Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons has what may be the best representation of post-traumatic growth I have ever seen in a video game.
Video games play with this idea consistently. In many games you get stronger over time and the journey is often triggered by a big event. But I’ve never experienced such powerful emotions playing a game. Brothers is very special. Let me explain why.
Brothers starts with a young boy named Naiee kneeling in front of a gravestone. We see a flashback of Naiee in a boat during a storm. His mother is in the water, drowning, trying to get back on the boat. Naiee is calling for help but no one is near. The mother reaches up toward the boat and Naiee grabs her arms and tries to pull her up. But he can’t. The mother falls back into the water and sinks out of view.
That is what happens during the first few minutes of Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons.
Upon reaching the doctor you learn that your father is dying and his only hope is what looks like a plant or a tree drawn on parchment. The doctor tasks the brothers with finding this plant so they can save their father. This is where Naiee and Nyaa’s adventure begins.
To appreciate what happens later in the game, it is important to understand what the controls are like. In my case, I played it on a Playstation 3 and the controller looks like this:
Each character has different strengths so when you reach a puzzle or obstacle you may need a specific combination of moves. For example, neither brother is tall enough to reach certain ledges so the older brother will help the younger brother reach high ledges by boosting him up. The older brother is also stronger so there are levers throughout the game which the younger brother is too weak to pull.
At this point, if you are interested in playing this game at all, I suggest you stop reading and play it for yourself. It is available on Xbox 360, Playstation 3, and Steam.The game can be completed in about 3 hours if you don’t stop to do everything and simply follow the story. I’m going to spoil later parts in the game now because that is where you see the post-traumatic growth.
Toward the end of this journey, the older brother is wounded and the younger brother is forced to carry him. Remember, you are always controlling two characters independently but now they move as one. It does not take long after that to find yourself at the foot of the tree that you’ve been searching for, the one that will heal your father.
The younger brother sits his brother down and for the first time you are only controlling Naiee as he tries to find a way to heal his brother. You only use your right hand. You find the cure and make your way back to your brother but Naiee is too late, his brother has already died.
In one of the most emotional moments I’ve ever experienced in a video game, the game has you go through the process of burying Nyaa. You see Naiee dig the grave but then control is handed to you. You go to your brother, drag him to the grave, put him in it, and then move four piles of dirt to cover the grave. I couldn’t believe this was part of the game and although I kept hoping Nyaa would wake up, I could see how important it was for Naiee to do this so I did it reverently.
So at this point I was really hoping that I got the chance to save the father because I did not want to imagine Naiee all alone after everything he’s been through. But first, we need to make it all the way back and we came a long way to get here. Thankfully, Naiee gets some help and you are able to make it back home, to where the game began. Except that things look different now because you arrive in the middle of a storm, similar to the one seen in Naiee’s flashback of his mother’s death.
You can see the doctor’s office in the distance. As you start moving toward it you realize… Naiee is all alone. You are only controlling the game with your right hand. The left hand does nothing and you can feel a sense of emptiness. You can’t really take your left hand off the controller and you are so used to using both hands to do everything that you can actually feel that Nyaa is missing. If you stand still and try an action with your left hand, Naiee reacts by dropping his head and shoulders.
You then come upon two ledges that the brothers previously jumped independently, side-by-side, without each others help. But seeing both sides available reminds you that Nyaa isn’t there. As Naiee jumps you can almost imagine Nyaa there but of course, he’s not.
A little further up you come across a body of water… and Naiee drops to his knees, seemingly defeated.
But the spirit of his mother appears and motions to him to keep moving forward. He stands up. He moves toward the water and stops right before it gets deep. You move the right analog stick and Naiee won’t budge. He just shakes his head, afraid, paralyzed. Until… you press Nyaa’s action button…
When you press the left action button, the camera pulls in close to Naiee, he doesn’t seem afraid anymore, and the controller starts to vibrate. I pushed forward with Naiee and he began to swim across. Every obstacle from now on, obstacles that Naiee could never traverse alone, were possible to overcome by tapping into this newly-gained strength. By remembering his brother. By adding Nyaa’s strength to his own.
I think there are a few ways to interpret what the game designers did here but I see it as post-traumatic growth. Despite everything that has happened to him, Naiee keeps going. In fact, Naiee is now much stronger. Perhaps pressing the left action button represents remembering Nyaa and everything he taught you. Perhaps it is Naiee’s way of honoring a promise to his brother to make it and save his father. Maybe Naiee has decided that he’s not letting anyone else in his life die so the left button becomes his “determination” button. Although every challenge can now be overcome by pulling the left trigger, my favorite thing that it does now is cause Naiee to slow down if he’s running, stand up taller, and make him look more confident.
The game’s developers finish the game off perfectly by showing us a scene in which Naiee and his father visit his mother and brother’s gravestones. The father is overcome by grief, collapses, and cries. Naiee, on the other hand, is shown standing up straight, with a look on his face that I can only describe as calm.