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Brothers and the Socio-Materiality of Controllers

Posted by Bart

brothersBlame it on the Halloween Steam sale or blame it on too much time doing administration. I had to play some games (we are talking Dark Souls here people… that’s how intense my admin life has become).

Anyway I picked up Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons after Darren Wershler raved about it and reminded myself how much I love thinking about gameplay experiences. I am the first to admit I need to spend more time writing about them as well.

Brothers is a super simple concept Xbox game where you control two brothers in a single player puzzle based quest to save their father.

The trick is that you control each brother independently with each stick and shoulder (RB/LB) button on a single controller. Its a bit like rubbing your tummy and patting your head if you want both brothers to move together. Play starts off stilted in this way with some puzzles being more like finger coordination exercises than anything else. The game is elegant enough but as someone interested in the materiality of the interface I loved how the novelty of the control scheme forced me to keep looking at my hands and concentrating on the stick coordination.   This is the idea of when the materiality of the conditions of the game experience makes itself known in way that no xbox pro could hope to avoid (at least not for a few moments).  My thoughts here were similar to my earlier work on conscious body management and the use of the Wii controller or the Kinect (the idea that you have to be aware of your body in space in order to get these motion controllers to work).  It is a kind of anti-immersion mechanic but of course the idea of Brothers is that the awkward feeling of holding the controller in your hands should go away and your focus should be on the screen and the brothers’ actions and their story and not on the movement of the sticks or even better, on the idea of the controller joysticks as siblings… which they are… controller

I couldn’t finish this deep ontological meditation though because my daughter caught me playing, took it over and then restarted the game.  I thought we were in big trouble when my son then wanted to play as nothing sparks sibling tension in our house as much as a new single player game.

But then Brothers came into its own…  my two kids, a sister and a brother (aged 11 and 7) each playing one stick and one button on a single Xbox controller.  Even better, the game is on my PC and there is no room to sit side by side at my desk (no couch or floor to facilitate co-play like a console and a TV). One kid could sit while the other stands but it wasn’t long before my son was sitting in my daughters lap (trigger the sighs of parental bliss).  Would this happen if my kids were, in fact, two brothers ?

No matter, the controller and the desk/screen orientation contrived a kind of physical intimacy that of course works brilliantly with the game narrative itself.  This was not even about the ideal of sibling cooperation because of course my kids alternated between arguing, yelling, and laughing and then they couldn’t stop talking about what they had done.  This was about sibling intimacy and communication and the added bonus was that the narrative simply augmented my kids’ reflections about their game experience.  It was too easy but the inescapable logic of my son playing the little brother only magnified his love of the game.  When I suggested they switch brothers they looked at me like I was an idiot. Now you can see how far a game studies father will go to justify his kids’ video game habits 🙂

Ah but really – the concept of a two player/single controller game is brilliant because it is about social intimacy, communication and coordination of all sorts.  I guess it predates the idea of multiplayer multitouch on the ipad but I am not sure I have ever seen anything written about this.  I remember that Shanly Dixon’s MA thesis has a section on boys sharing of the controller and the social experiences of single player console games and I have remarked before that the separation of the wii contoller into two parts allows for something close to my kids’ experience as well (actually this was a feature of Super Mario Galaxy… a kind of “girlfriend” mode they called it – where one player used the nunchucks to do “simple” tasks like collect stars and stuff).

Okay but this Xbox controller coop play is different and more intimate.  Does anyone have any references or other examples of this kind of gameplay – either coop or competitive on a single controller?  Have any games been designed specifically for this purpose?