He ain’t burly; he’s my brother!
Games, it seems, are no longer happy with telling just one story. More and more we’re seeing divergent narrative paths, all guided by player choice. One such release is Brain&Brain Studio’s Burly Men at Sea, which handles branching stories with gusto.
Speaking to the kleptomaniac in all of us, Burly Men at Sea encourages the player to “collect” each story in a manner which is not only deeply satisfying, but also includes possibly the most inventive and wondrously pleasant paid additions to any game, ever. I’m not sure if it could be described as a micro-transaction, but I’ll err on the side of saying no, just because I really quite like it.
Before getting into all of that, what exactly is Burly Men at Sea?
Well, in the vein of Portal and You Must Win the Game, Burly Men at Sea neatly sets out its stall in the title. Against the stunning backdrop of hand-crafted Scandinavian peninsulas and oceans, three hefty bearded gentlemen must contend with a passive aggressive baker, a down-on-his luck ferryman to the afterlife, and a clique of whale worshippers fortuitously positioned in the belly of a whale.“Whimsical” comes to mind, but at no point does Burly Men at Sea allow its whimsy to dominate proceedings or become grating, mainly due to some stellar writing, which is at once funny, mysterious, and endearingly off-kilter. This is a game which, in spite of the flurry of awards and accolades it has received, never takes itself too seriously.
Said Burly Men are three brothers named Hasty, Steady, and Brave Beard—names which dictate their characteristics as well as their follicular leanings. Technically, you do not play as any of these brothers. Instead, you play as a sort of ethereal presence who controls the brothers’ fate.
By dragging across the screen, you are able to manipulate the circular viewfinder and direct the three brothers to wherever you want them to go. By crafting this path, you explore your surroundings along with the characters. It’s a little thing, sure, but it goes a long way to replicate that feeling of weaving your own narrative thread, as opposed to having one told to you. Not to mention, all the tiny pieces of non-consequential interactivity—momentarily dampening a fire by clicking on it here, ruffling the feathers of a bird perched on a tree there— builds up a more tangible sense of your role in things. It would be very easy for Burly Men at Sea to leave the player as an afterthought; the fact that I felt as much a part of the story as each of the bushy-chinned protagonists shows that this isn’t the case.
As the trio depart on their glorious voyage, a series of set pieces await them, each of which can be handled in a couple of ways. The brothers will then carry on down whichever path is chosen for them, onto the next set piece and the next choice. These choices are represented as pinpoints on a map, with each journey being depicted as a virtual book on an in-game bookshelf. If you’re thinking that’s one of the most adorably twee things in existence, then wait right there, because I’m bringing out a vat of concentrated twee for this next paragraph.
Each virtual book has a code on its spine. If you copy down that code into a website provided in-game, then you are able to buy a physical book detailing that particular journey. An actual hardcover book, with actual pages, reciting your actual experience, and you can do this with any of your in-game journeys, as each will come with a unique code. It’s possible there will be a bit of a mixed reception to this—by which I mean vociferous dialogue, this being the internet after all—but I absolutely love the idea. It’s perfect for this game, being just the right side of quirky, and is something that a whole host of games could benefit from.
You could only pull this off with certain games, of course, and it speaks to the quality of the game’s writing that Brain&Brain can be so confident about making this transition from game to book.
Faced with an array of surreal events, the three brothers respond with an irresistible combination of incredulity and wit. Steady, Hasty, and Brave Beard work not only to their names á la Snow White’s seven dwarves, but they also join together to show general annoyance at everything in their path. As messages of togetherness go, that’s a hard one to beat.Each story can be completed in around twenty minutes, depending on which path you take. There’s even the memory of previous endeavors as you retake the same route, meaning it’s very difficult to go through the game and not find at least something different from the last time—an issue that can adversely affect many other multiple-ending games.
Both the soundtrack and audio effects are appropriately subdued and underplayed, with music swelling only occasionally and always to great effect. The acapella foley artistry at play is especially homely; a special mention goes to whoever was in charge of the little falsetto “chings” accompanying the blacksmith’s hammer.
Where there is criticism to be made of Burly Men at Sea, it’s with regards to its pacing. Players should be under no illusions, this is no adrenaline-fueled thrill-fest. This is evident even from the game’s website, which describes the game as “a quiet adventure.” Even so, there are some problems with regards to how long certain instances of getting from A to B can take. Of course, cartoon men with giant beards paddling their little arms while encapsulated in a barrel is adorable, but even that can wear thin if focused on for too long with no other interactivity.
There’s also the question of how much game play is enough game play. Scrolling through a landscape and seeing it shift and react to my movements was enough for me to feel invested. Others may think differently and have every right to.
Oh, and also—and this is a point which is either huge or trifling, I’ve still not quite decided—the game doesn’t have an option to quit. Look for yourself, the menu is just below.I mean, sure, Alt+F4 exists, but I just don’t understand. Perhaps this is mobile hangover? Similarly, the only save options are auto-saves after each journey. These aren’t huge issues, and certainly aren’t deal-breakers for anyone who is interested in the game, but they require addressing nonetheless.
Overall, Burly Men at Sea is a marvel of cutesy folklore and genuinely funny writing, with a scope for wonderful tales of seafaring misadventure and what is without a doubt the most exciting peripheral gimmick I’ve ever seen in a video game.