Video games are art, there’s no question about that. But there is a specific subgenre of gaming that focuses on showcasing the medium’s artistic capabilities. These titles are characterized by unique visual styles, unconventional gameplay, and have a greater emphasis on telling a story or conveying emotions or ideas. Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, To the Moon, and the titles developed by Thatgamecompany all excel in these areas, being considered by several critics as some of the best games ever made. A well-designed art game can be a thought-provoking, even spiritual experience. Handled poorly, like Enter the Void or anything in Tale of Tales’ library, and it ends up a pretentious mess. Here are three artistic titles that show the further evolution of gaming as a medium for telling stories that affect players on a deeper level.

 

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Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons (developed by Starbreeze Studios, published by 505 Games) – acclaimed Swedish director Josef Fares was the driving force in creating this interactive fairy tale that explores how the strength of familial bonds can play a great role in overcoming great obstacles. Two siblings embark upon a journey to save their terminally ill father by seeking the sacred healing waters of the Tree of Life, braving many dangers that lie along the path they travel. Brothers clearly takes inspiration from classics like Ico and Journey, which is reflected in the narrative. There’s hardly any dialogue except for occasional snippets of conversation in a fictional foreign language, so the characters must convey their emotions through their actions, facial expressions, and tone of voice. It mostly works, but the camera is usually panned so far out that you hardly ever get a clear look at a character’s face outside of a cutscene.

 

The story is told through the brothers’ interactions with the world they explore, as well as occasional flashbacks to flesh out their motivations. It feels unbalanced, though, since only the younger brother gets the more detailed back story and fully realized character arc. The game’s world excels in creating atmosphere, with fantastic scenery evoking a sense of awe. There are several truly tense and disturbing moments, such as when you see a trio of bodies hanging from a tree near a graveyard, then later come across someone trying to hang himself, a dark dream the younger brother has brought on by the guilt over his failure to save his mother, and a journey into a cave strewn with massive spider webs, creating nervous anticipation about when the monstrous arachnid will make its appearance. There are points where it feels like the game is trying to artificially engineer pathos. This is most obvious in a scene where the siblings have been rescued by a baby griffin, only to have the creature die after delivering them to safety. The older brother picks up one of the griffin’s feathers, reminding him of an enjoyable time spent with his father. It makes you feel sympathetic, but it’s diminished because it feels forced. A scene like this was unnecessary since there are plenty of moments that have a much greater impact because they develop naturally through the narrative.

 

Gameplay mostly consists of solving simple action puzzles in order to bypass obstacles. Certain actions can only be performed by specific siblings; the older brother can move heavier objects and carries his sibling while swimming, while the younger brother can fit through smaller areas to access new paths. The unique mechanic, however, is that both brothers are controlled simultaneously; the left analog stick and trigger for the older brother, the right analog stick and trigger for the younger. Synchronizing their movements plays into some of the most impressive segments, such as flying on a hang-glider where you have to keep shifting their weight to avoid crashing into mountains, working in tandem to scale a castle while connected by a rope, and manipulating the corpses of giants on a mountain battlefield to clear a route. It can take a while to get the timing down, but frequent checkpoints keep failed attempts from becoming too frustrating. I did find it unnecessary that you had to keep holding down a trigger to have a character continue an action like holding onto a ledge; it got annoying when my finger slipped off, sending a brother to his death and forcing me to restart from the last save. I’d also like to recommend keeping the siblings oriented according to their control positions as often as possible to avoid confusion.

 

Visuals show more inspiration from Ico, with excellent use of bloom lighting and a vibrant, colorful world achieved with relatively simple shading. The soundtrack composed by Gustaf Grefberg further enhances the atmosphere, drawing on Nordic influences to create music that fits perfectly whether the situation is terrifying, exhilarating, or somber. Brothers is an astounding experience, worthy of being honored alongside the classics that influenced it.

 

rain (developed by SCE Japan, published by Sony): Leave behind the world you know and enter a strange realm that exists only in the storm. A young boy wakes one rainy night to help a girl being chased by a monstrous entity, finding himself trapped in a strange reality where his body has faded away, with only the rainfall to make him visible as a silhouette. Rain presents itself as an interactive fairy tale. There’s no spoken dialogue; instead the plot is narrated through text that appears on the screen as you progress, similar to Bastion or Thomas was Alone. While in many cases this would violate the rule of “show, don’t tell,” the actions of the boy, the girl, and the other strange creatures they encounter help convey the tone the game is trying to deliver. It doesn’t quite succeed, though.

 

While there are a few moments with a strong impact, such as the dread felt when running from the massive monster called the Unknown, or delight when it seems as though the boy and girl have found a way home, I never felt there was a deep bond between the two. The world is relatively empty except for other transparent creatures, so there’s little atmosphere as well. Thankfully, a second playthrough allows you to collect memories that provide more depth on the boy, the girl, and the town itself. A good sense of mystery is maintained even with this exposition, as the cause of the children’s entry into this strange world, as well as the origin of the creatures, aren’t explicitly spelled out, leaving

 

rain is a fairly standard action platformer that boasts a new approach to stealth. The boy, as well as every other living being, is only visible in the rain. Standing out in the open makes you a target for monsters, so you’ll need to find cover under awnings or roofs to throw them off your trail. Of course, you can’t see where you are either, so you have to watch for footprints, dust trails, or other signs of your position to know where to go. Switching between being visible and hidden is necessary to get through many areas, such as by creating loud noises to draw a monster’s attention, then hiding as it moves past you, or making yourself seen long enough to lead a creature into a trap. Falling damage is present, requiring you to be careful when jumping between buildings or down from a high area, though it’s hard to determine what the maximum height you can leap from without taking damage is. Fixed camera angles between areas can also affect platforming as sudden shifts in perspective can be disorienting.

 

Despite the characters only existing as solid silhouettes, they are still well animated, the pale translucence creating an ethereal beauty. The world of rain is also beautifully designed, evoking an evening in Paris during the Jazz age. Music also draws from Parisian influences with the prevalence of strings and bandoneon music, without any obvious build-up or crescendos to avoid artificial drama. Debussy’s Claire de Lune acts as the central theme with vocals provided by Connie Talbot for its final playing, and it, along with the ambient sounds of rainfall, add to the peaceful, serene feeling of the game. While rain is missing a few qualities that prevent it from delivering a more solid emotionally engaging game, what it does offer is still memorable and beautiful.

 

Year Walk (developed and published by Simogo):  A young man living in Sweden near the turn of the 19th century is partaking in a Year Walk, a pagan vision quest, to see what his future holds. When he sets out on his journey that night, he finds himself confronted by nightmarish visions and malevolent entities that appear to be guiding him down a dark path. The plot of Year Walk is very confusing, mostly owing to the fact that you need to play it twice (technically) in order to understand the plot. There’s a small set-up at the beginning of the game that’s resolved in a rather bizarre conclusion, but no clarity on what led to the denouement is provided through the strange encounters. To unlock the truth, you need to read the Companion app that was provided by the developer, which explains the significance of the Year Walk and the various creatures you encounter as they pertain to Swedish folklore, as well as a secret journal unlocked through the use of a code provided after completing the game for the first time. This is actually a very impressive way to tie outside media into the world of the game, as the entries provide a chilling look at the author’s gradual descent into madness as he dives deeper into the secrets of the ancient tradition, his sanity frayed as unusual, frightening occurrences plague him daily, which he fears are a form of punishment by the spirits for daring to see beyond the veil of time. The true ending is rather somber, but since it was set up through almost all exposition rather than interaction, it doesn’t have much of an impact. That problem extends to the rest of the narrative as well.

 

While Year Walk does a good job building tension as you explore the snowy wilderness and encounter disturbing specters (even though the game relies on a few cheap screamers and jump scares), the barren world and lack of additional characters makes for a less engaging experience, one where you feel like you’re simply walking from point to point rather than being part of the world the developers envisioned. Even the brief conversation at the beginning (which is only spoken by an NPC, a design decision as Simogo thought having the player character speak would distract them while on the journey) does a poor job establishing the relationship they have, which weakens the shock at the ending. However, the empty world does succeed in strengthening the game’s supernatural mystique, giving it the feel of a survival horror game.

 

Year Walk is very reminiscent of Myst and The 7th Guest, a first person adventure game centered around solving puzzles. Regretfully the puzzles aren’t that complex, most simply relying on memorizing symbols and sequences. The challenge comes in navigating the world, as many areas look incredibly similar – snow covered ground with nothing but barren trees, only an occasional identifying marker on the screen. Taking notes to remember the clues, as well as drawing a rudimentary map to keep your bearings, will be crucial. The only puzzle that’s truly challenging is one where you have to select a portal from a series of several, the correct one being identified by the sound of a woman singing in tune. If you don’t have a good ear, this can become a frustrating trial-and-error sequence since several of the out of tune calls sound deceptively close to being correct, and picking the wrong one sends you back to the start of the area. More annoyingly, once you do complete the section, you’re greeted with a screamer. The game also cheats in a section where you have to recover the souls of four dead infants, one of which is hidden past what you’d assume to be the edge of the screen. You have to drag slowly in order to expose the hidden ghost. And this is the only time that’s used; no other secrets or necessary items are obtained in this way, so you wouldn’t know it would be required for that one section.

 

The control scheme is a bit faulty. You move between areas by swiping the screen to scroll around the location you’re in or to move forwards or backwards. But the registration is inconsistent, so sometimes it won’t register a swipe and you’ll need to drag your finger across the screen to get to the next area. This becomes more problematic when you have to keep your finger on an object that has to be moved from screen to screen, often requiring you to use your other hand. Touch-screen arrows in the cardinal directions would’ve been more convenient to move around. There are a few interesting tricks like separating the screen by pulling on the sides, or flipping the iPad upside down to expose a hidden spirit, but tricks like this have been done before and better in various titles on the DS.

 

The art style is nice, reminiscent of paper-cutout collages, yet still crafted in a way to create an eerie atmosphere. The soundtrack also enhances the mood with very somber background music. Year Walk has its problems, but the trans-game story does a good job drawing you into the mystery, and the gameplay, while problematic, never becomes dull. It’s worth checking out if you’re in the mood for something different and disturbing.

 

Each of these games is worth playing, but if I had to choose the best of the three, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is the definite winner. It moved me so deeply that I was crying by the time it was over. Any game capable of doing that deserves the highest accolades.

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