Starbreeze used to be the AAA market's guns for hire - now they're making games for themselves. Curious, charming and mechanically novel games, in fact, like Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons. For a Starbreeze game, there's a notable lack of shivving involved, as you steer two brothers on a quest to retrieve medicine for their dying father. You control each brother simultaneously using the thumbsticks of a control pad, and each reacts to the world in a different way, with the game asking you to navigate its obstacles through a peculiar and innovative form of asymmetrical self-cooperation. But it's more than a puzzler; every interaction describes the touching co-dependence of the siblings and their individual personalities with surprising power and elegance.
It's a project conceived and helmed by Josef Fares: a Swedish-Lebanese film director of some repute. He's also a self-professed hardcore gamer and a hyper-charismatic cocksure loudmouth - I mean that in the nicest possible sense. On publisher interference: “It's gonna be on my terms or it's not going to happen.” Kinect and Move: “Bullshit.” David Cage's games: “Films are films and games are games. We need to find our own way of making story in games.” Max Payne: “After one hour you've played it already.” His own game: “If you don't feel what I'm talking about and the uniqueness of it, you can kick me in the face.” He's a man not short of opinions - but, hey, they're all the right ones.
First of all, how's this going to work with a mouse and keyboard?
It's not. I mean it will work on a keyboard but I think at the same time you need to have a controller. It's very important. We're going to put a big sign up saying that you need to use a controller, because it's so based on a controller experience. Peter Molyneux talks shit when he says the controller has had its time. I don't agree with him at all. I respect him and the games he's done but... I have opinions about everything.
So, no Kinect support then?
Oh that's shit. Kinect and Move are bullshit. For me it's bullshit. It's like shit. Shitty products. Although, it's true that if the latency wasn't there then it could be interesting.
Presumably making a game is a departure for you as a film-maker, but Brothers is also a departure for Starbreeze - most of their games involve people being stabbed or shot. How did you convince them?
Yeah, this is quite different to what they did before. I had two prototypes, I had a solid idea which they liked and I had a great team who strongly believed in the game. And I think they wanted to do something new and different, so it's not going to be a typical Starbreeze game I guess. And I'm a quite convincing guy obviously.
Oh, clearly! So what originally drew you to the project?
Well, first of all, I love games. From a creative perspective there's so many things to explore. And I love the old RPG era, the 16-bit era - that's probably one of the reasons it's top down - but I also wanted to do something unique that feels fresh and different. The idea of controlling two characters hasn't been done before quite like it is in this game. No-one's taken it this far. So this unique simultaneous mechanic feels new to play. But the most important part is that the player should feel an emotional connection: Big Brother on the left hand and Little Brother on the right hand. So that's the more important issue. I can't tell you what happens in the game but I'm quite sure when you play through this game you will feel something different that you've never experienced. I've never read any book about design or anything. We don't have a game designer. It's like: within the group we talk about things, then we do what we want and that's it. Nobody's interfering with us, not our publisher publisher, nothing, nobody. This is a totally passion project.
It's interesting that you as a film-maker mention the mechanics first, rather than the narrative. Were novel mechanics key?
Oh definitely, more than story. I think films are films and games are games. Most of the examples we have from filmmakers coming to film I think are mostly a PR trick. They're not really hardcore gamers. Many people out there thought that I'd make a Heavy Rain or Walking Dead but those games... To be honest with you, I put Heavy Rain on easy mode because I don't wanna... [Gesticulates as though waggling the Sixaxis during a laborious QTE.] With Walking Dead most of the time I'm hardly controlling it and just pushing a button. So I appreciate them, but I would definitely not choose them as the game of the year, because even if I enjoyed them, it's not the future.
For me I love the interactiveness of gaming. That was the main issue, trying to make Brothers as interactive as possible. But where we are inspired by film is in the way a character starts somewhere and grows into something else. That's in Brothers as well, but it's an interactive experience, it's subtle. You actually play the evolution of your character. An example is that the mother has drowned in an accident, and Little Brother sees that. So when you come to water Little Brother refuses to swim. So you connect it: he's afraid of water because he saw his mother drown, so you have to get him to hold onto Big Brother to swim. You see what I mean? We're trying to make a gameplay out of the narrative all the time. That interactivity, that's what's important to me, truly. People should stop comparing games with films. Films are films and games are games. We need to find out own way of making story in games.
Do you have a particular audience in mind for Brothers?
I'm trying to reach everyone! But I think hardcore gamers will appreciate this for its uniqueness and I think casual games will find it a comfortable experience - it's not so hard to play. It's not that long, I suppose, but the game is as long as it needs to be. I think many games are too long and people focus too much attention on the time it takes to complete a game. I don't care about time, I care about the experience. Most games re-use so much stuff it gets boring. I mean, Max Payne 3 - after one hour you've played it already. You just keep doing the same stuff. Hitman too.
I'd have paid more to play less of those games.
Yeah, that's not value for money, I think, sitting for ten hours and just playing the same thing. It's just waste of time.
I saw an interview with you you where you said that you thought that indie developers were the only people pushing the medium forward. Could you say a little bit about where you think the medium is going and which indie games you admire?
Well, I love Journey of course, and I really appreciate Papa & Yo - what it's trying to do even if it isn't executed perfectly. I always try to support and buy those games because in the future those are the games I think will revolutionise the industry. I'm not saying that we should stop doing Call of Duty or Far Cry or GTA or Max Payne or whatever. Those games are great too, and we need to have both. But I think that as hardcore gamers won't be able to play Call of Duty 50 in the future - we'll get tired of it, and we'll need something new and these [indie games] are the games that are going to change that. We have to understand that this is not an industry where we're creating boxes in a factory - we're creating art here. Sure it's a business, sure we have to respect the economy and put money behind it, but we have to understand that we are also working with art here. We have to meet in the middle and understand how much money we have and what kind of game we can do. A good company can do that.
So how come Starbreeze aren't being crippled by publisher interference? How do get those terms?
Well, they own their IP and to be honest I don't think I'd work with them otherwise. [Hands-off publishers] 505 Games are great because they can go, “No-one is interfering with this, this is a passion project.” I don't let anyone interfere. It's important to stop saying that this is how a game should be, or how it should be designed. That's bullshit. The industry is too early to decide what a good game is and what's not. We should be open and try new things all the time. In films you have some more distinct rules because we've tried a lot of stuff, but in games you don't. It's an open platform, there's so much creativity to explore.
If this becomes a success and a publisher asks me to make another game, I'll tell them: sure, but only if you don't put one thing in it. It's a discussion between me and my team and that's it. It's gonna be on my terms or it's not going to happen. But at the same time I have respect for money; I'm very good at delivering on time, and I've always done that in all the films I've made. They've made a lot of money and they've always been done on time, even under budget. So I understand the role of publishers, but they have to respect my role.
Are you a control freak?
A little bit yeah [laughs]. You need to be a little bit stupid and crazy to be in my job. I can piss people off sometimes, you know, but it's okay.