Reaching Level 17

Steven Spielberg famously quipped that video games weren’t yet a real art form because “the real indicator will be when somebody confesses that they cried at Level 17.” Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons answers Spielberg’s challenge: it is a game that makes you cry. I do not say this as praise.

Spoilers inside.

Brothers follows two young boys on a journey in search of a magical “water of life” to bring their father back from the brink of death. They pass through dark and haunting tableaux drawn from the elements of European myth: underground caverns filled with mysterious machinery. a nocturnal graveyard patrolled by wolves, the bloody aftermath of a battle among giants. The game’s prologue starts at the gravestone of the boys’ mother; sorrow, suffering, and death are rarely far off. There are flashes of humor and moments of beauty, but the game as a whole has an elegiac, mournful tone.

Brothers’s signature twist is that the player controls both brothers, simultaneously, using a single gamepad. The puzzles require cooperation: the brothers push open gates together and toss each other gears. One distracts a dog so the other can sneak by. One shimmies out a branch to bring it within reach of the other. None of the puzzles are particularly difficult, but I sense that wasn’t the point. The game’s ludic conceit is a perfect fit for its narrative conceit: the closeness of siblings.

Given the game’s dark tone, I was prepared for something like The Twist. There is a betrayal, then a spider, and a fight that ends with the older brother gravely injured. The brothers limp to the world-tree that holds the water of life, which the younger brother successfully retrieves. But when he returns, his sibling is already dead.

It is here, believe it or not, that the emotional body blows begin. Following a cutscene, you the player, controlling now only the younger brother, must drag your sibling’s body into the grave you have dug, then tip four piles of earth to fill it in. There is no puzzle; what is required of you is not challenging. It is simply designed to be psychically wrenching, and the game draws it out by having the younger brother trudge, hunched over and exhausted, at a snail’s pace

One more task remains. The younger brother must bring the water back to his father. Except that he is trapped on the wrong side of a beach, across the water from where he needs to go. The game has already established that he cannot swim. Every time before, he clung to his older brother’s back. As a storm rages, he falls to his knees, defeated.

At this point, you, the player, must think to push the older brother’s action button. The controller shakes to tell you that something IMPORTANT is happening; the younger brother plunges into the water and swims across. I’m not sure whether to think of it as the older brother’s spirit intervening one last time, or as the younger brother summoning up newfound reserves of strength by remembering his brother. Either way, he arrives in time to save his father. The game ends where it began, except that one gravestone has been replaced by two, and one mourner by two. More tears, and scene.

This is all blatantly manipulative, and it is manipulative as only a game can be. There is only one way through these sections; the game offers nothing in the way of meaningful choice. But because the game has so carefully taught you its dual-control mechanic, pushing that second action button fells like one. Doing has an emotional impact that merely watching would not have.

Brothers is beautifully composed and scored; it is carefully paced. Its characters are specific, and also universal. Everything in the game leads up to its final-act beats: excitement, contemplation, apprehension, betrayal, struggle, shock, fear, short-lived hope, despair, determination, triumph, and sad release. Followed by anger, and frustration, and resentment at being used. This is a game that makes you cry, whether you want to or not, whether it has earned the emotion or not. It is, in short, the gaming equivalent of a Steven Spielberg movie.

That’s a little harsh. “AI” didn’t make me cry. It made me cover my face in embarrassment. (I can’t say I’ve done that in a video game!)