(SPOILER WARNING: This post discusses major plot points in Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons)
As an older brother to a teenage boy, I expected to have a stronger reaction to Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons than I did. It’s beautiful, touching and evocative in ways that many games are not, but it left me dissatisfied in some odd ways.
For one, the depictions of women troubled me more than I think it should. In a space that’s pushing for inclusivity of women in and around games, between Feminist Frequency and outlets calling out the horror stories of harassment at press events, we don’t see any reflections of these movements in Brothers. Within the first 15 seconds, we’re shown a flashback of Little Brother fruitlessly trying to rescue his mother from drowning, a memory sparked as he genuflects at her grave. While this cutscene certainly doesn’t break the game, I couldn’t help but feel that as a game pushing for emotional authenticity, falling back on the trope of the dead female companion felt lazy, especially when presented at the very beginning of the adventure.
Unfortunately, the portrayal of what few women there are doesn’t improve beyond the mother. For instance, in your travels, you come across a man whose home has burned down (whether it was razed or not is unclear), taking the lives of what appear to be his wife and child (a cloth obscures the view of the charred bodies underneath, one smaller than the other). The man attempts to hang himself, but you can save him if you act quickly. You can be an especially good Samaritan if you recover the music box from his home, soothing his grief as he turns it to quell his sobbing. While I found it touching to be able to interact with an NPC in a manner other than putting a bullet in their captor’s skull, there still lay another deceased woman at my feet.
And it’s a shame, because Brothers really is quite magical. Poking around the world with Big and Little yields different outcomes, each demonstrating their unique personalities. For example, when you pass a caged bird early on, Big brother tries coaxing the bird into singing, whistling at it and bobbing his head to attract its attention. If you use Little Brother, he’ll open the cage and set the bird free, gleefully awing at the bird’s flight. These interactions aren’t mandatory; performing them and seeing their results is its own reward. Quiet moments like these make Brothers stand out from the flurry of bullets and explosions found in so many other games, but they culminate in an awkward conclusion.
Toward the end, you encounter a tribal group of cavemen who appear to be offering a woman, bound to a post, up as a sacrifice. The brothers free her and flee from the spear-wielding Cro-Magnons, adding a third member to the environmental puzzle-solving mix. She proves surprisingly athletic and helpful, leaping across chasms and guiding you in eluding the pursuit of an invisible yeti. What at first appears to be a refreshing take on the damsel in distress formula slowly reveals itself to be something else entirely.
The woman makes romantic advances on Big as they travel together, at one point leaping into his arms and kissing him on the cheek. She leads them to a narrow cave, supposedly for shelter, but the Little brother protests. After a bit of back and forth, Big wins out, dismissing Little’s concerns, and they follow the woman into the cave. Once inside, the woman begins cackling and transforms into a horrible spider-beast, capturing the brothers in her spindles and prompting a boss battle. The brothers defeat her, working together to topple her and tear her limbs off one by one (I wasn’t expecting the game to be so gruesome at points). But, with her dying breath, the woman pierces Big’s abdomen with her pincer, mortally wounding him. Sadly, Big dies as Little fills the vial of water from the tree of life they’ve pursued all along, and Little must return to his village alone to revive his father.
The ending pulls on your heartstrings, certainly, but the series of events that led to it sort of baffled me. If I’m reading it correctly, Big dies because he was tempted by a beautiful woman, the implication being 1) women are untrustworthy and 2) his untimely demise was a direct result of his desire for a woman’s touch. The brothers defeated club-wielding trolls and scaled mountainsides, but a thin, unassuming temptress’s allure ultimately dooms them? For a game that’s meant to push the medium to new, emotive heights, I felt deflated in its reliance on this trope as its most pivotal plot point.
Aside from the troubling role women play, the environments, though detailed, don’t get a free pass, either. I haven’t played Gone Home, but, from what I can gather, critics commend it for it’s environmental storytelling and how the plot reveals itself from rummaging through the house. Brothers, and many other games, such as Bioshock and Portal, tell a story of past events in a place through its artifacts, but so often those clues of previous events are told through death. I waded through more streams of blood than I expected to in Brothers, walked through packs petrified humanoid snow figures and climbed over the corpses of giants. I just wish more games could play the “what happened here?” game without bloody messages scrawled on the walls.
I don’t mean any of this just to be contentious; given the excitement surrounding Brothers, I just didn’t expect it to leave a faint bad taste in my mouth. I appreciate that it exists, and I recognize its importance as a meditative game that explores death in ways few games have. As “empathy games,” as they’ve come to be known, gain traction, I’m hopeful that developers will take notes from Brothers’ successes and learn from its failures.