I’m a sucker for writing craft. The stuff that makes a good plot into a story you can truly care about. More than just, ‘I like it. It’s got a nice plot,’ I mean truly care about.
In movie script writing, there’s a particular moment you want to capture early on in every film. Blake Snyder calls it the ‘Save the Cat’ moment, but the ideas remains the same regardless if a cat is stuck up a tree or not.
‘It’s the scene where we meet the hero and the hero does something – like saving a cat – that defines who he is, and makes us, the audience, like him.’ – Save the Cat! , Blake Snyder, 2005.
In film you probably only need one of these scenes, what with the condensed running time, and the lack of player control. An actor can constantly act in a way that tells us about their character – the way they walk, the way they talk, the way they do things – but a video game character is forced to act to the player’s whim. It’s not easy to characterise someone who’s being played by someone else.
Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons knows how to save cats, though; unsurprising when you find that it was directed by a film director. Game designers have cribbed off movies since their inception, but they rarely ever steal how they build their characters.
The game focuses on two brothers. They have already lost their mother, drowned despite the younger brother’s best efforts, and their father is ill. The doctor points them in a direction for a cure, and we follow them on their quest. We’re stuck with these guys from here on out, so we’d better like them.
In Snyder’s books he gives numerous examples of ‘save the cat’ moments, one being from Aladdin. How do you write a film where you’re supposed to cheer on a thief? He’s a thief; he’s not a nice guy, no matter how charming his smile is. I don’t want to be friends with a thief, but I could think about hanging out with a guy who steals bread, and gives it to starving children instead of eating it himself. Especially if then saves the kids from getting whipped from a bad guy.
Instead of one moment in a sea of exposition, and action scenes, and careful explanations of the motivation of the characters, Brothers gives us many.
You control each brother independently: one analogue stick and one button for each. Manoeuvring them next to things and then pressing the button has them interact with it. Instead of one scene in the film, there’s a short vignette for each thing you find.
You find a woman is sweeping. The older brother takes the broom off her, and sweeps up for her. The younger brother tries to impress her by balancing the broom on the palm of his hand. Earlier, they come across an old woman in her rocking chair. The older brother asks for directions, before thanking her. The younger brother turns her chair into a seesaw, and gets everyone laughing.
From these actions we know that the older brother is the leader between them, as well as helpful. And we know that the younger brother is the cheeky, mischievous one. We like both of them, even if they are for completely different reasons.
Cleverly, whilst these moments are essentially just small cut-scenes, they are not presented in the same way. They require you to hold down the button to carry on watching the interactions. Gameplay disguising itself as a cut-scene. A player interaction disguised as a character action. A character action designed to endear them to us.
Shockingly simple and shockingly effective.
It’s impossible not to like the two brothers, as they game crams down their personalities down your throat, but for every thought that these moments are invasive or that there is too many of them, you’re reminded by how much you like these guys, and how much you care for them. This from a game without a recognised language. This from a game that purports itself to be a puzzle / platformer.
There’s a reason why there’s a buzz around this game, and why I like it so much. Blake Snyder has that covered too. He said: ‘Liking the person we go on a journey with is the single most important element in drawing us into the story.’ – Snyder, 2005.
But in this case, it’s two brothers. And they’re damn good at saving cats.