A Tale of Two Games (Part 2) Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons

Two Brothers hug

Last week, in part 1 of this post, I discussed Grand Theft Auto V and its disturbingly violent and hypersexualized take on masculinity. This week, I’d like to draw your attention to a game that takes a completely different approach in its depictions of male behavior. The game, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, manages to present an almost polar-opposite vision of masculinity from not just Grand Theft Auto V (GTA V), but the vast majority of video games available these days.

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, is a wonderful game that received almost no mainstream hype. It was developed by Starbreeze Studios and Swedish film director Josef Fares. Judging by the fact that I couldn’t find any sales figures online, it’s probably safe to assume that Brothers sold a great deal less than GTA V (which by the way, has now sold nearly 29 million copies in a mere six weeks). Yet despite the sales and attention deficit, Brothers still managed to achieve near universal critical acclaim (as evidenced by the review aggregation site Metacritic‘s cumulative average score of 91 out of 100… GTA V for comparison sake, scored a 97).

Beyond great reviews, Brothers does have something else in common with GTA V; both games require players to control multiple characters in some very non-traditional ways, although there are differences in how each game manages character control. In Brothers, players control the two boys at the same time (instead of switching back and forth between them, as one does in GTA V). Players are required to use one of the controller’s thumb-sticks (the parts labeled left stick and right stick on the image below) for each brother and little else.

XBox 360 Controller button layout

Button layout of an XBox 360 controller (image courtesy Alphathon – CC BY-SA 3.0)

The effect of trying to control two separate characters at once is analogous to trying to pat your head and rub your belly at the same time… while also trying to cross a busy street and not get run over by oncoming traffic. It’s not easy and it takes a lot of getting used to, but it’s incredibly rewarding once you get a hang of it. The control scheme makes Brothers‘ approach to character control extremely unique and challenging but even more importantly, it serves as an apt metaphor for the game’s approach towards video game masculinity. In fact, as interesting as the control scheme is, in my humble opinion it’s still not the most interesting thing about the game…

I get into major plot points from here on out, so it’s time for the obligatory -Spoiler Alert!- If you plan on playing the game, you may want to skip forward to the end.

Despite it’s beauty, rich colors and whimsical look, Brothers is at its core a game about sadness, loss and the lasting effects of trauma. In the game’s opening prologue for example, you watch as the youngest brother tries and fails to save his mother from drowning right before his eyes. As a result of this trauma, the younger brother is afraid of water and can’t swim for the rest of the game. It’s a powerful, in game exploration of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) unlike anything I’ve experienced in a video game before. Rarely are male characters in any form of media traumatized and burdened in such a way (unless it’s being used for comedic or emasculating effect), but in video games it’s even rarer.

Once the prologue is over and game-play begins, we quickly learn that the father of the two main characters is sick and close to death. The two brothers must set out on a long journey across their Nordic world to find a magical “tree of life” that represents the only hope for saving him. Right from the beginning, a number of major video-game-story conventions are turned on their heads. Instead of the usual super-strong, solitary hero(s) armed to the teeth and ready for a fight, players are given control of two sad and traumatized boys. They don’t respond to their trauma by massacring entire villages full of nameless extras. They are not seeking revenge and/or redemption. Instead, they are struggling with fear and loss and concerned only with saving their beloved father. At various points throughout the game we see the boys crying, hugging and holding hands (as you see in the trailer above), yet they’re still strong, smart and capable.

It’s also notable that Brothers generally avoids one of gaming’s most prominent tropes: that of the damsel in distress. These aren’t the Mario Brothers, so they’re not endlessly trying to rescue a pink-dress wearing, blond hair, blue eyed princess. Of course, as any good journey story requires, the brothers run across and assist many other characters throughout their travels. As such, they do manage to rescue a couple of female characters, but their main goal always remains saving their father. By the way, they also manage to rescue a man trying to commit suicide by hanging himself (who players discover lost his entire family in a house fire, thus the suicide attempt) as well as young kids, various animals, mystical creatures and a couple of sad but friendly trolls.

Now, I do have to admit that the game isn’t exactly perfect. It’s clearly a male dominated game told exclusively through the experience of these two boys. Plus, early in the game it starts to feel like female characters are the only ones dying in this strange Nordic land; first there’s the boys’ mother who dies in the prologue (meanwhile the father is given a chance at survival), then there’s the suicidal man’s dead wife and child (who if I remember correctly was a girl). Assuming players attempt to save him, he lives. One begins to wonder if the game’s makers are sending some sort of demented message… Although to be fair to the game, male characters do die. It just starts happening much later.

The biggest issue for me though, is a major plot point that could easily be interpreted as sending the message: “don’t trust flirtatious girls/women.” I don’t want to reveal too much about this moment, because it’s crucial to the story’s powerful ending… Let me just leave it at this; the older brother’s interaction with one of the game’s female characters leads to the story’s saddest, most heart-wrenching moment. A moment so powerful that I cried for the first time while playing a video game.

Despite these potentially troubling moments, I find it hard to ignore the power of this game’s take on masculinity. I’m fully aware that I may be accused of overlooking some problematic treatment of the game’s female characters. I accept this potential criticism but I continue to say; in the world of video games Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons presents us with something different and truly worth playing. It’s the rare game (but not the only) that demonstrates just how powerful and emotional video-game stories can be when given the chance. It also gives us a take on masculinity that I wish more video games would present. It explores trauma, PTSD and a range of emotions that men are in fact capable of feeling, but rarely are depicted. Emotions that go beyond the overplayed standards of rage and an insatiable need for vengeance. It gives us characters that are not your standard video game demi-gods, capable of absurd feats of violence.  There are no guns and although violence does occur in the game, I wouldn’t describe it as a violent video game. Somewhat dark and sad maybe. But not overly violent.

If you ask me… between Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons and GTA V, which game should have received all the hype and absurd sales? I’d say Brothers every time. So if you enjoy video games, feeling actual emotions and want to help convince game makers to give us more human male characters, I highly recommend that you put down GTA V and purchase this game instead.

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