Friday, January 3, 2014

The Mechanic is the Message: Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons can easily be read as one long setup for a single mechanical trick that takes videogames into a whole new realm of meaning and communication. It's a beautiful game visually and emotionally throughout, but its point--its prestige, if you will--comes all in a single moment at the end of the game. That moment is a kind of mini-manifesto in itself about what videogames can do, and I'd like to take a second here and unpack it.

Warning: REAL SPOILER ALERT. Despite what I have said before about how spoilers can't actually ruin anything, I would highly, highly suggest in this case playing the game for yourself before reading on if you want to get the full experience. The power of Brothers comes not in plot revelation, but in mechanic revelation, and that's a totally different experience. (Incidentally, for those of you on Playstation Plus, this game is free for you at the time of this writing, so definitely go take a look at the game first.)

Last chance.

Okay, for those of you still reading, the moment I was talking about was of course the final river crossing, when the little brother walks up to the water and both he and you realize in a whole new way the pain of the older brother's loss, and have to figure out how to go on without him. The little brother has never been able to swim on his own thanks to his fear of water after their mother drowned, and he had relied on the older brother to carry him through the water every time before. But now older brother is gone and this river is standing between little brother and their father's life--a life made all the more precious now with the loss of both mother and brother. My experience with this scene I'm sure was exactly what the designers wanted. I went forward, pushed the little brother's interaction button, and realized after a couple seconds that that wasn't going to work. I moved around a little bit, tried it again, then stopped and stared at the water for a second while I thought what to do. As an experiment, I tried pushing the older brother's interaction button even though he was dead. Instantly, I was rewarded with the controller rumbling, ghostly whispers, and the little brother bravely diving into the water. I felt instantly the rush of love for what now felt like my own dead brother, and the game expertly lays an ambiguity between simply calling on this older brother through memory and actually receiving help from the brother's deceased spirit. Whether meant to be read metaphorically or literally, I instantly understood that even though older brother was gone, he still mattered in the world of Brothers, and he still influenced the life of his living brother and father. In that one button press, Brothers made me reflect on love, family, death, and life in an entirely new way. In this one moment, Brothers achieved something truly great.

To let you enjoy the sensation, the game lets you use the trick a couple more times in your final push toward the ailing father and the game's conclusion as the little brother draws on the strength of his deceased sibling to pull the lever he could never pull and reach the ladder he could never reach, finally stumbling with exhaustion into the doctor's home to deliver the life-saving liquid to his father.

This one mechanical turn is exactly the kind of moment that proves the unique power videogames have to communicate. It's the exact kind of moment I've been looking for and advocating for. It doesn't give you profound prose or deep dialogue or Oscar-worthy acting, but it does exactly the same thing that makes those things praise-worthy: it successfully transfers a human experience in such a way that it's felt as if it were real, so powerful and piercing that it can never be forgotten. Game writers often make the claim that such-and-such thing that such-and-such game does cannot be done in any other medium, but that claim is often made when a game simply does more than other mediums--like The Last of Us making more connection with its characters than could be possible in film or Bioshock Infinite creating more atmosphere than could be possible a novel. All games are inherently different than other mediums because of the interactive element, and I'm not saying that The Last of Us, Bioshock Infinite, and other games don't use interactivity to communicate, but what Brothers accomplishes with the dead brother mechanic just feels so totally different from anything else, with no analogue in any other medium. It's not that it's just more or better, it's truly different. Yes, other mediums have done ghosts and help from beyond the grave and all that, but I'm not talking about what the story of the game does, I'm talking about what the game itself does in that moment of frustration and that rush of revelation as the player finally pushes the older brother's button. It's a moment where the player must use what they've learned about the systems of the game to advance the story of the game, where suddenly oil and water mix and the game system tells a more powerful story than any of its cut-scenes ever could. It's a moment where gameplay communicates rather than just functions. It's a feat that takes what The Marriage promised to a whole new level. It's one of the best cases yet to show the world that videogames truly can do something different, beautiful, and great.

I've talked a lot about videogames receiving a sense of cultural legitimacy in our society. Many make their case by showing they can do the same things that other mediums do, improved through interactivity. I think that's a good case. But the case Brothers makes is a different case, one that shows the world that with a new medium comes an entirely new way to communicate meaning, and videogame players and designers alike are only just beginning to tap into this new language of expression. This is the case that will ultimately solidify videogames' place in the cultural canon of "great art." More importantly, this is the case that just may wake the world up from its ill-formed and deep-rooted prejudices against this medium as a legitimate medium of real human expression.  This is the best case for the future of videogames, and the one I hope designers the world over continue to pursue.

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