Gabe’s head fell right off his body. From the top of the basement stairs, I tossed him a miniature basketball, and when he caught it—pop—his head just slipped away in a sick, bloodless moment. The cut was clean, like what was left of his neck was made of rounded glass sitting on top of a body made of Teflon. The absence of gore made it so much worse. My big brother was gone. Just dead. Every dumb, mean thing he’d ever say and every wonderful, pristine joke we’d ever tell evaporated in a flash like so much rime on September grass. That nightmare is as clear to me today as it was when I had it just after turning four. It created my oldest, most enduring fear: What is the shape of the world without my brother in it?
My nightmare looms large every time I sit down to play Brothers: A Tale Of Two Sons. Starbreeze’s quietly genius game overcomes its pretentious title by delivering on it. It is about two brothers and everything that brotherhood entails, with a story and a cumbersome system of control that intertwines to seamlessly construct its characters. Like my old bad dream, Brothers’ ending hits hard because of what it suddenly, terribly changes. The worst comes to pass for its starring siblings, and your method of controlling the game is suddenly broken. In doing so, Brothers captures the essence of having a sibling.
The brothers’ lives aren’t exactly spectacular before Starbreeze lays down its brilliant, bleak finale. Living in a vaguely European fantasyland—think The Witcher but with less sex and more of a Hans Christian Andersen sense of incidental cruelty—the pre-pubescent younger brother is out to sea with his mom. When she goes overboard, he’s too small and weak to save her. Life only gets worse after that. His father comes down with a wasting sickness, and as dad’s health worsens, the little boy and his teenage brother set out to retrieve the medicinal sap of the tree atop a distant mountain.
No one in Brothers speaks. The game relies mostly on charming fictional babble, but every little action teaches you something about the brothers. In the opening scene, the younger boy sits in front of his mother’s gravestone while the elder helps arrange their father on a cart to bring him to the doctor. One’s wracked with guilt; the other is burdened by responsibility while still lacking the skills of an adult to handle things on his own.
Getting the cart to the doctor is a task that requires both boys, as little brother is light enough to be lifted on to higher ledges and big brother is strong enough to operate some heavy machinery. They’re different and complimentary in more subtle ways too. When they meet a flutist and borrow his instrument, little bro can craft a melody right away unlike his tone-deaf sib. In another scene, big brother smartly ignores an old man’s dismissive attitude. Little brother instead waits for the old man to turn around, so he can slap him on the ass.
Your relationship with these boys is immediately intimate thanks to the way you play Brothers. Each of the controller’s two analog sticks and one of its buttons is assigned to the movement of a different brother. It’s easy enough to grasp but tricky to actually use, since steering two bodies at the same time causes some serious cognitive dissonance. But that awkwardness gets at something inherently true about brotherhood: Even when you’re getting along with your blood, it’s hard not to be slightly at odds. Someone always annoys someone else at some point.
As with real brotherhood, though, it clicks when one sibling needs the other. Traumatized by his mother’s death at sea, little brother can’t swim. The only way to wade through water is to steer the older brother over and drag little bro across. As the player, you get to experience something here that no individual ever can: the humiliation and grateful trust of a younger sibling in need of help at the same time as the older’s simultaneous feelings of love, protectiveness, and annoyance.
Brothers layers on moments like these throughout its runtime, letting the duo’s relationship deepen and change as they get closer to their goal. The more comfortable you get controlling both brothers, easily pulling off tricks like guiding them up chains and platforms in a crumbling tower, the more confident they become in their roles. Big brother starts to trust little brother to take care of himself, while little brother comes to realize that his predecessor isn’t infallible. Unfortunately, the latter bit of growth comes too late.
Failing to notice the many signs that a young woman the boys save is a monster in disguise, you’re led into her lair. She attacks, and you fight her off, but just before dying, she impales big brother with a pointy spider leg. Little brother props him up, and the two walk on, shortly reaching their destination, The Tree Of Life. By this point, little brother has built up the skills and strength to scale the tree himself and gather the medicine that will save both his father and brother. His climb invokes the thrill and pride of independence and the fear of standing on your own. Most people experience it when their older kin leaves home ahead of them—for college or work—but the echo of it here feels true.
But swift as you are climbing up the tree, he’s already dead by the time you get back to the ground. In a raw moment, the game insists on putting control in your hands. The camera doesn’t turn away. You bury your own brother. The difficulty of controlling two bodies in tandem gives way to a terrible feeling of incompleteness as you push dirt onto his body.
How Brothers offers relief from this moment is remarkable. After hitching a ride home with a flying friend, you rush off to bring the hard-won cure to your father. You use tools and navigate the same cliffs that, at the start of the game, neither brother could manage alone. The little brother has learned to handle these things by himself. It’s easy now. But when he has to cross the same river that his older brother once carried him through, you’re forced to use both sides of the controller, physically doing with one character what you used both to do at the start. Each stroke into the water—right arm, then left arm—comes with a press of each brother’s button.
There’s profound strength to be found in squeezing what’s just a couple of dumb spring-loaded triggers on a plastic machine. It eases the brutality and sadness of previous scenes. In that one moment when the game asks you to play in a way you haven’t across all the hours that preceded it, Brothers breaks through the surface of the fear inside my childhood nightmare. What’s the shape of the world without my brother? It’s different. It’s painful and difficult, but it’s a world I can survive thanks to what we’ve shared.