Have you ever buried someone?
Half a decade ago, my brothers and I, with the help of our father and his brothers, carried our grandmother to her final resting place. She was on my mother’s side.
I remember being much physically weaker then, and although it wasn’t easy holding up my side of the casket, Staramama (Slovenian for “grandmother” — it’s what we all called her) always had a respect for manual labor. She was a bull, and in my final moments with her, so was I.
Almost five years to the date, I played Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons. Its visuals, gameplay hooks and restrained yet fantastic environments spoke to many of my enthusiasms for video games. How could I resist? All of the above was to be expected, but to me Brothers also acted as the last of a genre I’ll remember these past couple years of video games for: succinct atmospheric games with heart (others include Flower, Journey, Papo y Yo, Guacamelee, The Walking Dead, The Unfinished Swan, Gone Home and Kentucky Route Zero to name a handful). What I didn’t expect was how timely and deeply Brothers would take me back to saying goodbye to Staramama, and remembering the kind of life she hoped, and lived, for my brothers and I.
It wasn’t hard relating to the driving force of the two main characters for which the game is named after: a widowed father has come down with a fatal illness, and his sons must find a cure. Staramama herself lived through two episodes of intense cancer, but unlike the world of Brothers, ours is without the healing sap of a mountaintop tree. For the most part, we were told to wait. Eventually we were told to make her comfortable, and to keep her company.
Staramama spoke best in Slovenian, though even when she was in good health her English was still very broken. We even went to Slovenian school as kids, missing cartoons every Saturday morning through eighth grade, but shamefully I only remember a fraction of what I learned. She often wished we took learning the language more seriously, and as a young adult I’ve come to agree with her. There came a point in her long stay at hospice, where I honestly could not tell if she recognized me besides for the grip of her hand. In a day and age where we can communicate complicated ideas across oceans with a tool like the internet, to wonder if the person you’re sitting a foot away from even knows you’re there can give you a lot of perspective.
This wordless reciprocity, and the opportunity to understand one another through actions, is what’s also at the heart of Brothers. The autumnal weather, the urgency of losing a family member, and the way in which it brings siblings closer all slowly reminded me of the state of mind my family was in five years ago. In my nights alone with Staramama or accompanying my mother’s visits, I found myself reconsidering what purpose video games could serve. What stories could they tell? What emotions can they generate? Can death in video games matter?
For my BFA thesis on Game Design, I created a game about the ephemeral nature of life, twisting familiar game mechanics around to create emotional engagment. Today its main hook would be recognized in ludologist circles by another name, “perma-death”, though the death was not of the player, but of the game itself. As a flower, your goal was to maintain a garden with time as both your power and your currency. You could speed it up through droughts, slow it down in the rain, and even reverse it at points, albeit with some diminishing returns. The game would only live as long as its players allowed it to, and the size and health of the garden illustrated how much players were contributing. Being an open installation, any visitors could walk up to it and feed it, sustain it or potentially kill it. When the garden died, the game died and ceased to be playable.
Throughout my creative process, my mind always went back to Staramama. She was a masterful gardener, often criticizing the amount I’d water her plants, when it was too hot outside and how to prune old flowers so new ones could grow. I looked to those years as inspiration, wondering, “Would she have played this? Would she have understood what to do? Would she have found it calming?” While every creative decision was informed by my end goal and served a practical purpose, and although my dissertation went over well, she still would have been my ideal player. Knowing how she would have liked it would have meant something more to me — can my mother’s mother, eighty years old and who immigrated to America from Slovenia after World War II, enjoy video games like I do? Could we talk about it afterwards? For all her efforts to support and encourage the life I have now as a designer, this was my long overdue attempt at returning the favor. I may not have been fluent in her native language, but perhaps I could have used what I knew best to communicate my feelings instead.
Brothers created its own interactive language by having me learn how to control both brothers at the same time. A joystick for each’s movement, and a trigger button for each’s actions. My real-life brothers and I are all musicians and, after half of our lives performing together, our musical communication has become mostly non-verbal. Given that it usually gets too loud to simply talk, we look to each other’s facial expressions and body language to tell where a song is going. About twenty minutes into the game, Brothers was making parallel on top of parallel to things I could relate to and immediately appreciate, most notably its unrelenting acknowledgment of how siblings can get inside each other’s heads.
Warning: Spoilers ahead.
Although the game is relatively short, the journey feels substantial and memorable. Every challenge or puzzle felt appropriate for its setting, and every accomplishment provided that undeniable “Ah-ha!” moment that video games tend to be so good at. But it was when I finally arrived at the base of the tree, so very close to the singular goal of the entire game, that Brothers demonstrated how far its visual and interactive language could go. Now playing as little brother alone for the first time in three hours, its foreshadowing suddenly felt so plainspoken. I felt anxious. I had gotten so use to moving both brothers at once, one hand now fluent with the other, that letting go brought with it a sense of vulnerability. It was in the rain at the summit, with our father’s cure in hand, when I was unable to mend my sibling’s wounds. That’s when I lost my big brother.
There is solitude, there is the fear of being in a foreboding environment, but not until now had I felt quite that alone within a video game. Big brother was my guide, and his death put the remainder of my journey on a complicated path. Left shivering from a night in the rain, I as little brother, established for the entire game as the weaker of the two, had to then bring my older sibling to a hand-dug grave and bury him. I dragged him. I placed him. I pushed the dirt over his body. It’s one of the few scenes in the game devoid of music and as such it helps capture a moment that’s hard to believe, where saying goodbye isn’t just a socially acceptable parting, but is parting, in fact.
Burying Staramama was the last time I had to carry a casket, but it wasn’t the first. In high school, I was a part of a group called The Joseph of Arimathea Society, where indignant families could request help at a relative’s funeral. Imagine meeting someone, a complete stranger, for the first time on those kind of terms. Still, the gratitude each family showed regardless of their grieving often amazed me. A lot of times I’d even find a five dollar bill wedged into my blazer pocket, or an unmarked envelope with the words, “Thank you” written on the front. Staramama use to do the exact same thing. Even if it was just for getting her milk at the store or helping her clean the coffee pot, she was always grateful, whether that meant a smile, a hug, “hvala lepa” or a tip. I’ve come to learn that to be grateful also means to have some evidence of happiness, and thus perhaps a decent life. I will never know if I succeeded in making a video game she would have liked, but my curiosity isn’t what really matters. What’s important is remembering her and that she succeeded in her goals for our family, and five years from the day, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons helped me further internalize that.
What solace I’ve taken in remembering Staramama is that it should be active, like she was. Perhaps this is how ritual begins. I’ve grown fond of watching birds, botany and homemade turkish coffee. It’s lineage. It’s carrying on and celebrating something from one generation to the next, and to keep someone in our hearts is not such a private event when you think about it that way. Extraordinary individuals should not be well kept secrets, but instead a means to resolving our shortcomings and choosing how we harness that in our lives. If the poignancy of Brothers‘ ending has anything to say about it, I’d say that it agrees.
Finally home, there’s some initial irony in having to replay the first few puzzles of the game as its finale. Not only does it conjure up the memory of completing them with big brother, but also the reality that you needed him to accomplish these simple challenges in the first place. There’s no one to hang onto when faced with the fear of swimming, no one to give me a boost when climbing a wall nor anyone to help move an object twice my size. It creates this weird vacuum, a hole left when someone leaves us. For Brothers, it was the now useless half of the control scheme that was reserved for big brother. Gut instinct told me to try using them anyways, and for the first time, I swam.
It dawned on me that these final puzzles were not about learning how to traverse the landscape, but how to tap into my emotional reserve and channel someone else’s strength into my own. Big brother’s absence didn’t mean the memory of him was lost, thus serving as an interactive metaphor. He was a bull, and in that moment so was I.
The opening shot of Brothers, of little brother visiting his mother’s grave near what appears to be an ocean, evokes a lot of strong memories for me. Staramama passed away right on the edge of Lake Erie, which from our vantage point has always looked more like an ocean. Although it’s been some time since we lost her, that image of a garden patio over water has held a certain meaningfulness for me, and that’s something I will always keep.
As exhilarating as the game’s final and oddly familiar challenge was, Brothers‘ strongest moment and the importance for it to exist as a video game arrived in its closing scene for me. In my final footsteps, joining my father at my mother and brother’s graves, I noticed something almost entirely unnecessary:
I was still using both joysticks to move forward.