8-bit absurdism: A review of ‘Two Brothers’

Two Brothers, developed and published by Ackkstudios, is…well…difficult to explain, to say the least. Existential, surreal, jarring and nostalgic all at once, the game doesn’t pander to the expected video game conventions. Don’t let the game’s rudimentary, Gameboy-esque presentation fool you for a moment. Two Brothers tackles heavy themes with a vigor that’s rarely seen in the medium. Death, love and disillusionment make up the thematic bulk of this baffling and fascinating journey.

Starring, as the title might suggest, two brothers, Roy and Braville Guarder, the game opens with the death of Roy and his wife during a trip into the Cursed Lands. Roy is given a glimpse of color for the first time in his brief trek to the afterlife and is promptly booted out, as it’s apparently not his time to die. Sent back to the “real” world, Roy is left with a heavy sense of fate and an intense curiosity. With his own death as an impetus, he sets out on a quest to discover the nature and origin of color. It’s a bizarre and fascinating tale that somehow seems to benefit from the basic nature of its presentation and the simplistic game mechanics of yesteryear.

If you’re wary of philosophy, steer clear, because Two Brothers is straight-up absurdist. Both the pacing and design of the world itself are inexplicably erratic in an entirely calculated manner. You’ll consistently bear witness to narrative oddities and unexpected or unexplained quirks of presentation or plot. There’s an unnerving sense of self-awareness imbued throughout the adventure that’s quite unlike anything I’ve played before.

Your enjoyment, however, hinges entirely on just how willing you are to indulge in the game’s potentially alienating, self-referential, practically schizophrenic madness. If you need structure or have grown entirely comfortable with the established and expected norms of gaming, run away from this game as fast as you can. But if you’re craving a game that likes to revel in murky existential weirdness and purposefully incorporates glitches and bugs into the narrative (seriously), you might want to sink your teeth into this wacky little beast of a game.

However, the game does have its fair share of issues. There are aggravating typos strewn throughout the dialogue, and when the game actually glitches up, things can get pretty confusing. Considering how deliberate Two Brothers is in presenting bugs as an integral aspect of the gameplay experience, it won’t always be immediately obvious when you encounter an actual bug. For those particularly prone to introspection and musing over the human condition, one could argue that these instances serve as a humbling experience for the player that forces them to reflect further upon the notion of expectation and actuality. The world itself is, after all, rather absurd, is it not? Perhaps the developers, in a stroke of meta-fictional genius, were aware of these hiccups and purposefully left them in the finished product as a means of artistic expression. Some might say that. Others, such as myself, may spend upwards of 20 minutes trying to figure out what to do when they end up floating above the game world with no clear-cut objective, only to realize that the glitch wasn’t deliberate at all and they’ve been wasting their time trying to make sense of it all, at which point they might let loose a string of expletives, rage-quit and throw their computer into the streets in an utterly unjustified, petty and short-lived fury.

The gameplay mechanics themselves are also nothing to write home about. If you’ve ever played the classic Zelda and Final Fantasy titles, or any number of comparable contemporary titles from the late 1980s and early 1990s, the core gameplay should seem familiar. Despite the radical nature of its story and the surreal presentation, the various elements that comprise the bulk of gameplay itself are by no means revolutionary. To its credit, the puzzles are often surprisingly innovative and creative, even under the purposefully established gameplay limitations. Combat, on the other hand, is a bit on the clunky side.

In a holistic sense, Two Brothers is a difficult game to review, because its best moments are simply that: moments. Whereas a typical game may succeed on the basis of its whole, Two Brothers succeeds in the potency of its constituents. Unlike more straight-cut modern titles, it doesn’t adhere to what we expect, nor does it abide by the typical narrative rules of video games. Magnificently thought-provoking at its best and absolutely frustrating at its worst, this is a game you have to approach with tempered expectations and willful acceptance. It’s downright weird, but it’s cool. But mostly weird. Which is cool in its own way, I suppose. At the very least, it deserves attention for all its unbridled creativity and philosophical exploration. Put your thinking cap on and give it a whirl.