Context is King
Games like Gone Home and Brothers have a special way of showing they care.
Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons opens with a bleak series of events. The pastoral title screen of Starbreeze Studios’ new adventure game (for Xbox 360, PS3 and PC) shifts its focus to a forlorn boy kneeling next to a grave, and then the camera sweeps us away to a memory: the boy is in a boat at sea, unable to help a drowning woman we can assume is his mother. Then we’re back in the present and an older boy is calling for him to come help a sickly man we can assume is his father. There is a parallel being drawn here. It feels ridiculous.
Maybe it’s because I’m a bad person, but I found it difficult to sympathize with these characters. For the sake of argument, though, I’d like to think that there’s something more straightforward at work here. I don’t know these characters and haven’t been given any reason to care about them.
Starting a story with tragedy is nothing new, of course. The best stories that begin with tragedy, though, understand how crucial it is to give that tragedy context, as Pixar’s Up displayed in less than five tearjerking minutes. Like Brothers, it aims for lean storytelling, but it succeeds by showing us who these people are, not just who they are when they’re at rock bottom.
It’s a significant distinction but it’s one that Brothers overlooks whenever it tries too hard to author a reaction from its audience with melodramatic cutscenes. These noninteractive sections just don’t quite work; they’re too maudlin, too reliant on cinematic language that feels out of place.
Ironically, lack of proper contextualization is a problem that gaming is uniquely suited to addressing. Its interactivity allows for ways to immerse an audience in a character’s story that are unavailable to mediums like film or literature. I played two games recently that embraced this functionality, both of which proved in the process that leaning on filmmaking techniques to tell a resonant story is not always necessary in gaming.
The Fullbright Company’s Gone Home, which they refer to as “a story exploration game” for PC, is an extreme exercise in context creation. There is no linear narrative. The player is placed in the role of a 20-year-old woman returning to her family’s home after an extended trip to Europe. The player finds an ambiguously-worded note on the front door and an empty house behind it. The only course of action is to try and find out what happened at home during that trip and figure out where everyone is.
The resulting experience focuses on reconstructing the circumstances surrounding these people’s lives and the decisions they’ve made. As Kaitlin Greenbriar, the player inspects hundreds of objects around the home, looking through drawers and reading letters and diary entries, listening to phone messages and inspecting old photos. It’s illuminating and intimate and relies entirely on the player’s ability to connect the implied dots. Relationships come fully into view over the course of the game’s two or three hours without needing the assistance of a cutscene.
Gone Home trusts its audience to keep up, and its meticulous attention to detail makes that possible. It might feel a little strange at first — if these people ever come home, I have a hell of a lot of explaining to do — but the act of exploring this family’s home creates an emotional spectrum for the player in a manner that would be impossible to replicate in a different medium. It’s as human a gaming experiences as I can recall.
The other recent game that demonstrates gaming’s strengths in context creation is Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons. Yes, this is the same game that I called “ridiculous” for daring to introduce its story with personal drama instead of an escape from a train dangling off the side of a cliff. Outside of those overwrought cutscenes, though, Brothers makes wonderful use of worldbuilding and gradual character development to create an honest emotional connection with the player.
After the early exposition is out of the way, the player controls the brothers as they traverse a land modeled after folktales and fables. The idyllic introductory town is populated with villagers the brothers can interact with, gradually revealing their personalities. The younger one plays pranks on adults and spits down wells to hear how deep they reach. The older one tries to help people out and shakes his head disapprovingly at his kid brother’s nonsense. It’s simple but effective thanks to the way these interactions present themselves. They’re never imposed on the player.
This makes for an unnerving experience as the world of the game becomes more sinister with each new area the brothers discover. They leave their rustic hometown and come upon a forest where corpses hang from trees. Later, the brothers run through shallow water dyed deep red from the wounds of dead soldiers left behind after battle.
It’s uncomfortable stuff. The game details the brothers’ loss of innocence through interactions with a living world rather than through fixed cutscenes. As players, we experience firsthand as these two form an irreplaceable bond in order to persevere. We learn, just as they do, that the world around them is an ugly place.
All of that important storytelling is done without taking control away from the player. Towards its conclusion, the game again relies on cutscenes to push the narrative along. It’s unnecessary, because the most powerful moments in Brothers’ last act, and in any game I’ve played in the last year, come down to simple button presses that reinforce the themes of family and loss.
There is certainly a place for cinematic storytelling in games. But Gone Home and Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons show that there are rewarding ways for games, outside of cutscenes, to do the fundamental work of getting an audience to care about their characters.