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I’ve been meaning to play Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons for a while. Made by Starbreeze Studios, who are better known as the developers behind Payday 2, Brothers is based around a reimagining of the traditional dual stick gamepad controller for games. The titular brothers are guided separately, the elder brother with the left thumbstick and bumper, and the younger brother with the right thumbstick and bumper. Players must learn to control the pair simultaneously, so they may cooperate to navigate a beautiful fairy tale world.

I was intrigued as soon as I heard this idea, as I think there’s a lot of space for imaginative designs in how games are controlled (another recent example is Snake Pass). The fact that Brothers was getting rave reviews only cemented my desire to play it.

Unfortunately, the game did not recognize my third-party gamepad. I do not blame the developers for this; rather, I blame Microsoft, who seem to have decided that the gamepads for their Xbox line of consoles are the only ones that should exist, and made them operate differently than any other generic controller when used on a Windows PC. Developers therefore must add support for both Xbox gamepads and generic gamepads separately, something that is not always worth the trouble.

Brothers has keyboard controls also, but it seemed silly to use those when the game was so clearly designed around a gamepad. Fortunately, even though Brothers did not think I had a gamepad attached, I was still able to control the game with it. But not quite as intended. The y axis on the left thumbstick was inverted, so pushing it down made the elder brother run towards the top of the screen. Even worse, axes were swapped for the right thumbstick, so pushing it down made the younger brother run to the right. I did some quick googling and realized it was possible to fix these issues with some simple edits to an .ini file. I found BaseInput.ini (in the Engine/Config folder within the game’s installed location) and made the sensitivity on the y axis of the left thumbstick negative, which reversed the movement direction. For the right thumbstick, I had to manually swap which axes were assigned to motion in the file. With these tweaks made, however, everything worked perfectly.

I am unaccustomed to controlling three dimensional games with a gamepad. I always feel helpless without a mouse for direct and constant control of the camera. Brothers allows camera rotation on the gamepad trigger buttons, but it’s slow and unwieldy, to the point that I often didn’t bother and would have the brothers run onwards even if I couldn’t see where they were going. For its part, the game seems designed to show players things rather than cede control of the camera, often borrowing techniques from cinema for careful framing of shots and dramatic reveals. There are even several lookout points throughout the game, where the brothers can sit down on a bench and the camera automatically realigns to provide a beautiful view. The developers have a good directorial eye, but I never truly became comfortable letting the game control the camera, as it made the experience feel somewhere between actively controlling a game and passively watching a film (a feeling only strengthened by the numerous cutscenes that remove control entirely). Since I haven’t seen the same sentiment expressed elsewhere, I suspect it is the result of my own prejudices. I do wonder if this type of design is more common for console games, with their ubiquitous gamepads that are unsuited for camera control.

On top of that, simultaneously controlling the brothers was awkward at first, but quickly became natural enough. I did find, however, that I was associating the controls spatially, so things were easy when the elder brother was on the left side of the screen and the younger brother was on the right, but I would get confused if they traded places. Even towards the end of the game I was occasionally trying to control a brother with the wrong thumbstick, but this usually occurred between challenges, not when dealing with an obstacle. I wonder if the developers faced this issue and designed the game such that the brothers would often stick to the “correct” sides of the screen.

Brothers could have easily focused on those obstacles, providing puzzles that thoroughly explore the possibilities created from independently controlling two separate characters. But, much like Fez, Brothers is about more than just its unusual controls. Over the course of the game’s 4-5 hour length, the brothers will cooperate in various ways to operate machinery or vehicles, or to climb or otherwise traverse the landscape, but these never become overly challenging. Equal focus is given to the world they are journeying through, and their reasons for doing so. The characters in Brothers speak an invented language, and their speech is not translated. This serves to underscore the universal nature of their tale; through tone of voice and body language it’s perfectly possible to understand what is being said. The brothers’ father is ill, and the local doctor seems unable to help him. But the doctor does know of something that might save the father’s life. He emphatically points to a map as he instructs the brothers on where to find it. And so they set off.

It’s a simple, fairy tale type of story, fitting for the fairy tale world the brothers live in. As they travel, their surroundings become more and more fantastical. The initial village gives way to subterranean cities, realms populated by giants, and more. While the brothers’ journey is strictly linear, there is always a new marvel ahead, and my desire to see what lay around the next corner never waned. There’s also a strong undercurrent of sadness to the entire affair. I’d been warned that Brothers was not a happy go lucky experience, but was expecting this to come in the form of a tragic turn at some point in the course of the game. Instead, I found a deep melancholy from the very first opening moments, and it was this, juxtaposed with the beautiful world and haunting score, that made the game so compelling.

I was also happy to see the strong family themes in the story. I praised the same thing in Basketbelle, although here the dynamic is somewhat different. The relationships between the brothers, their father, and their deceased mother is explored in ways obvious and subtle, and is my favorite aspect of the story. I’m afraid to go into more detail for fear of spoilers, but by the end of the game it was these themes that stuck with me. I do wonder if this aspect of the tale is as universal as the rest; whether the same family dynamics translate across cultures. I would hope that, even in the most disparate cases, players could recognize them, if not fully identify with them.

While the focus on family is uncommon in games, Brothers is nonetheless a very male story, in contrast to Basketbelle’s brother and sister pairing (although even that was told from the male perspective). While there’s nothing inherently wrong with this, games are dominated by stories by and about men, so it’s something of a missed opportunity to only show the male perspectives in the family. This isn’t something I would have singled out in Brothers were it not for a certain section near the end of the story. Embracing an old cliche, it felt so out of keeping with the rest of the tale that it nearly undermined the game’s excellent ending. Afterwards, I thought back on the story as a whole and wondered if the developers had intended different interpretations of earlier events, which might make the problematic segment make more sense but would imply a simplistic and disagreeable undertone to the game as a whole. I preferred my original reading.

That may sound like a harsh criticism, but this one stumble is not enough to mar an otherwise excellent and beautiful game. The novel method of control is interesting on its own, but also makes the game feel like something new, rather than another iteration of a game I’ve played before. As such, I shared the awe and wonder of the two brothers as they traveled through their beautiful and dangerous world, gazing at each new vista, never quite sure what was coming next. It doesn’t overstay its welcome either, never falling into monotony or mechanical puzzle solving along the way. I definitely recommend it, and I hope to see more games that show as much imagination.

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is available for PC from GOG and Steam, as well as for Xbox and Playstation.