From the double emphasis in its title, you would guess that Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is a game about masculinity. And that suspicion would deepen as you watch the initial cut scene, in which the mother of the game is immediately fridged; we then see the titular brothers morning at her grave, after which they go home to their ailing father, who sends them on a quest to retrieve a magic potion that will heal him.

Out of the village they go; and we learn that it’s a tale not just of masculinity but of whiteness. Not that you actually encounter non-white people (though, to be honest, there might be one or two there, I didn’t pay close enough attention early on): the game treats race metaphorically, with size playing the role of skin tone, in the form of trolls, and (later on) giants. Brother kicks off its exploration of race with a (slightly cloying) moral parable: we shouldn’t be afraid of people just because they look different from us, this scary-looking troll actually turns out to be nice! I mean, he’s mostly just a mechanism, allowing the boys to traverse environments in unusual ways; but hey, that’s a metaphor too, showing how white people all too often think of non-white people at best as helpful tools to be exploited.

That’s not all there is to the game’s metaphors: Brother is commentary on male privilege as well. As the boys traverse the environment, they pass through more and more explicit one-way gates. You might think: how will the boys get back to their father with the potion even if they find it? But they are male (and white to boot): they know that, whatever they do, they’ll be provided for, it will all turn out right at the end if there’s any justice in the world.

The game continually uses video game tropes to reinforce this message: the hooks that are affixed to walls in exactly the right locations for the boys to jump to them, the tree branches that sag just so one of the boys can reach them, but wait to collapse completely until after they’ve been used, the entire environment is designed explicitly for the benefit of these boys. And, in a particularly over-the-top bit of commentary on the blitheness of privilege, the older brother carries around the scroll showing the location of the potion just tucked into his waistband, secure in the knowledge that, even if he jumps into a raging river, the game will provide for him and the scroll will be preserved intact.


As the game continues, these messages get reinforced. We see another woman in the mine run by the trolls: this one doesn’t get fridged, but she’s pure plot device, imprisoned solely so that the boys can save her. And, in a wry commentary on white people’s need to see themselves as always the hero, never the villain, her imprisoner is a fellow troll! But the white savior boys release her from the cage and kill her imprisoner, freeing her from the wrong man so she can return to the right man, giving the troll who earlier allowed himself to be used as scaffolding the proper reward for his subservience to the white boys.

As we proceed through the game, we also see commentary on toxic masculinity woven in. Yes, the boys are on a journey in a world that’s laid out explicitly for their benefit. But it’s a harrowing journey, one where the path that they’re taken does contain many apparent dangers: surely they might do better if they stepped slightly away from the path, avoiding some of the obstacles, coming up with less obtrusive solutions to their difficulties? But no, the invisible walls of societal conditioning prevent them from straying from the path, from even being aware that other paths are possible. And, in one particularly clever bit, the constraints turn from the invisible to the visible, with the boys tying themselves together with a rope: rather than attempting to move independently, they immediately submit to the whims of the rope, throwing themselves into the gravity-defined constraints of the pendulum. (Well, gravity-plus-physics-engine-plus-quite-a-bit-of-cheating-to-let-them-reach-far-too-conveniently-placed-handholds. Handholds that they could have, you know, just jumped to like they did everywhere else in the game. But I digress.)


A little over halfway through the game, we get an unexpected twist on the fridging: the boys are creeping through a giant’s castle, and they encounter a giant bird dog creature. It’s wounded, and kept in a cage by those horrible giants, as an object of scientific study. (Giants being such unreasonable brutes: who else would treat living creatures in such a callously instrumental fashion, instead of as beings deserving of respect!) The boys release the animal; and the animal, in the only reasonable response to being treated so well by such noble creatures, immediately invites them onto its back, flies them away to the next location in their travels, and then promptly expires from its wounds. Quite a twist to have a bird dog fridged in this way instead of a woman (though, now that I think about it, I think the only sensible conclusion is that it must be a female bird dog, I confess I didn’t think of looking for signs of external genitalia at the time); and one of the bird dog’s feathers becomes the trigger for a cut scene to remind us of the father’s existence, that what’s really important here is serving men.

At this point, the game really digs into the satire. We were in a giant’s castle, but we didn’t actually see any giants: now we see dead giants who have sacrificed themselves in the name of providing environmental puzzles for the boys, where those puzzles come in the form (I swear I’m not making this up) of having them be shot by large arrows with rope winding around them in two different places so that each of the boys has a handhold that they can use to grab on to the arrow to remove it. Then we meet a tribe of pagan idol-worshippers; and (again, I swear I’m not making this up) carved into the side of their temple is a picture of two red people, next to a convenient waterfall of blood, exactly so that the boys can stand on each other’s back in front of the picture and bathe themselves in blood. (And, of course, they do this to save a white woman from those heathens.) Everything is done for the benefits of the two boys, no detail is too small.

But that’s not all: we eventually encounter a giant who is actually alive. And, in a masterful twist on white people’s shying away from confronting racism, the giant is invisible: truly, the boys are above us all, they don’t see color!


Finally, the tragic denouement. The younger boy is less fully enmeshed in toxic masculinity than the older boy is: so, when the girl they rescued tries to take them down a path that looks dangerous, he points out an alternate route that seems a lot safer, that makes a lot more sense. But the older boy is ensnared by the seductive virtues of the system in which he’s enmeshed, so he does what he’s supposed to, by, um, inserting himself into the hole that the girl presents to him.

At which point the girl reveals herself (and we learn the answer to the mystery of why, of the very few female characters we’ve seen, she’s the only one that the game presents as competent and with agency): she’s not a girl, she’s a spider. She traps the older boy, the younger boy fights her off, the older boy gruesomely tears off of her legs, and he gets impaled by the last one, mortally wounded by the reversal of receiving a phallus when he’s supposed to be the one doing the inserting.


Look, I’ve been trying to pretend that this whole game is clever satire, but I just can’t do it for that part: it’s just transphobia personified. Transphobia will get you killed? That’s the most charitable interpretation that I’ve got.

But the older boy actually getting killed, followed by the younger boy bringing back the potion to the father (with the aid of the twin dei ex machina of the resurrected bird-dog and the spirit of the non-resurrected mother) is actually a clever commentary on war: older men send 18-year-old boys off to fight, the boys die, and the old men profit. Toxic masculinity really will get you killed!


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