care for beings that don’t exist. Or so the sort of Anselmian argument goes: One can conceive of the truest art form as the one that makes you feel all the feels. Does this hold water? Probably not, as there are plenty of art forms that rely solely upon their effective strengths, but the players and developers know that the potential is there and treat it as a worthy objective. Brothers has thrown the first rock through that window.

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Starbreeze, ironically, accomplishes this through filmmaker Josef Fares’ direction. It’s aesthetic tradition for our much older brothers, film and literature, to think about the materials that are being molded and formed into some artful experience. This isn’t to say that other game designers are not thinking about the materials they’re working with. The distinction, here, is that Fares puts these aesthetic concerns above all else, as shown through the minimization of “gaminesss” and lack of conventional cinematic storytelling suggests. In other words, Brothers could have included collectibles, skills trees, and what have you to make it a “better” game to the majority of the gaming community. Fortunately, Starbreeze and Fares didn’t go this route. Brother’s development history shows very clearly that making the best or funnest experience was not the authorial intent of this game. When publishers attempted to shoehorn the game into a co-op experience, which would have ruined the whole point (the seemingly gimmicky control scheme is vital to affecting the player), Fares adamantly rejected the suggestion. The publishers didn’t understand that Fares was concerned with how gameplay, how mechanics could be molded to bring about a reaction that was unique to that element of the medium, not to sell units. This unique reaction being a particular empathetic form of pain, not merely regret, anger, joy, or any of those other responses game mechanics are so good at manifesting.

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All of this thinking about game mechanics as a material worthy of eliciting feels paid off, inducing tears in many who partook in this journey. Notably, Brothers didn’t turn to some contrived and regret filled binary choice, as could have easily been done. And again, this wasn’t a cinematic (a technique not unique to games) cheap shot like Lasts of Us’s attempt to move the player. The somewhat forgettable puzzles that get us to this point take on new meaning afterwards, acting as gameplay infused character development. Yes, character development through mechanics and not the kind where you put points into stealth or magic. Like the kind that hasn’t really been done in video games, learning and experiencing them change as a person, not through some broody monologue in a cutscene, but through interactivity. After the game’s climax, the story is obviously different but it also affects the gameplay, you’re left longing mechanics and character simultaneously. A character transformation then occurs through, you guessed it, gameplay. This all was developed over the amount of time a longish film would pass and it left me sullen and ecstatic. Sullen because the climax leading to the dénouement was simply heartbreaking. Ecstatic because Starbreeze pulled off making the medium its own.

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One thought on “Playing with Materials and Teary Eyes: On Starbreeze’s Brothers

  1. Pingback: The 10 “Best” Games of 2013 | Dialog Wheel

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