One of the frequently commented aspects of Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons was that it had emotional impact. Controlling two brothers on a journey to save their dying father was meant to have some kind of affective resonance in the player, and I was intrigued by the claim.
So I got to the point of the game where emotions are really to start flowing (obviously ***SPOILERS*** past this point) and I can certainly say that I felt something. But it probably wasn’t what I was meant to feel.
Fables and Fairy Tales
The point happens towards the end of the game – you’ve just guided the brothers through a village inhabited by an invisible, house-crushing monster while following a young woman who you saved from a sacrificial death. (It’s been a busy day.)
At the top of the hill she starts to flirt with the Older Brother, who’s suddenly much more interested in the woman than continuing the journey to save his father, much to the annoyance of Younger Brother. The young woman leads the brothers into a dark cave area…
… where she transforms into a horrible spider monster that aims to eat them.
You fight the spider woman by having the Younger Brother knock her over and getting the Older Brother to pull her legs off one-by-one. The final leg comes off, it looks like it’s all over… and then the spider woman stabs the Older Brother in the stomach with a front leg before dying. It was a moment that was meant to cause me to feel shock and surprise, and then sadness as the dying Older Brother needs the Younger Brother to support him up the hill to their final destination.
I felt something alright. It was anger.
A Cheap Trick
From my perspective as a player, I’d won that fight first try. I hadn’t been hit / damaged at all. But having beaten the spider, the game narrative required the Older Brother to take a massive, undeserved cheap shot. Brothers then tried to manipulate me into a particular emotional state – “Look at the little brother! He’s so sad! And now he has to bury his dead brother! Isn’t that sad?” – while I’m actually seething about having my player agency taken away from me.
I’m aware this moment worked for a lot of players. I pondered why it didn’t work for me and caused a very different type of feeling instead. Up to that point, Brothers hadn’t been unfair – you controlled the brothers through the key elements and they died if you got sloppy or didn’t figure out the puzzle in time. In this case, I’d figured out the spider fight ‘puzzle’ pretty easily, only to see the game shove defeat right into my jaws of victory.
(I did look for a video of this section that didn’t have people talking over the top of it, but no go, unfortunately.)
If the events had been reversed – the Older Brother getting bitten at the start of the fight – I think I could have been more accepting of the death. It was the Older Brother’s antics that had led them to this point, and the spider woman had plenty of time after she’d knocked out the brothers to do some damage. If she’d bitten the Older Brother when she was at full strength, I would have probably accepted that. Maybe if the game had required the ‘puzzle’ solution to involve the sacrifice of Older Brother, perhaps I would have felt differently.
But Older Brother’s death is at a point where she’s had all her legs pulled off and it is literally the last thing that the spider woman does before she dies. It’s a sucker punch and one I resented seeing.
Playing with the emotions of gamers is a tricky thing to do. In my case, Brothers failed to achieve what it attempted to do and ultimately caused me to view the rest of the title more negatively as a result.
Beware the Devil Woman, She’s Going To Get You From Behind
Brothers did also attract a bit of criticism for the gender tropes it displayed, most notably the spider woman moments.
I can understand why some people complained. The only notable woman character (dead mother comes in at #2) in the game is a murderous, monstrous temptress, which seems both a little bit lopsided and sadly stereotypical of females in video games. Brothers’ Creative Director, Josef Fares, has apparently indicated he recognises this as a problem with the game and said he’ll do things better in future, so I’m not going to cover that territory.
Instead, I want to briefly look at why such an issue is worth commenting on. I’m seen counter arguments that since Brothers is following the kind of tropes seen in fairy tales, reading gender roles into it is going too far. It’s just a fable (which is a variation on the old chestnut that “it’s just a game”).
Although fairy tales contain fantasy elements, using that fact that “it’s just a fairy tale” actually reinforces the anti-female impact of that moment. Fairy tales are very commonly moral lessons wrapped in an easily digestible story. Little Red Riding Hood isn’t just a story about why you shouldn’t talk to wolves, for instance.
The moment that the Older Brother allows himself to be distracted by a woman instead of remembering his father, he’s punished with attempted consumption and ultimately death. The Younger Brother, who never forgets the quest or his parents (indeed, his mother’s ghost only appears to him) is spared temptation, survives the spider attack and flies back home on the back of a mystical creature to save his father. Younger Brother gets to look on resolutely as his now-recovered father weeps at the grave of his eldest child.
The moral of Brothers could easily be seen as “temptation leads to death” (or perhaps even just “women ruin everything”). That’s really not a great lesson to take away from a title released in 2013.