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The Life of P

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Unplayer One: Brothers

Unplayer One is a recurring feature exploring games in way that should appeal to those who enjoy art irrespective of the medium.  Unlike other review posts, these are likely to contain major spoilers so, if you have any intention of playing the game in question, please do so before reading.

Sitting in a car at traffic lights and discussing the nature of death with my cousin, whose mother had passed away a few days before, I found myself struggling to communicate an idea and instead explained it through my experience of the game Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons. In an increasingly common trend, Brothers was developed by a small breakaway team within a larger developer, Starbreeze Studios, a Swedish studio known for violent first person action games. A thoughtful, beautifully colourful fantasy tale about two young boys was an unexpected offering.

The initial premise is somewhat trite: two boys must undertake a dangerous journey to obtain water from the Tree of Life in a distant land to cure their dying father. The control scheme is immediately frustrating, with one half of the gamepad (one analogue stick and one trigger) used for each brother, whom you move simultaneously. It takes most of the game before it starts to feel natural but by the end it is clear that it could not have been designed any other way. Recent ports have brought the game to mobile devices but I think a controller is required for the best experience.

The game has no intelligible dialogue but the brothers work cooperatively as they traverse the land and help others they meet along the way. They meet two trolls who turn out to be friendly creatures that the brothers reunite. Nature is routinely their chief adversary, through dangerous animals or treacherous terrain. The game’s prologue shows the younger brother, Naiee, in a boat with his mother during a storm in which she is swept away and drowns. As a result, Naiee has a phobia of water and is unable to swim. Crossing rivers requires his older brother’s help, climbing onto his back and being ferried across. The trauma is deeply-rooted.

Towards the end of the game the brothers fend off a giant spider, but not before she mortally wounds the older brother. Although they reach the Tree of Life together, by the time Naiee has scaled its branches to retrieve the water, his brother is dead. He grieves, burying his brother. His sluggish, pitiful movements are affecting, but moreso is the effect on the control scheme. Suddenly you are playing with half the controller, with a single hand, as if you have physically lost a limb. It is a perfect parallel to the overwhelming sense of loss as we grieve the death of a loved one, as if we have lost a part of ourselves. But the game is not yet over and has more to say. Naiee must still return to his father with the cure. The return journey is smooth until, nearing his village, a storm floods the surrounding land. Frozen by the edge of the water, he cannot reach his father without swimming. The boy reacts as he always does near water, pausing, the controller vibrating softly in his refusal to move on. The game offers no prompt, but the solution emerges organically — the absent elder brother’s unused half of the controller becomes the key as Naiee draws on him for strength to proceed. Using both halves of the controller (as you had when crossing water so many times before), Naiee forces himself on, overcoming his fear and saving his father’s life.

This, I explained in the car,  was my view of death. Irrespective of an afterlife, I find it difficult to view people as truly “gone” as long as we carry them with us. We often worry that the dead will be quickly forgotten but they continue to exist in our choices, our decisions and actions. In truth we only need to worry if they meant nothing to us at all, if they had no impact on us. Brothers was a perfect metaphor for this concept, and one that could not have been communicated so fully in any other medium. As a game, its control mechanics were not simply a way to tell a story but part of the tale itself.

In the West too frequently we shy away from discussing death, which leaves us ill-equipped to deal with the absolutely universal experience of grief, as well as our own mortality. Interactive art like Brothers can provide us with shared cultural touchstones and, as a result, better tools and vocabulary to explore these ideas.

Unplayer One: That Dragon, Cancer

In the past I have written sporadic game-related posts intended for non-gamers, highlighting new interactive experiences that push the medium forward beyond what most non-gamers consider it to be. Unplayer One will be a new recurring feature exploring games in way that should appeal to those who enjoy art irrespective of the medium.  Unlike other review posts, these are likely to contain major spoilers so, if you have any intention of playing the game in question, please do so before reading.

That Dragon, Cancer

That Dragon, Cancer was always going to be an emotional experience. The game was developed by a couple as part of their grieving process after losing their son to cancer at age five, following a long battle with cancer. The game received strong support through crowdfunding (notwithstanding some ill-conceived accusations that the designers were exploiting the loss of their son), with many backers having their own experiences losing children or those close to them. Told through a series of vignettes, That Dragon is as much about life – albeit life with a terminally ill child – as it is about loss. We share intimate family moments as well as difficult hospital trips. Grief is complex and the game will mean different things to different people: some will recognise familiar painful experiences but hopefully find solace in the shared experience; others will find it a way to explore one of the most harrowing positions in which a parent can find themselves. Although the proximity may vary, loss to cancer is a universal experience, more poignant at the start of this year with the deaths of David Bowie, Alan Rickman and Lemmy. In any case, I always find an increase in shared understanding to be positive result.

That Dragon, Cancer

The game uses stylised graphics and a mixture of the parents’ perspective and a floating camera that allows you to observe the family. The gameplay is limited, largely a point-and-click tour through a succession of scenes and narrated letters, but I want to highlight a few moments from the game that spoke to me in particular. When the news is broken that treatment has been unsuccessful, we are free to shift perspective between each of the parents and the medical staff, colouring the dialogue with their internal thoughts. The room, meanwhile, gradually fills with water, morphing into a flooded environment with a boat heading towards a lighthouse. The parents respond in very different ways, the mother relying on her faith as a vessel to carry her through, never giving up on a miracle, whilst the father, a realist slipping into despair,  is portrayed literally drowning beneath the surface. He can swim up but can’t drag himself out; the only way to proceed is by heading further into the deep.

That Dragon, Cancer

Simpler moments can be equally poignant, as reminders that life goes on for the family. As the children go to the hospital to spend time with their brother during treatment, one complains that he does not like missing school. The surprise revelation gives way to the realisation that what he really means is that he dislikes having to catch up after repeatedly missing classes. Many scenes comprise short sequences, repeatedly waking in a hospital room next to a bed, helping with small tasks, hours and days merging together. Whilst a game can offer only a fraction of the impact, there can be nothing as heartbreaking as having to experience one’s child in pain, crying incessantly but understandably, taking meagre comfort as sleep ceases their thrashing.

In one of these vignettes, I awoke in an empty hospital room with ten cards on surfaces around the room. Each could be read and held a short message to, or in memory of, a cancer victim. These were clearly messages from those who had helped fund the game. As I exited the room, my chest tightened as I saw looked out at the entire ward, completely filled with scores of these cards. Many were mundane, a few captured more poignant thoughts, but each was a real person, a real family left behind, a visual representation of a real loss. The gut punch came as I opened one card in which a parent had simply quoted a line from Puff the Magic Dragon, “Dragons live forever but not so little boys.”

That Dragon, Cancer

"You shouldn't trust the storyteller; only trust the story."

(CC) BY-NC 2005-2017 Priyan Meewella

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