This article contains spoilers for Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons and Ico.
During my playthrough of Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, I was struck on more than one occasion by its similarities to Ico, on a thematic and gameplay level, to the point that I had a sense of déjà vu. Both are adventure games with puzzles and platforming, widely praised by critics for their artistic and emotional strength. They follow the journeys of the protagonists towards their ultimate goal across a fantasy setting. The player is encouraged to enjoy the beautiful vistas, and the prominence of the bench as an interactive object in both games is their way of reminding us to ‘stop and smell the flowers’. Both games take a minimalist approach: in terms of audio, the touching orchestral score is used sparingly, and for the majority of the time you only hear ambient sounds, or dead silence. The characters do not speak an intelligible language in either game, and instead meaning is conveyed through the environment, how they interact with it, and how they interact with each other. I think this approach works well for the most part, adding to the general charm and appeal of the world while giving the player enough credit to allow them to draw their own conclusions.
This minimalism is extended to the gameplay, but with far less success. Purely from a gameplay perspective, Brothers and Ico are awful. I’ll begin with the semi-fixed top-down camera they both share, which while good for capturing the games’ grand sense of scale, made it difficult for me to gauge my character’s location or spot items or areas needed to progress, which led to many untimely deaths and wasted time. The puzzles were also poorly designed. While they were not difficult in and of themselves, their functional mechanisms were poorly communicated. This was especially problematic in Ico, where I had to resort to trial and error because the game had failed to outline a clear set of rules and parameters involved in the more convoluted puzzles. One last grievance of mine regarding the puzzles is the prolonged time taken actually carrying out a solution after working out how to use the given tools, which are remarkably generic in both games. By this I mean pushing or carrying objects, turning cranks and pulling levers; all acts that grew monotonous and were overly long.
In Brothers, controlling the brothers individually with each analogue stick was a novel idea, but it was awkward and never felt natural, all the more so when the brother on the left side of the screen was being controlled with the right stick, and vice versa. This mechanic had a small payoff in the conclusion of the story, where Naiee drew on his dead brother’s strength by using his ‘interact’ button. It certainly wasn’t worth the hours of avoidable deaths and clunky movement preceding it, though.
As for Ico, it was basically one long, incredibly frustrating escort mission, with the poorest excuse for combat I’ve ever seen in a game. It consisted of mashing a button to repeatedly beat enemies with a stick in an attempt to stop them carrying the girl off into the void. Sometimes you had more enemies to deal with, other times you had to simultaneously solve a puzzle; it is the video game equivalent of spinning plates, and spinning plates would probably be more fun. The downtime in between bouts wasn’t much better, being spent failing at platforming sections, completing drawn out puzzles or climbing ridiculously long staircases. What results is a dull experience all round.
Gameplay is the most glaring, and most serious flaw of Brothers and Ico, but seeing as they are narrative focused games, maybe they should be cut some slack. Even if that is true, I found both their narratives to be decidedly lackluster. Brothers suffers from a disjointed story. All I saw was a series of self-contained events, completely unrelated to the overarching plot, which were included to make the player feel emotions. A case in point is the man about to hang himself. When the brothers encountered a stranger committing suicide I could have easily ignored him and continued on my merry way (a reasonable choice in my opinion), but of course that isn’t what the developers wanted. And when curiosity got the better of me and I came closer, I saw the burned down remains of a house with bodies in front of it. At this point I thought the man was the one who started the fire and was going to hang himself out of remorse, but then I realized it was the bodies of his family underneath the sheet and so I decided to save him. After this, and helping him through the mourning process, you are rewarded with an achievement, and supposedly a warm happy feeling spreading through you.
There are other ham-fisted attempts at being dark in the game, such as the aftermath of a massacre of giants, and the creepy cult about to sacrifice someone. It was hard for me to care about any of this when these moments weren’t developed at all. I was given no context, just shown these things to provoke a desired reaction. There is a part where you release a wounded gryphon from its cage, and then it dies after flying you to the next area. This just made me laugh in disbelief; why did the brothers put the gryphon through that exertion instead of letting it recover?
Similarly, Ico failed at being emotional. Ico’s intention was for the player to share in the bond that was forged between Ico and Yorda over the course of the game and care about them. I found this to be impossible because Yorda was a mute, helpless character who despite looking older than Ico seemed incapable of the most basic actions. She literally had to get dragged around everywhere by Ico, could not move away from enemies or defend herself, and climbed ladders and objects infuriatingly slowly if at all. She is a burden for the entirety of the game except in cutscenes at the end and when she is a human key to open doors with.
None of the main female characters come off well in both games, excluding the mother in Brothers, although she is merely an ethereal vision whose only noticeable contribution to the story is dying in the opening scene. It is not so much the fact that these games have male protagonists and female antagonists that I have a problem with, as the fact that the female characters are so poorly portrayed. The villains are just plain evil with no depth and we have no idea of their motivations whatsoever. The spider girl in Brothers was especially insulting. Why would this girl go to such great lengths to help out the brothers, and keep them alive, after they saved her from being murdered by the cult, only to betray them and prey on them? That’s low even for a monster. Her then killing one of the brothers at the end of the boss fight just added insult to injury. It all seemed like another predictable attempt by the creators at being dark. The gender bias exhibited by these games is worrying, and I’m saying this as someone not pushing a SJW agenda.
If everything I have written so far can be construed as an argument against abstract, narrative focused games with simplistic stories, that is not true. Journey is a game I thoroughly enjoyed, because for me it succeeded where Ico and Brothers failed. Gameplay was limited to one button to jump and another to call out, but even this primitive communication carried weight when you knew there was another real person who could hear it. The innovative multiplayer aspect improved the experience drastically, because it made Journey’s emotional moments feel natural rather than forced down your throat. When the other player came back to check on me after I had been knocked down, when we both succumbed to the weather, I couldn’t help but feel a tinge of emotion. The sense of progress never felt forced by arbitrary obstacles, it felt like I was on an authentic journey ascending a mountain. Movement was never clunky, the character floated gracefully across the beautiful environments, and that helped me stay immersed in the experience.
There’s no denying that Ico and Brothers are aesthetically beautiful games. But in every other department they leave a lot to be desired. Their flaws should not be overlooked, and ultimately these games are undeserving of the critical acclaim they have been lavished with.