Brothers is a quiet game. An understated one. Simple mechanics, soft lighting, and a story book world. It's not the kind of game you would think a veteran film director would come up with, but that's exactly what it is. And on top of that it's a co-operative singleplayer game.
Co-operative singleplayer. What does that mean? Well, simply put you control two brothers at once, one with each analogue stick, performing actions and interacting with non-playable characters and the environment with the corresponding trigger. It's an extremely simple set up, but it still takes some getting used to the fact that you're controlling two characters independently of eachother.
The two brothers are looking for a cure for their terminally ill father, after already having lost their mother. The younger brother (your right hand) is a bit mischevious and enjoys playing a prank or two on the village folks in the early part of the game. The older brother (your left hand) is more to the point as he pulls up the map seeking to find out how to reach their lost father. There is no actual dialogue, and the story is told through gestures and action.
Beneath the soft and quiet look and feel of the game there lies tremendous passion embodied by game director Josef Fares. The demo I'm about to try is taken from the early part of the game, and he goes to great length to explain how an important mechanic is missing from this build and how that will make the final game different. The mechanic in question is the simple matter of automatically moving one brother away from a point of interaction as you press to interact with said point with the other brother. Most developers I meet would probably just have mentioned this in passing and focused on the greater picture, but Fares provokes the game several times in order to show me exactly what's wrong with this build and how this is improved in a newer build. It may be a small detail, but it matters a great deal.
There is something very Nordic about the look and feel of the game. It could be described as a visualisation of a fairytale written by Danish author H.C. Andersen or something painted by Swedish illustrator John Bauer. Gamers have drawn comparisons to Fable's Albion, and there is something about the lighting and design of early areas that certainly shows a resemblance, even if the two games should not be compared in terms of actual mechanics. It's been compared to Journey, and perhaps you can also compare it to Ico, but none of those comparison really hits the mark.
For those unaware of what has transpired at Starbreeze Studios over the last few years, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, may seem like a complete change of direction and something on the complete opposite of the spectrum compared to the likes of Syndicate, Darkness or The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena. In 2009 some of the most veteran developers at Starbreeze Studios left the company to form Machinegames in the same small university town of Uppsala just 70 km north of Stockholm, and after they were bought up by Zenimax Media (the parent company of Bethesda Softworks) in late 2010, they cherry picked some of the remaining talent at Starbreeze.
Meanwhile, Starbreeze had shifted from being a technology centered developer building their own engine to one that licensed Unreal Engine from Epic (the engine used for Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons). They went on to release Syndicate in February 2011 to mixed critical reviews, but commercially it was a major flop with EA providing very little in terms of marketing support.
Seventy kilometers south of Starbreeze Josef Fares had been trying to get going with his game concept "Brothers" for a couple of years. Having built a reputable name as a director in the film industry, where his major breakthrough with 2000's Jalla! Jalla! Josef Fares came up with the concept for Brothers during a workshop and at first he thought it would be easy to find financing and partners to realise the concept. Late in 2008 the project was awarded a grant by the Nordic Game Program (approximately £54,000), to get it to a prototype stage. A few years and three prototypes later he finally hooked up with Starbreeze and the game we now know as Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons began to take shape.
I've run into Josef Fares every now and then at various video game events in Stockholm over the past decade. The first time we met was at the Swedish Xbox Live launch event in 2003, Josef won the celebrity Moto GP race, and when we talked about it afterwards he was mostly interested in how we at Gamereactor had scored Retro Studios' Metroid Prime. On another occasion, I believe it was the Forza Motorsport 3 release party, he walked up to me fuming about Double Fine's Brütal Legend. "It blows!" was the short and sweet version of it. One thing that was always there was a passion for video games, and naturally it has crossed over to his very first video game production.
The language or chatter between characters in Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is a made up one, but Josef has based some of it on Arabic, the native tongue of Lebanon where he lived moving to Sweden with his family at a young age. "Someone might recognise a word or two," he says. "But it was mainly done this way to make sure it sounded like an actual language and not just random noise."
Towards the end of the demo I play the brothers met up with a giant troll who helps them scale some cliffs. Fares explains that some people thought that the game would be reminiscent of Majin and the Magic Kingdom when they saw this, bit the troll is only there for a brief while in the first chapter. The kind and patient troll is an example of how peaceful and friendly the world appears, at least in this early part of the game. The only "enemy" I came across was a dog that tried to take a bite out of the brothers as they ran from hay bale to hay bale. Naturally the game will progressively get more challenging, but I suppose this is where the comparison with titles from Thatgamecompany comes into play - it's not a game that throws enemies at you in order to create challenge, and those that are there are simply there to present you with a puzzle to solve.
Brothers is the last game in production at the Uppsala offices of Starbreeze, when production ends the team will be moved down to Stockholm where the team working on Payday 2 (formerly known as Overkill Software) already resides. It's both an end to an era, and the beginning of something new. A different Starbreeze, no more a tech focused work for hire studio, but a more agile developer looking to develop their own intellectual properties.
"You have to promise you'll play the game through to the finish," Fares exclaims. "Sure thing," I say as I pack up my notepad and ready for the train ride south to Stockholm - the same trip the entire studio will make as the journey ends with Brothers. "Afterall, it's just four hours or thereabouts, I promise there something that will surprise, something that will make it worthwhile," Fares says and I get the feeling he would love to spoil the entire plot right there. His passion for the project is contagious, and come spring I'll get to experience just what it is that gets him so excited he can just barely prevent himself from spoiling it.
Game director Josef Fares talks about the vision for the game:
Starbreeze Studios CEO Mikael Nermark talks about the studio and the changes they are going through: