Sep. 3, 2013 at 8:43 PM ET
If you're anything like me, you might have written off "Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons" because of how silly its name sounds. Well, you'd be making a mistake for dismissing what has become gaming's biggest sleeper hit this summer because the game, out this week for the PlayStation 3 and PC, is not just one of the most fascinating ones I've played this year, but also one of the best stories.
Indeed, based on the ravereviews the game has received from the gaming press since it first appeared on the Xbox 360 last month, what has gamers most excited about "Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons" isn't usual stuff like graphics, but how emotionally resonant a story it manages to tell about the titular sons who embark on a quest to find medicine for their sick father. For a medium that struggles to come up with anything better than stories about killing zombies, Nazis, or Nazi-zombies, "Brothers" is the rare kind of revelation that makes critics start to ruminate about whether video games should be considered art. But what's really interesting isn't just that it spins this tale with such beauty and simplicity, but how it does so with the controller itself.
One half of the standard PS3 or Xbox 360 controller moves each of the brothers, meaning that you fiddle with the left joystick to move the older brother and the right to move the younger brother. The respective shoulder buttons, meanwhile, complete every action from jumping onto a ledge to opening a door.
At first, this sort of feels like trying to pat your head and rub your stomach at the same time. But "Brothers" director Josef Fares insists that it's actually an easier way to control a game than what gamers have learned to adopt.
"Many games give you too many buttons to push, they can be too complicated," Fares, who is also an experienced film director, told NBC News. "I think that first-person shooter games, for instance, have much harder controls. In 'Brothers,' you just have to relax."
Eventually, "Brothers" presents you with thoughtful puzzles that make you overcome obstacles by using both of the siblings' abilities in cunning ways. At one point early in the game, for instance, you use the younger brother to distract a large troll while the older brother prepares a lever to trap the monster in a cage. You literally feel the attachment between the two brothers in your own hands as you maneuver through epic battles and majestic landscapes.
I don't want to spoil the ending, but only because the game's final moments have a stunning emotional impact that's hard to communicate without actually playing it yourself. And for Fares, that's the whole point. As a veteran filmmaker, he finds that many games try to tell their stories by continuing to imitate works of film or literature rather than attempt something truly unique, which has left the industry in a an exceedingly repetitive creative rut.
Seeing as the two highest profile games due out this fall — "Call of Duty: Ghosts" and "Grand Theft Auto 5" — are the tenth and fifth installment of their respective franchises, he's got a point. But thanks to a growing interest in smaller, more personal video games and a corresponding "indie-friendly" ethos from console developers like Sony and Microsoft, he's hoping that will change soon. And given all the praise the game has received since its release, gamers would seem to agree.
"There are so many things you can do in games," Fares said. "It's insane to keep doing the same stuff!"
Yannick LeJacq is a contributing writer for NBC News who has also covered technology and games for Kill Screen, The Wall Street Journal and The Atlantic. You can follow him on Twitter at @YannickLeJacq and reach him by email at: Yannick.LeJacq@nbcuni.com.