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The Hero’s Journey of Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons

This is a repost from Stanislav Costuic’s personal blog. Costiuc is a game designer at Ubisoft. 

Welcome back to this 2-part post series about the Hero’s Journey. In this post, I’m going to talk about the game Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, and how Vogler’s rework of Campbell’s structure is applied to it. Please note that I’ll reference the previous post about Journey a lot, so please read it beforehand 🙂 That said, let’s continue.
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Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons – Vogler’s Structure
Vogler’s interpretation of the Hero’s Journey is more streamlined and less specific. Which is why I think it’s a more useful tool when creating new stories (and, after all, it was done specifically for that purpose). The main principle, that is of the Hero starting in a certain state and then through a series of trials becoming a better person, is still there. But with the simplifications in place it’s easier to think in a broader sense and not feel constrained if you’re getting inspiration from the structure.

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1. Ordinary World
Vogler puts more focus on the Ordinary World and the pre-existing life of the protagonist, to show what the person is like before the journey begins. Think Harry Potter’s life in Privet Drive or Ezio’s life with his family before everything goes down.

In Brothers, the Ordinary World is the village where we’re introduced to the little brother Naiee, who would be the main character of the Hero’s Journey, and his older brother Naia. Their mother drowned at sea, and Naiee feels guilty about not being able to save her.

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2. The Call to Adventure
However, their father is in danger too now. He is deathly ill, and the only thing that can save him is water from the Tree of Life, as the doctor says. The two Brothers take upon that quest.

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3. Refusal of the Call
Just like in the original structure, the quest for some reason can’t be accepted right away. I would like to note here that this doesn’t necessarily mean that the Hero himself refuses the call – there might be entities that don’t let him take it. For example, Harry Potter’s uncle who keeps destroying the letters sent from Hogwarts.

In Brothers, this is the asshole who does everything to not make us go out of the village. As well as Naiee’s huge fear of swimming due to the whole situation with his mother.

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4. Meeting the Mentor
And at this moment (or, well, not necessarily, it can happen earlier or later), when the Hero needs guidance to keep moving forward, he meets a Mentor who will offer him help and advice, as well as teach the ropes of the Special World. For example Hagrid, coming in and taking Harry directly, explaining everything that the boy needs to know.

In Brothers, the mentor is the older brother – Naia. While Naiee has unique abilities like being able to fit in small cracks, he needs Naia’s help to do a lot of things. Naia will help his little brother jump farther, pull levers that Naiee isn’t strong enough to pull, but most importantly, Naia offers his shoulders to hold on to for when the Brothers need to swim somewhere. And please remember this part where Naiee can’t swim without his brother. This will come back in an awesome way later.

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5. Crossing the Threshold
Just like in Campbell’s structure, this is the point where the Hero leaves the Ordinary known world, and ventures into the full unknown of the Special World. Like Harry Potter literally crossing the threshold of the platform 9 ¾.

In Brothers, this is the moment when the two meet a big troll. Up until this point the brothers were in their familiar world – the village and its outskirts, but here is where their meeting with the unknown starts. The troll is friendly and helps the brothers get into a huge underground cavern, which is our first foray into the Special World.

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6. Tests, Allies and Enemies
This is where the big differences between Campbell’s and Vogler’s structures appear. This part of the journey is the biggest stage where most of the development comes in. The Hero will meet their allies, learn who their enemies are, pass obstacles that are thrown their way. This is the stage where the Hero gets accommodated with the Special World and its rules, as he approaches the end goal of the quest. So, Harry Potter meeting Ron and Hermione, as well as getting a rival in form of Draco and learning more about Voldemort. Meeting instructors, learning spells, and finding more about the Philosopher’s Stone.

In Brothers, this is most of our Journey through the Special World – an underground cave full of ogres, a dark forest, mountains, a castle belonging to a huge giant. This is also where the brothers first meet a griffin. What should be pointed out here, is that every being that brothers meet on their way, – their allegiance is very clearly defined. Those who seem friendly, like the troll or the kind scientist or the griffin – are friendly. Those who seem like enemies, – the wolves who want to eat you, the ogres, dangerous live trees, – are enemies. This is very important for the next couple parts of the journey.

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7. Approach to the Innermost Cave
Innermost Cave is either a location or just a point in the story where the Hero will face their biggest threat, danger, or inner conflict that they have to overcome. This step is about making final preparations or overcoming challenges as they get to that cave and tension rises. In Harry Potter, this is the moment when the trio gets past Fluffy and has to get past through several dangerous trials on their way to the chamber holding the Philosopher’s Stone.

In Brothers, this section starts when Naia and Naiee stumble upon a girl about to be sacrificed. The two save her, and she agrees to show them the way to the Tree of Life, guiding them through a desolated ice lake, and a city where in a midst of battle everybody has turned into snow, with an invisible giant roaming and eating everyone it can find.

Naia starts to develop feelings for the kind girl who helps them, but remember the part about everyone’s allegiance being clearly defined? As you travel with the girl, you can’t help but feel suspicious, – she does some unnaturally high jumps, and sometimes shows that she’s much stronger than your average human.

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8. The Ordeal
The Supreme Ordeal is where the Hero faces death, – a terrible danger or a deep inner crisis. Hero must use all the skills learnt throughout the adventure to overcome it, and everything is put on the line here – Hero is either going to die, or live on. In Harry Potter, this is the first direct encounter with Voldemort who seeks the Philosopher’s Stone.

In Brothers, the girl leads the two characters into a suspicious cave. It is then revealed that she’s actually a monstrous spider in disguise. The spider captures them, but the brothers don’t give up and manage to kill her. Though, sadly, Naia, the older brother, is mortally wounded in the process.

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9. Reward
After passing the Ordeal and overcoming the biggest personal challenge yet, the Hero transforms into a new state, becoming a better person and getting a reward. The reward must not necessarily be physical, or even literal. It can be anything from an actual item, like Philosopher’s Stone getting into Harry’s hands due to his qualities, to some knowledge or deep insight.

In Brothers, the Reward is the water from the Tree of Life. Despite Naia’s wound, both get to their final destination. Naiee races up the tree to get some water, but Naia dies before Naiee could save him. In this sad moment, Naiee tells his final goodbyes as he buries his brother near the Tree of Life. Reward doesn’t always come without a price.

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10. The Road Back
The Road Back can have several forms. In its direct state, this the reverse Call to Adventure – when the Hero must begin their journey back to the Ordinary World, possibly having to protect the Reward on the way. But a lot of times this also is commitment to the final stages of the Journey, for example how in Assassin’s Creed II Ezio must protect and retake the Apple after acquiring it before moving up onto his final goal (which is not actually the Ordinary World).

In Brothers, though, this is literal road back to the beginning of the journey. The Tree of Life is also a home to a griffin, who takes Naiee back to the shores of his village.

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11. Resurrection
This is the climax. The Hero’s final and most dangerous encounter with death, or just the point where the Hero solidifies their new changed state in a literal or metaphorical death and rebirth. In Harry Potter, this is when Harry wakes up in hospital (a resurrection of sorts as well) after the Ordeal, but now smarter, wiser, more experienced and proven his worth.

In Brothers, this is my absolutely favourite moment in the entire game that I adore to death. Storm reigns throughout the village. Water level has risen up. To get to the final destination, Naiee has to swim. But he hasn’t overcome his fear of swimming – it was always Naia who swimmed and Naiee would just hold on. But Naia is not here anymore, and Naiee still refuses to swim.

This is where narrative through controls comes in, and it’s just beautiful. You see, in the game you control both Brothers – each has navigation controls as well as an action button for any contextual action. And if you hold the action button of the older brother, then his spirit voice guides and motivates the little brother to overcome his fear.

After you go through the swimming part, you reach a section in the game that you’ve went through at the very beginning. Only there are obstacles that required Naia – he would pull the big levers Naiee was unable to, and help Naiee climb high jumps that the boy couldn’t reach. This time, Naiee has to do it alone. But as long as you keep holding Naia’s action button, with the spiritual guidance from his older brother Naiee is able to do so.

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12. Return With The Elixir
This is the final stage of the Hero’s Journey, where the Hero returns home a changed person. They’ve learned a lot, faced dangers, but now are ready to start a new chapter in their life. In Harry Potter, this is when Harry goes onto the train home from Hogwarts.

In Brothers, this is when Naiee arrives to the doctor with the water from Tree of Life. His father is saved. The celebration is bittersweet, though, as now the family misses two its members. But still, Naiee has completed his journey, growing as a person, learning valuable lessons about friendship and trust, and overcoming his fears thank to his older brother.

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And thus, we end our breakdown of the Hero’s Journey, and its two structure variations: Joseph Campbell’s and Christopher Vogler’s. I hope you enjoyed the read and found it insightful and helpful. This is a structure that can be seen in a lot of works of literature, film, and games as well. The two examples of Journey and Brothers of course, but also games like Uncharted, Assassin’s Creed, Warcraft, and many many others. And I feel that we will see it many more times, as the whole paradigm of becoming a changed person as a result of overcoming challenges seems to be very close to us as human beings in general.

Just remember that this is a tool, and like any tool the importance lies not in the fact of using it, but how you use it. The structure is often criticized for making narrative look and sound the same, but I don’t agree with this. There are a lot of wildly different and unique stories with this paradigm lying at their base, and the Hero’s Journey can be very helpful.

It should also be noted that the Hero’s Journey can also be subverted. For example, the Human campaign of Warcraft 3 structurally-wise is the Hero’s Journey, but it’s about Arthas’ fall into darkness. All the steps are still there, from meeting Uther the mentor to getting Frostmourne as a Reward from the Ordeal to returning with the Elixir back home and killing the king.

Assassin’s Creed III subverts the Hero’s Journey in a different way – while the structure is in place in its entirety, as the end result Connor loses almost everything he held dear and things just… don’t go well.

And even when played straight, there’s so many different possibilities and variations which allow stories to stand out, that I don’t think you will make it feel the same like any other tale if you approach it with the right mindset.

Thank you all for reading, hope you enjoyed it. If you’d like to keep an eye on my future blog posts, feel free to follow me on Twitter at @farlander1991.

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