While stumbling through Microsoft's Xbox One-dominated E3 booth earlier this month, I got momentarily lost in the crowd, and found myself shoved aside into steerage, a crowded horseshoe of Xbox 360 games packed so tightly together that once you added in the developer demo-ers to help people through each game, there was basically no room for actual show-goers to try them. That's where Starbreeze's Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons had taken up residence, and it's where I stumbled onto one of my favorite games from the show.
As the subtitle suggests, the game is about two young boys, a responsible older child and his precocious, mischievous little brother. Each brother is assigned an analog stick for movement and a trigger for interaction, so players control the pair simultaneously throughout the game. At first the combination is a bit like rubbing your head while patting your belly, especially when certain puzzles call for the brothers to alternate actions. I found it just unnatural enough that I couldn't "auto pilot" my way through even the simplest of tasks, but not so unnatural that the controls were hindering progress.
Developed with award-winning Swedish film director Josef Fares, Brothers played like a game with its own distinct voice, in no small part because it doesn't actually use voice. In fact, it doesn't convey anything at all to the player through speech or text. There is no visual interface, and other characters in the game speak a sort of gibberish, getting their message across more through gestures than language.
In theory, the creative limitations Starbreeze imposed on themselves with Brothers should help push them toward better storytelling; it's tough to run afoul of the "Show, don't tell" maxim when you've taken away your most straight-forward tools to tell people anything. Starbreeze understands that well, as the E3 demo was rich with characterization told through animation. In one optional puzzle involving a pack of rabbits, the older brother picks them up carefully and respectfully, keenly aware of the harm he could cause the fragile creatures. The younger brother, on the other hand, grabs hares by the ears and stomps around with the poor creatures' bodies hanging limply from his hand.
Although it's unlike any of Starbreeze's previous efforts, Brothers seems like a nice bit of symmetry for the studio. The developer had its breakout hit almost a decade ago with The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay, a movie tie-in Xbox game starring Vin Diesel, patron saint of bros. The game was praised for its visual fidelity and a gritty, violent world full of mature themes. Nearly a decade later, the studio is making another bro game with ties to the medium of film, but one without the emphasis on combat or the M-for-Mature rating. Instead, Brothers is a game about familial bonds that immerses players in a fantastic fairy tale world, and it seems all the more mature for it.
Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is set for a downloadable release on PS3, Xbox 360, and PC soon.