Cooperative Narrative: A Tale of Two Games
Game Review: Brothers and A Way Out. (Contains spoilers for both games.)
The last few weeks has not been easy. Recovering from Omicron (I now test negative, thankfully) and just generally feeling low about various life events. A lot of it has been spent in bed or only about managing a bit of Netflix (You, Haunting of Hill House, Haunting of Bly Manor, Gotham).
Something I try to keep up as often as possible is weekly cooperative online gaming with my younger brother. We missed a session, but this week managed to resume our usual schedule. He has been dragging me through the brutal Dark Souls games for a while, being far better than me at them, but lately we have had to put the series on pause as the developers fix a quite major problem. (A hacking exploit that relies on online play.)
The first game we ever cooperatively played was Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons. Christmas morning, he took on the role of the younger character Naiee while I played the part of the older Naia in an action puzzle adventure. The story was a simple and effective one.
The brothers grieve their recently deceased mother and learn that their father is ill. They proceed on a quest to find the Tree of Life, and along the way help an assortment of fantastical beings. However, Naia is seduced by a shapeshifting giant spider, and in escaping is fatally stabbed. Naiee completes the mission, learning to overcome his inability to swim (the foible that prevented him from saving his mother) and saves his father.
Brothers is a Grimm style fairytale in game form. Its story works because it makes fantastic use of an economy of its basic elements towards its resolution. Every part of the plot advances Naia’s development, so that the tragic twist is ultimately presented as bittersweet. It has serious problems too; the femme fatale trope is rendered bluntly as the seductress is a literal arachnid weaving her web around the teenage Naiee. His character’s death works, but the way in which he died was unfortunate, if nonetheless in keeping with Grimm style fairytales.
Finding ourselves again without a game to play, and recalling our fun with Brothers, we turned to a game that on the surface looked to have very similar dynamics to our first venture. In fact, although I only discovered it when writing this essay, it shares a director: Josef Fares. A Way Out has two quite different men bond first to escape jail and then to take revenge on the criminal leader who put them there under quite different circumstances.
Set during the 70s, Vincent Moretti and Leonard "Leo" Caruso negotiate various obstacles on their path to freedom and then vengeance against Harvey, who betrayed Leo and murdered Vincent’s brother. They only begrudgingly collaborate and at various points disagree over how to proceed, with Vincent preferring quicker, less violent means, while Leo opts for deadlier, more complex solutions. Although their choices make very little difference to the story itself.
Along the way they learn about each other’s pasts. Vincent is a banker with a wife about to give birth, while Leo is an orphan who has a young son with his childhood sweetheart. All of this works well enough, but it is at this point that the game strays from the economy of story that performed so well for Brothers. First, things go a bit awry when Vincent and Leo secure various weapons, a pilot named Emily and launch what can only be described as a full-scale invasion of Harvey’s fortified bunker in Mexico.
Brothers had the absurd built into its world, but even with all its cinematic clichés A Way Out skirts too close to naturalism to get away with most of its second act theatrics. When Vincent reveals himself to have been an undercover cop the entire time, and the final set piece is a fight between the two protagonists, not only does the drama get upped and upped to an extent that would top most Arnold Schwarzenegger movies, but it ultimately concludes in one of the most narratively disappointing finales I have seen from a narrative game.
Either Vincent or Leo dies, unable to find any other way to reconcile despite what they have experienced together. There is no possibility of them avoiding this violent confrontation, as my brother and I discovered at length. The survivor then shows some contrition by visiting the relative of his now deceased friend.
The problem with this is that it is the exact opposite of everything good about the conclusion of Brothers. Naiee’s death has meaning in a way that Leo’s definitely does not and Vincent’s possesses only in a very warped sense. Vincent, it could be argued, is at least changed by his encounter with Leo, in that he leaves the bureau, but even this choice seems to have more to do with his wife Carol. Leo, on the other hand, just flees with his family, seemingly unchanged.
The mechanics of both of these games are excellent; the puzzles are not difficult, but they make the players work together. The way those mechanics feed into the story of Brothers makes it an especially memorable experience. But game narratives still have a long way to go before they reliably produce anything like the towering achievements of literature or cinema. It is a young medium, ambitious but haltering in its successes.
What is positive about these kinds of games in general is that they implicitly recognise what it is about their medium that can tell a unique story. The interaction between narrative and gameplay whereby each one complements the other. Even in A Way Out, for all its faults, Fares does understand that games have an ability to foster an audience attachment to characters that is different to other mediums ability to produce such empathy.
Combined with a deeper and deeper appreciation for how to craft a story, plus a greater diversity of writers with more and divergent perspectives on the social world, games have a great potential to convey tales that are unlike any that came before them.
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