The Divide Between Gone Home and Brothers: A Tale Of Two Sons
There are two awesome indie games right now that you can play on Steam. Gone Home, and Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons. Go grab em now, they each only require about 4 hours tops of invested playtime. They’re both mechanically fascinating, thematically resonant, and do a lot better job at narrative gameplay then most narrative oriented AAA titles. (Also, they have endings. ENDINGS! God what a glorious thing.)
Anyway, Having played both of these titles, I finally wanted to play around with a strange divide I felt between the two of them. This isn’t something I can write for work, because we discussed both games after they came out, and this discussion doesn’t fit our editorial focus.
The divide is this. After I finished Brothers, I wanted to play more time in that world. After I finished Gone Home, I felt perfectly satisfied, and considered any future playthroughs merely critical re visitations. Digging a little deeper, I realized there was a little more to this idea. I was satisfied with Gone Home, but a little unsatisfied with Brothers.
That was interesting. And I think it was partly only interesting because of the fact that I played these two games in relatively short succession. And I think the deeper emotional connection to that is that there’s something going on with their themes and gameplay mechanics that are actually connected to each other in the grand scheme of things. They’re both games about exploring, they’re both games that deal a little bit with sibling relationships. Brothers is about a cooperative relationship between two exhaustively rendered boys, and Gone Home is an investigation by one girl into her sister’s life—a more two-sided relationship that tells us more about the younger sibling, but then again, doesn’t the younger sibling in Brothers wind up being the more relevant one in the end?
But there is a genre divide. Gone Home is, at the core, a mystery. Brothers is an adventure. One is about seeking answers, the other is about a journey and a process of going on that journey. To wit, one game promises closure, the other ultimately is trying to be both about the destination and the path to it all at once. So that’s part of the equation here—-satisfaction and knowledge, for better or for worse, is promised and delivered by one game, while the other…doesn’t? The plot certainly provides closure, but it doesn’t feel like we were chasing closure necessarily.
Then there’s the reaction I had after playing Brothers. I said “Damn, this mechanic is awesome. I’d love to see it used with other close partnerships. Like husband and wife, or brother and sister, or two close friends.” But that made me think about the choice of “Brothers” and the literal choices the developers made.
From the opening title to the last moments of the younger brother’s journey, I feel like Brothers is trying to chase this very specific thematic message, doing so without establishing personal relationships with the characters, but trying to work through the mechanics. It’s a message about well—-brothers. Explicitly masculine heroes who are supposed to have these loving bonds that are one of the few “accepted” channels of emotion in traditional male roles in society. Brotherhood is one of the few ways men are supposed to be allowed to show close friendship with one another, (if you care about that stuff, that is), and we often build exceptions into normal friendships to try and use the shield of brotherhood to justify strong platonic feelings for those closest to us. (See, Bromance, calling each other “bro.) Sacrifice, teamwork, etc, it is all there in the mechanics.
Except what’s bugging me is, just like when I wrote about masculinity almost two years ago, none of the traits the brothers show are inherently tied to the concept of brothers. Loyalty, teamwork, sacrifice, and the “I’ll always be there for you” sensations are inherent to dozens of human connections beyond brotherhood. The brothers themselves are stand-ins for two characters who I think we’re supposed to view as fleshed out, but the more distance I get from the game the more I realize I can’t see them as individual identities. The fantasy world around them gets way more character than they do, and they’re essentially just generic big brother/little brother. I remember feeling way more invested in the question of who murdered all the giants or who the armies in the Snow level were than I was in their specific identities.
In narrative, theme is usually something best rendered by fleshed out characters. To me, this is the difference between ordinary dramas and stories where I consider the character’s names to be stand ins for either the actor or the generic character type. (Sticking to non-genre examples for a moment, I am way more likely to refer to Ray and Harry in In Bruges as Ray and Harry than I am to refer to Colin Firth as King George VI in The King’s Speech). This is what is happening in Brothers. Without two characters who I understand at a central, personal level, I feel like I’m dealing with interchangeable cardboard cutouts.
Strip out some of Brothers’ Aesthetics and make it about a husband and wife getting medicine for their daughter. Or make it about two friends getting food for their tribal elder. Or make it about two guitarists fetching the ultimate song for their recording manager. The twin-stick navigation/interaction mechanics don’t change that much.
So to me, I feel like Brothers is trying to tell me it’s a game about masculinity and brotherly love when I feel like it’s preventing something of a shallow version of both concepts. It’s a game about noble brothers giving up their lives for their other brothers and those other brothers nobly going on to save the day when ultimately that feels like such a shallow theme to build this game on. What’s weird is, I don’t think it’s a shallow theme, I just feel like it’s a theme that came first, then the (well designed) gameplay second.
Gone Home doesn’t feel like that. Gone Home is ultimately a love story and about how everyone in a family can hurt and their refusal to talk about or properly channel their pain can start tearing other people apart. In today’s society it’s “niche” because it’s an LGB-focused love story, but when you strip a way a layer of heternormativity it’s just about two kids falling in love. And it’s ten times more interesting than your average teenage love story because of how personal it feels and how high the stakes get. And it’s all because we get to know these people, both through audio diaries and environmental storytelling.
To that end, I wonder if there’s a way to read my dissatisfaction with Brothers as a dissatisfaction with traditional masculinity. As a a lack of satisfaction with something that feels erected and forced, and a desire to see more organic interactions spring from varying and fleshed out identities beneath. If I’m controlling two players at once, I almost wish it was more like The Cave, where I Got to pick who those characters were. And not just romantic or familial relationships! You could create a whole cast of characters, write out every single way they relate to each other, then send them off on this adventure. Or, heck, just make it about two dudes, but instead of making them caricatures flesh them out with real wants, needs, and interactions to give them more dimensionality.
Side observation: I do a lot of writing around masculinity and breaking it down but I’ve never tackled femininity in all that great detail. Maybe it’s because as a current games writer I have less to work with?! (Miss Congeniality and Legally Blonde don’t exactly have parallels in my current analytic world.)
Falling so slow
Like fragile, tiny shells
Drifting in the foam
Little soldier boy
Come marching home
Brave soldier boy
Comes marching home — Tales of Ba Sing Se
I’m watching Tales of Ba Sing Se because God Dammit sometimes you just feel like breaking down and crying.
niauropsaka asked: I glanced at your "Do horrible things to Tanith" story, but didn't care enough to really read it. Cheap hopeless horror is easy, isn't it? And inexplicable monstrosity from beyond spacetime is kind of, well, crap. And this was even telegraphed. Maybe too easy. I guess Lovecraft made money on it. What I'm saying is, meh.
What the heck? My ask box NEVER TOLD ME THIS WAS HERE. I am so sorry. O_O
Anyway, yeah, it was definitely cheap horror, and not my best writing. I was in a really bad mood and needed a genre to rapidly switch locations in so i could put Tanith through hell. The last part has to do more with a fixation of mine with images of starscapes then Lovecraftian Horror. Tumor rabbit face just manifested because the image of rabbit with Pappilovirus induce HORRIBLE terror for me.
To Be Swallowed By An Amalgamous Opposing Force
Or, how Bryant worries about being consumed by the very monsters he claims to fight against. Perhaps becoming one of them in the process.
Hold the phone did I just write a metaphor about this in something?
Yeah, definitely did. Interesting. Must monitor that. Anyway, onto musing.
More on Dan Harmon’s “Story Circle” and my theory it is a cosine wave
I’ve discussed before how Dan Harmon (creator of Community, co-writer for Monster House) has distilled the Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth into a very basic tool for describing the arcs of a story. Harmon prefers to see his story structure as a circle, whereas I believe that it is in fact a Cosine Wave. Since I’ve posted the above gif I’ve gotten quite a few notes about it and I thought I’d expand on my idea of why Harmon’s circle best fits a Cosine.
GETTING CLOSER TO FIGURING OUT HOW STORY AND MATH ARE TIED TOGETHER