A Critique of Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons

I recently got around to playing Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons. It’s one of those games I picked up forever ago, and it just sat around. I got it because it has to be one of the most critically acclaimed games I’ve ever seen. Giant Bomb and many, many other gaming sites gave it a 5/5 or very near such a perfect score.

I’m going to take a contrarian view, and I’m going to back up my claims with hard facts. Anyone paying attention and who knows about games should know better. I’m very confused as to how “experts” could have thought this game was good. I’m confused how “experts” could have even liked the game.

First, the game suffered from genre confusion. I’m all for experimenting with new, cross-genre ideas, but there has to be some content there at the end of the day. Was it a puzzle game? No. It fails on this front, because I never once had to “solve” something. From start to finish, the solution of how to progress was immediately obvious. Moreover, many of the puzzles repeated … several times … like, way too many times for a game this short.

Was it a platformer? No. The platforming aspects were too easy, and the stakes were too low. I think I died at one point because I accidentally let go of a trigger. That was my only death, and basically it happened because I itched my face or something. I got to repeat the task immediately with no penalty.

There is no platforming difficulty at all. In fact, many elements were downright bad on this front:

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The number of places where you must edge around a cliff or cross a narrow bridge got on my nerves. Not because I had to execute something challenging, but because the game designers clearly have no idea why other games use these elements. There is no risk of falling. The game won’t let you—I tried. So what’s the point other than to slow the player down? It’s more than an annoyance; it’s bad game design.

Basically, the game must be a story-driven walking simulator, because we’ve now determined it isn’t any of the other genres it’s crossed with. So how is the story? Oh, boy. Don’t get me started. It’s terrible.

First, it starts with a MacGuffin. This is already bad, mostly because we don’t even know what we’re setting off on our adventure to find. We only know it will magically save our father. That’s convenient. Where are we going? How do we know this cure will work? Don’t the writer’s know that MacGuffins are considered a cliche trope indicative of bad storytelling?

Then we haven’t even left our town and a kid is trying to stop us. Why? Our father is dying, and this kid doesn’t want to let us through. I get it. They needed an excuse to set up some “platforming puzzles” (that, recall, require no platforming or puzzle-solving skills). But you can’t have such a disgusting character with no motivation. I hate the term “ludonarrative dissonance,” because I’ve never consciously experienced it. But here I did. This conflict between gameplay and story already ruined the mood of the game in the first five minutes.

Another act of ludonarrative dissonance was when I got to this big castle that I couldn’t enter, but it had these perfectly placed pegs to grab on to (not quite the picture I wanted, but you get the point):

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Really? This highly fortified castle has this convenient other way to scale it with perfectly placed pegs, just the right distance so that the rope randomly tied between the two brothers barely reaches. Is this a story game or a puzzle platformer? If it’s a platformer, we could overlook these huge narrative flaws. But it doesn’t work as a game in that genre. It’s a story game, but these scenarios wreck the suspension of disbelief for the story.

More succinctly, in the language of game design, these sections involve “environmental puzzles,” but the puzzles don’t occur naturally in the environment at all. This is bad game design.

And let’s not even go there with the deus ex machinas. Are you stuck and can’t actually progress? Yes? Oh, well, good thing a giant appears out of nowhere and just throws you across the ravine. Did you get to the top of the castle only to be at a dead end? Good thing there is a bird trapped in a cage that will fly you to the next area.

It gets worse. How is that bird still alive? It’s been trapped in a cage for who-knows-how-long, bleeding, without any food, and all the people that could feed it are dead. Are we really supposed to believe the bird is still alive?

Lastly, people claim the ending is really sad. They claim they were moved to tears. I couldn’t get past the shrieking woman singing that shrill song at the climax. It ruined the mood. Ending Spoiler:

On a more serious note, I’ve already mentioned all the reasons I never got into the story: ludonarrative dissonance, tropes/cliches, unmotivated characters, ruined suspension of disbelief, plot holes, etc. I just didn’t feel anything except relief the game was over.

On positive note, the concept could have been amazing. Part of what made the game easy was that the core concept was never executed to its fullest. You have to move one of the brothers with one hand and the other with the other hand.

The potential for some truly interesting and difficult gameplay is there. All they had to do was design parts where you have to move both at the same time in fairly precise and independent ways. Instead, they stuck to having you move both in parallel or one at a time. That was the main downfall of the game: It didn’t even deliver on its core innovative mechanic.

Overall, each element has much better games. For puzzle platforming, there are dozens of examples: Braid, Thomas Was Alone, Teslagrad, Super Meat Boy, Trine, and on and on. For story, there are dozens of examples: Gone Home, Bastion, To the Moon, and on and on. For atmosphere: Limbo, Dear Esther, Kentucky Route Zero, The Long Dark, and on and on. I see no reason why anyone should play this game under any circumstance. There’s just much better games on every front.

I know. The whole is better than the sum of its parts for some games. In this case, that is not true. In fact, many parts messed up other parts. What the critics and people who liked this game were thinking is beyond me.

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Video Games as a Solution to the One-Sided Problem of Art

In October I wrote a post in defense of gaming in which the central argument is a claim that any person who takes experiencing art as an important human experience should consider certain types of games as a worthwhile use of time as well. Some games are basically interactive films, but some are much more interesting and original forms of interactive art. If you close yourself off from this world, then you close yourself off from deep artistic experiences that you can’t get elsewhere.

A few months ago I did two posts on David Foster Wallace, his philosophy of art, and how to get the most out of Infinite Jest.

One of DFW’s central concerns in art was the one-sided nature of art. The artist puts in hundreds of hours of work, and the viewer/reader/whatever passively experiences the work. He thought of the artist/viewer relationship as an honest relationship. If it is completely one-sided, then it is a defunct relationship and you won’t get much out of it for very long. To have a successful relationship, both sides have to be putting in reasonable amounts of work.

This is one way people justify postmodernist writing. You have a bunch of endnotes or footnotes or you pull the reader out of the reading experience in other ways by drawing attention to the fact that they are reading something. You write in stream of consciousness from points of view that change every couple of pages, so that the reader can’t immediately tell what is happening. Whatever the literary device, the idea is that the reader has to put in work.

The point is that the more work the reader puts in, the more they will get out of the experience. Just like in a relationship, the reader has to invest something if they want a meaningful experience. Of course, the relationship becomes one-sided on the other side if the author just uses a random word generator and plops nonsense on the page for the reader to spend months trying to decipher. It needs to be a symbiotic relationship where neither side carries too much of the burden.

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that this problem is a real problem, and what writers, filmmakers, artists, etc have come up with so far merely mitigates the problem. There hasn’t been a really good way to get the viewer to truly participate in and invest in the work of art … until the fairly recent paradigm shift in thinking about games as art.

I’m definitely not the first to propose this, so I won’t spend a lot of time making this into a long post. Now that I’ve blogged around this topic a few times without actually addressing it I thought I would just point out that games are one obvious solution to the problem. They provide an interactive experience where the “player” has to fully invest in the work.

In fact, if artists are scared of the idea that their art will be “played” and hence will not qualify as “serious” (two notions that are extraordinarily hard to define or separate), then they should check out some recent games like To the Moon. The game play is extremely minimal. The player experiences a moving story by progressing through the game. The game play consists of moving around to collect some items and at the end of certain segments of collecting you “solve a puzzle” (sometimes only 2 or 3 clicks of the mouse). Still, this level of interaction is vital to fully immersing you in the story as if you were really the main character. This interaction is impossible with film or literature.

In Defense of Gaming

It’s been over a month, so I decided to do a post that I’ve had in the bag for awhile, but don’t think adds anything to the discussion. This is what happens when you are taking classes, teaching classes, writing things up, and applying for jobs I guess.

Are video games art? What a bizarre question. It has been debated through the years, but I’m not sure there is anyone out there that has seriously thought about the question and is willing to defend that they are not. The debate seems over and the conclusion is that video games are art.

The one notable opposition is Roger Ebert, but his position boils down to a “no true Scotsman fallacy.” It is such a classic example that it should probably just start being used to illustrate what the fallacy is. He says games cannot be art. Then when shown a game that he admits is art he says, “But that isn’t a real game.” That would be like arguing novels cannot be art by just declaring that any novel that could be considered art is not a real novel. It is a silly argument that doesn’t need to be taken seriously.

First, we should notice that there is a “type error” (as a programmer would say) in the original question. No one would think “Are books art?” is a properly phrased question. What does that mean? If you find one book that is not art, then is the answer no? Do you merely need to give one book that is art to answer yes? The answer isn’t well-defined because “book” encompasses a whole class of objects: some of which are art and some of which are not.

For our purposes we’ll say a medium (like video games) “is art” if an artist can consistently use the medium to produce something that can be broadly recognized as art. This brings us to the difficult question of how to determine if something can be broadly recognized as art. Some things that come to mind are aesthetics/beauty, the ability to make a human being feel something, the ability to make someone think deeply about important questions, originality, and on and on we could go. Any given work of art could be missing any or all of these qualities, but if something exhibits enough these qualities, then we would probably have no problem calling it art.

In order to argue that games can be works of art, I’ll take two examples that are relatively recent from the “indie game” community. These are both games in a sense that even Ebert could not deny. I’ll stay away from controversial examples like Dear Esther or Proteus (which are undeniably works of art but more questionable about being games).

The first is Bastion. The art direction and world that has been constructed is a staggering work of beauty on its own. Remove everything about this game except just exploring this universe and I think you would find many people totally engrossed in the experience:

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We already have check mark one down. But there’s more! The music is fantastic as well. But let’s get to what really sets this game apart as a work of art. The story is fantastic and is mostly told with great voice acting through a narrator. I won’t spoil the ending in its totality, but I’m about to give away a major plot point near the end.

Your good friend betrays you and comes close to destroying everything (literally the whole world) in the middle of the game. It hurts. Then near the end he is going to die and you have the choice to save him. The game branches and you can either keep your weapons and safely fight your way to the end of the game, or you can carry this traitor through a dangerous area possibly sacrificing your own life for him.

Books and movies can’t do this. You have to make this choice and it affects how the story progresses. It reveals to you what type of human you are. You have to live with the consequences of this choice. If you save him, then you slowly walk through an area where your enemies shoot you from afar and there is nothing you can do. When they realize what you’re doing they stop in awe and just solemnly let you pass. The visuals plus the music plus the dramatic climax of this moment brings many people to tears.

I know this because you can just search discussion boards on the game. Gaming discussion boards are notorious for being misogynistic and full of masculine one-up-manship. No one makes fun of the people who say it brought them to tears and usually there will be a bunch of other people admitting the same. If this sort of emotional connection isn’t art, then I don’t know what is. Not only that, but this type of connection can only really happen through games where you are wholly invested because you’ve made these decisions.

Maybe Bastion isn’t your thing, because it is a “gamer’s game” with a bit of a barrier to entry since it involves experience points, weapons, items, leveling up, and real-time fighting of monsters and bosses. That could be a bit much for the uninitiated. We’ll move on to a game that every person, regardless of gaming experience, can play and really see how elegantly simple an “art game” can be.

Thomas Was Alone is extremely simple. Thomas is a rectangle. You move him to a rectangular door. End of level. The game is in a genre called a “puzzle platformer.” As the levels progress you get different sized rectangles to move and moving and jumping in various orders will help you get to the end. This is the “puzzle” aspect, because you have to figure out the correct order to do things otherwise you’ll get stuck.

Why is this art? Well, why is writing a book about some animals on a farm art? Because it isn’t really about animals on a farm. The same is true here. The game is a huge metaphor. A deeply moving one at that. I consistently had to stop playing at parts because of how overwhelmed with the concept I became when I allowed myself to think about it.

Just like Bastion, this game is truly magnificent visually. The style is opposite. It has minimalism and simplicity as the guiding aesthetic virtue:

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The music is perfect for the mood, and the narration which tells the story is beyond superb. You grow attached to these rectangles which have such nuanced personalities. What is the metaphor? Well, there are all these obstacles in your way, and you can’t get past them without working together. The whole idea is that there are seemingly impossible obstacles in life, but when humans cooperate and work together they can get past them.

The thing that makes the game so moving at parts is that your rectangle friends are so humanly flawed. They get upset at each other for such petty reasons. They have crushes on each other. They hate each other. But in the end they overcome those differences to work together and accomplish great things. If you haven’t experienced it, then this probably sounds totally absurd.

Again from discussion forums, I quote, “I just finished the game and a group of coloured quadrilaterals made me cry.” Or “Everything about this game makes me feel incredible. I feel as if I can achieve things I could never think of being. This is the best thing I could have experienced, and it’s worth everything…This game makes you love and cry over shapes.” When people have these reactions, that is without question the definition of art.

I think we’ve firmly established that games can be art. I thought I’d just bring up a few cultural tidbits right at the end here. Some famous art galleries across the world have started to recognize the importance of including works of art in their collection that happen to be games. MoMA (the Museum of Modern Art in NY) has a collection of 14 games in its collection currently. Paris had an exhibit that included Fez. The Smithsonian American Art Museum had one last year. There have been many others too.

I’ll try to wrap up now. If you’re the type of person that reads literary novels and goes to the symphony because you think experiencing art is an important and enriching experience, then you probably also write off video games as a mindless waste of time. This is partially warranted because so many of the most popular games today are mindless wastes of time (just like most popular music and movies are too).

I hope that after this maybe your mind has changed a little. If you are willing to make time in your schedule to read a book or go to an art gallery, then I’d argue that you should also be willing to make time in your schedule to experience great games. The medium has all the same artistic qualities as a great film, but has added value given by the interactivity you have with the medium.