Note -- The following article is a discussion of the games Gone Home and Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, and is broken into three parts. The first section contains minimal spoilers. The second contains moderate spoilers, and the last part discusses all parts of the game and story and is spoiler-heavy. Each section is clearly labeled.
Minimal Spoilers —
I’ve spent a long time in the past few years talking, thinking, writing about narrative in video games. I’m certainly not alone. The recently released Gone Home and Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons tells me that someone out there was listening, or at least also thinking.
Every year there are one or two games that come out that I have the rare luxury of going into with absolutely no preconceived notions. Too rarely, I get the unexpected joy to start a week not even giving a game a second thought and by the end of that week think it may be one of the best games you’ve played in years. To have that happen two weeks in a row is ridiculous.
In many ways Brothers and Gone Home are similar. They touch on similar themes of family, growth and loss. They both deliver a story that seems to be one thing and eventually becomes something unexpected and far more poignant. They are both relatively short. And yet, I walk away from Brothers and Gone Home thinking that, for all their surface similarities, these two games are among the two most different games I’ve played this year.
Let me take this opportunity, like everyone who has spoken about these games in the past few weeks, to say if you haven’t already played either or both of these games, then you should stop and go do that.
The most immediate contrast right away is that Brothers spends a lot more time being a game. While Brothers has a quick hook into its story, it spends the majority of its opening act teaching you how to play and interact with the game. Like a lot of people after a good 45 minutes with Brothers, I was thinking, “Well, this is interesting, but it’s not blowing my mind.” It payed off in the end, and the setup early on turns out to be critical to the way the game moves you through its story, but Brothers is a slow burn.
Gone Home, on the other hand, isn’t just much quicker to draw you into its tale, it frankly doesn’t spend a lot of time caring about the game mechanics. Talking about the game mechanics of Gone Home is not only a short conversation; it’s kind of a wasted one.
The other and probably biggest difference between the two games is the way the story is delivered. Where Gone Home hands you a sketch of the world you’re in, filling out details through voiced diary entries, clips of newspapers and notes, Brothers completely eschews language. The voices of the characters in Brothers’ world are essentially gibberish, though you always seem to intuit what is going on through non-verbal cues.
For whatever else you may walk away saying about how similarly great the two stories are when you’ve finished them, you cannot say that the way you received those stories was even close to the same.
Medium Spoilers —
The more I think about the two games, the more I realize they were going in opposite directions. Where Brothers is a game that starts you in a familiar context and takes you through a journey that becomes increasingly fantastical and unfamiliar, Gone Home does the opposite. The more time you spend in Gone Home, the more familiar you become with your environment, and the more you are likely to realize that the story isn’t as alien as it may have first seemed.
Brothers takes you through an idyllic village to open its story, and though you are tasked with a life-or-death mission, the beginning of the story almost feels playful and unaffected by some of the dark themes that eventually take hold. Play seemed a little incongruous to me at times early on as I was on a critical mission to save my father’s life while the game was also hinting at opportunities to sit and look at the scenery, or stop and talk to the locals. By the middle to late game, though, the almost innocent days of jumping along haystacks to avoid some farmer’s guard dog seemed the stuff of, well, a childhood lost.
Gone Home, in sharp contrast, introduces not just you but your character into an unfamiliar and intimidating environment, and you are essentially told that this place is your home even though there’s really nothing about it that feels like yours. You find out mid-way through the game that you don’t even have your own room in this place. Your parents were going to make up a spare bedroom for you, but stuff just kind of got in the way. So you find this barren room full of boxes with your name on them.
Yet, as you progress through the game, you find the story of your family writ large in every corner. It is not always a nice story, and things often don’t go the way you would hope, but they do become increasingly familiar to you as a player. You connect with the people of your family — and by extension, you connect to your home — through the slow drip of memories and stories you learn about them. As you progress through the game, this still-alien place loses some of its hold as the centerpiece, and this very familiar and approachable story of a family in personal turmoil takes its place.
It’s hard not to walk away from Gone Home and avoid thinking, “I know these people.” Even, perhaps, “I am these people.”
Maximum Spoilers —
Final warning: Beyond this point nothing is sacred.
In the end, the game that seems to be about death turns out to be about life, and the game that is all about the saving of a life turns out to be about how to deal with death.
Not having had the game spoiled for me, I spent half the time of playing Gone Home waiting for the scary turn that the game was inevitably going to take. I turned each corner, certain that now I would come face to face with whatever supernatural, spectral haunting was to come. Slowly, over time, I realized it was never going to happen. That’s not what this game was about. In fact, the game uses that sense of dread, foreboding and apprehension to draw you into this other story. It takes you to a place where you were looking for something, anything, familiar to hold onto, and then reveals that grasping for the familiar was the central focus.
Brothers, on the other hand, takes that certainty you have around how inseparable the two main characters are, and it hits you twice as hard by taking a piece of you away. It’s amazing, not just because of the emotional impact, but because now you don’t know how to interact with the game anymore. It makes you feel that sense of loss — that almost confusion around the magnitude of death — by taking away something that had become fundamental to your understanding of how you interact with and fit in the world.
These two games that seemed to have a lot in common actually instead exist on opposite ends of a particular spectrum. They have these similarities in theme, but they only really reflect each other for a brief moment when they kind of cross in the middle.
If I were to find that place where they are most alike, or at least the place where the experience of playing them were similar, I’d pick the moment in Brothers where you arrive in the battlefield of giants, and the moment in Gone Home where you turn the corner to find the attic door strung with red lights. It is in these two spots that I sense that all that came before existed to help me understand this moment. And, interestingly, these are moments when the narrative is very far from what the story turns out to be about.
Two remarkable games in two weeks, and I already find myself wishing I could go back and play them both again for the first time. They seem like games that I’ll be referencing and thinking about for a long time.