Thursday, January 2, 2014

Female Characters in Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons

So today I played through Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons in a single sitting.  It was an aesthetically beautiful game that did a great job at featuring thematically appropriate and fun mechanics, and it had what was in some respects a touching narrative.  But there was one particular subplot of the story that really bothered me even while playing it, and as I sit down now and think about the game in retrospect, I realize that that one subplot is in fact part of a larger problem the game has - namely, the way it handles its female characters.

From this point on I will completely and utterly spoil almost all the plot twists and surprises in Brothers.  If you plan on playing it, only come back here once you're finished, or if you don't mind having the entire plot spoilered before playing it.

There are three characters clearly coded as female in Brothers who also have significant roles.  I will treat them in the order that they appear, saving the best (worst?) for last.  As none of the characters seem to have clearly indicated names, I have only cursory descriptions to refer to them - the mother, the ogress, and the girl.  The boys, however, do have appear to have names - I believe the older and younger brothers are Náya and Nayí, respectively, and will refer to them as such.


The first female character the player is introduced to in Brothers is a deceased woman who is almost certainly the boys' mother.  She is first shown in a flashback, in which she is drowning in water while her younger son tries to rescue her by pulling her back onto the boat.  He fails, and his mother sinks into the water - though the camera is steadily focused on the son throughout most of the sequence, so we know this is really about him.

She reappears later in the game, both as a spirit and as a hallucination (or perhaps only as the latter).  In one particular scene, pictured above, younger brother Nayí encounters his mother as a giantess, resting her hand over their dying father and staring sadly at her boys.  In this scene, which is later revealed to be a hallucination and possibly a near-death experience, older brother Náya jumps on Nayí and starts punching him in the face.  This and other scenes, as well as Nayí's fear of water, suggest that Nayí feels extremely guilty about his mother's drowning.

The mother exists primarily as an object of grief in the game.  Her death makes Father the only family the boys have left, making it all the more urgent that they save him - in a sense, her death made their desperation, and subsequent adventure, possible.  Her memory, or spirit, serves as encouragement for Nayí, though Náya doesn't appear to think about her all that much.  At the end, she is shown to be an object of grief not only for Nayí, but also for his father.

Her agency is extremely limited, though, particularly since it is debatable whether or not it is actually the mother's ghost who is appearing to Nayí to guide him, or whether the apparition is simply a form projected by his own psyche to help him to overcome his challenges.  Either way, the most her ghost does is speak to Nayí on a few occasions; she is not a driving force in the plot.

So she was the object of a failed rescue attempt (certainly a damsel in that moment), after which her death serves as a catalyst for the emotional journey of three men, one in particular (arguably an example of being stuffed into the fridge).  Now having a parent die is a common tragedy, and the game isn't problematic in a broad sense just for having a mother die and portraying the emotional pain of the experience (though the game could just as easily have had the father die and the mother be the object of the game's rescue, but that's speculation for another day).  But this rather male-centric and utilitarian characterization, from a plot perspective, is part of a wider pattern in how the game treats all its female characters - a pattern which, I think, is indeed somewhat problematic.


The second female character the player is introduced to is a female ogre (or troll, or some other kind of large humanoid).  The ogress is being held captive in a cage by other ogres for an unknown reasons, or perhaps no reason at all, and must be rescued by the players in order to progress - yes, another damsel.  She appears to have been wounded, is helpless until freed, and remains so after that for the most part even after being rescued.

Her existence and relationship to another ogre the players meet is hinted at earlier, though, in the scene pictured above.  Náya and Nayí, while leaving their home town, come across an ogre who is crying loudly at his table.  Though nothing is explained at first, there are two beds in his home, and a table with two stumps and two sets of kitchenware - clearly, somebody is missing.  Later, when the ogress is freed, the players encounter the formerly weeping ogre again, and the two of them embrace, reunited, and leave holding hands.

It isn't clear whether the ogre sent the boys into the underground ogre lair specifically in order to rescue the ogress, as a condition to helping them find their way, or whether they just happen to stumble across her and lead her to him, though the latter certainly seems less likely.  This female character, then, is helpless and needs to be not only rescued, but returned to her partner as well (presumably her mate, given their body language and implied closeness, though nothing explicitly suggest she isn't his friend or relative).

The ogress is somewhat helpful to the players, in that she throws them a chain to climb on and other such small things, but for the most part she must be rescued, escorted out and returned to her loved one.  This is another fairly simple characterization; not in and of itself a problem, but this being the second female character and the second damsel is somewhat unnerving, and the fact that her role in the plot is primarily as something lost that must be recovered as payment for a service is rather unfortunate.  But neither the mother nor the ogress bothered me nearly as much as the final, and arguably most important female character in the game.


As the above picture suggest, the girl starts off as a damsel in need of rescuing.  As the third and final female character with much of a role in the game, and the third damsel one or both of the boys must rescue, this is getting a little tiring.  But once rescued, and unlike the other women in the game, she becomes a lot more than just a plot device.

She becomes a character, talking to the boys, leading them towards their goal, helping them get through areas they couldn't get through alone.  She is competent and strong, has agency, and is in some areas seemingly more competent than the boys are, able to climb fences they don't seem to want to climb and leap prodigious gaps to help move the party around.  Somewhat predictably, but acceptably as I see it, she and the older brother start to become close, and develop the beginnings of an intimacy that annoys the younger brother in a charmingly childish way.

So she is turned into a love interest, but all things considered, she's also a strong character and a great help to the boys, and she seems to know things about the icy desolation they are crossing, so it looks like we have something interesting here - she probably has backstory and some connection to this place that we will discover as time goes on, right?

Well... no.  Turns out that the girl, the only strong female character with significant agency in the entire game, is actually an inhuman spider-monster.

So, this is great - here we have a whole host of stereotypical and negative female character types bundled into one.  She is now a damsel turned femme fatale, a woman who confuses and tricks innocent men using her sexuality in order to divert them from their quest - and then murder and eat them.  Only the younger boy, still sexually innocent, can see through her tricks, and tries to warn the older brother not to venture into her lair, though the older brother insists that everything is fine.  Trusting a woman is proved to have been a huge mistake when she crawls onto the ceiling, morphs into a spider-woman and encases them in a silken ball.

But it gets worse, too!  Because this is the boys' story, after all, they can't just get eaten by some monster, so they end up escaping.

They escape following an absolutely brutal sequence in which the brothers work together to painstakingly rip off every one of the spider-woman's eight legs (keep in mind that she is a spider only from the hips down here).  Brothers is a darker game than it seems in the marketing material, but the titular characters only ever end up actively killing two enemies in the entire game, as far as I can remember, and this character is one of them (the other is simply dropped into a glowing pit, with no on-screen death - heck, perhaps no death at all).

Only after she has been literally torn limb from limb by the boys does she get one final word in before dying - a stab to Náya's gut.

She dies shortly afterwards, but the wound to the boy is grievous.  Náya is no longer in good shape, and as they leave her lair and move towards the tree with the magical cure in it, he weakens and eventually dies, with nothing his brother Nayí can do to save him.  He appears briefly as a spirit, but the rest of the game from this point on is about Nayí's return to save his father, applying the lessons he learned from his deceased older brother on the way, and the game ends with father and surviving son mourning the mother and Náya at their graves.

Interestingly, given the relative lack of characterizations and motivations present in other creatures and characters in the game, the girl is arguably the only truly evil character in the entire game - she possesses sentience and intelligence, something lacked by the wolves and other beasts, but also has clearly hostile motives in sadism and hunger for flesh, which can't be said of the ogres or goblins or other hostile humanoids, who aren't given any clear motives at all (indeed, maybe the goblins who were going to sacrifice the spider-monster at an altar were onto something).

So, to summarize: the only strong female character with any kind of agency in Brothers, who is introduced as the third damsel in the game who needs rescue, is also secretly the most evil monster in the game, one who uses her sexuality to confuse the older of the boys and then tries to literally consume both of them.  For this, her fate is to be torn limb by limb by two boys, the only one to be killed on-screen by the boys - although not before she stabs the one who was old enough to be drawn in by her womanly charms, damning him to an early death for his error in judgement and for failing to trust his little brother's.

It almost feels like the lesson of this subplot is "bros before hoes."


I really enjoyed Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, for the most part, and I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to anyone with a controller and three hours to spare.  It's a shame Brothers fails in this regard, given that it is otherwise such a beautifully crafted and enjoyable game.  But the portrayal of female characters in the game really bothered me, especially the girl's - indeed, it was only after I had processed just how problematic her character was that I extended those thoughts to the other two women in the game.

These portrayals, I think it's fair to say, are symptomatic of the limited range and male-oriented portrayals of female characters that much of the video game scene suffers from.  Hopefully, someday soon, there will come a time when such portrayals are fewer and only a handful among many that women may be accorded in games - but until then, I feel it's important to continue to highlight how games fail at delivering varied, human and deep portrayals of female characters.


soubennargeek said...

I'm really glad I found your article because I felt just the same. The "mother" and ogress didn't bother me (classical narration, nothing new...) and I was really excited when I saw the girl helping them and all. During the cut-scene with the love-interest beginning I just felt like something was going wrong and it went terribly wrong indeed with the "spider-woman" revelation.
Anyway, I really liked the game like you did but being annoyed by a representation while playing is quite weird and needs to be discussed like you did. Thank you!

Anaryl said...

I think you are conflating Lost Lenore with Stuffed INto the Fridge.

I think arguing it's demeaning to women is more than a bit of stretch.

It's a game and you need bad things to happen to drive the narrative.

Anonymous said...

“The ogress is somewhat helpful to the players…the fact that her role in the plot is primarily as something lost that must be recovered as payment for a service is rather unfortunate.” - Just as the players cannot enter the mine without the help of the ogre, they also cannot escape without the help of the ogress that they rescue. She is an integral part of their journey. Also, after the ogres are reunited at the exit, it is not the ogre who can tell them the way to go. It is the ogress.

“Because this is the boys' story, after all, they can't just get eaten by some monster, so they end up escaping.” - I’m assuming this is a joke. You can’t expect us to believe you were rooting for the sinister spider character in a game called ‘Brothers: A Tale Of Two Sons’. There is absolutely no way that could be a satisfying ending for the player in an extravagant and emotional adventure game such as this.

“(The spider-lady) is arguably the only truly evil character in the entire game…has clearly hostile motives in sadism and hunger for flesh, which can't be said of the ogres or goblins or other hostile humanoids” - The dog at the beginning of the game tries to eat the boys. The wolves try to eat the boys. Trees sprout from the walls of the waterfall, which try to eat the younger boy.

Finally, the mother of the boys is not a cheap character. She appears to the younger boy to inspire him in his journey. She even encourages him to face his fear and swim, in stormy weather. At no stage does the young boy draw strength from thinking of his father.

I believe this game made a conscious effort to depict scenes of women being inspirational and helpful, which made it all the more shocking that the final woman we see in the game (the spider-lady) was actually an underestimated adversary all along.

Sexism in gaming is very prominent, but please do not convolute this message with criticism where it is not due.

James said...

Thank you.

I'd been avoiding spoilers for Brothers for about a year and a half. Finally got round to playing it today and, oh my god, does this game have a problem with women.

For what it's worth though, some Facebook comments that showed up when I googled it seem to suggest that the writer has acknowledged the problem and pledged to do better in future. So that's something.