Platforms: PC | PS3 | Xbox 360 (version tested)
Publishers: 505 Games
"I want you to know that games are my passion," says Josef Fares, a man celebrated in his native Sweden as a rather successful film director. "This isn't some bullshit 'EA PR stunt', I don't need that kind of attention. I've always wanted to make a video game; I'm a hardcore gamer myself and I truly believe that I can make a difference in this industry."
He's a charismatic fellow. This is a man who's used to press junkets and hardline questions from a homeland media representing very exacting and knowledgable consumer base. As such, there's none of the nervousness that occasionally greets these meetings between developers and games journalists. He understands that a 15 minute demo can't convey the artistic magnitude of the game that he's trying to present, and he's not bound by publisher-led censorship as he sounds off in a twenty minute introduction to Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons: a game of which he's fiercely proud.
"If, when you play it all of the way through, you don't feel the uniqueness of this game, you can kick me in the face," he says. He's smiling, but one gets the feeling he's deadly serious.
Rather bizarrely, Brothers was unveiled at the start of silly season last year, and didn't receive a huge amount of attention aside from a trailer here in Europe as Fares and his team toured the US, before the plethora of big releases drowned out all else. Ostensibly the story of two sons searching for a cure for their dying father, Brothers is designed to be a directly engaging experience removing as many obstacles as possible between the player and their interaction with the events onscreen.
There's no clutter, no HUD, no overlay of any kind, and the controls have been stripped bare: two sticks, two triggers. Fares speaks of the importance in doing away with all of the little command prompts and pop-ups that can break immersion and remind you that you're playing a game. So it is that you control one brother with the left stick, one with the right, and the corresponding triggers are context-sensitive action buttons.
There's a section of Ni No Kuni where you're controlling Oliver and Esther simultaneously in the same fashion, navigating them through tricky platforming sections as pat of a series of trials. The control scheme here is rather similar, and for the first few minutes, it feels like the two halves of my brain are coming unstuck. Ultimately, though, I get used to it far quicker than I anticipated. If you get the brothers crossed over, which I did on a number of occasions, the camera swings around after a few moments to set things right.
With such a simple means of interacting with the game world and its inhabitants – hold and release the triggers – it's clear that Fares and his team have spent their time thinking up hundreds of ways to explore that interaction, the idea being that no puzzle is ever solved the same way twice. That the brothers – one small, one large – interact with objects in different fashions, only adds to the sense of play. As with the finest games that take a simple fundamental principle and then look to explore that in creative fashion, most of our short demo is spent running around and seeing just how many things we can play with.
The older brother interrupts a old man playing a harp to showcase his complete lack of musical talent, whereas the younger brother plays a delightful tune. One puzzle that sees a giant-hamster wheel link to a raised bridge requires the younger brother to power the wheel as the older brother crosses, picks up a sheep, and brings his new fluffy friend back to power the wheel so that both brothers can reach the other side. Another has the brothers traversing a field, occupied by a large, threatening dog. Here, it's a case of splitting apart and climbing to higher ground, with one brother distracting the dog so the other can advance and vice versa.
There's a particularly winning moment where we come across a little clearing in which some black rabbits are merrily bounding about around an unlit fire pit. There's a little white rabbit that wants to play, but the others keep running away from him. The older brother merely succeeds in scaring off the white rabbit, but the creature allows the younger brother to pick him up, dunk him in the soot around the fire pit, after which the other rabbits no longer run away. The delighted celebrations of the previously outcast bunny elicit a number of "Awwwww" noises from the small cluster of writers assembled.
Aesthetics in a game such as this are absolutely, and it's clear that Fares and Starbreeze have made every effort to create a game that embodies lashings of wistful charm. Instead of instilling a fervent sense of competition, or upping my heart rate and sending adrenaline coursing through my veins, or giving me a headache with a fiendish puzzle, my short time with Brothers leaves me with a contented expression on my face. The languid music, the bright Albion-esque cartoonish hyper-realism, the simplicity of it all. As I tell one of the reps from 505 Games, "It's lovely!"
Of course, whether or not that can be sustained over the course of full game remains to be seen. But Fares is certainly focussed on the right things: making the game great, not worrying about how long it should be. "A game should be as long as it needs to be," he says. "It pisses me off to hear people ask questions about how long a game is. It doesn't matter if a game is one hour long, or ten. All that people will remember is if it's any good. It's always better to have a shorter, more unique experience."
"[Brothers] is a very risky project, and I must than Starbreeze for taking a chance and for letting me direct this game however I've wanted to," he explains. "That's been so important. Those guys in suits telling you what to do, compromising what you want to achieve... they're full of shit. We're working with art, we need to be trying new things all of the time."
Could Brothers be this year's Journey? I for one can't wait to find out.
Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons releases later this Spring for XBLA, PSN, and PC. Watch out for our full interview with Josef Fares later this week.