At some point in the history of video games, story became one of the main features within the medium. Gameplay mechanics, audio, and visuals were always staples of the gaming world, but this fairly new pillar of design meant big things for the industry. From those beginnings to today, stories in games have evolved to mean many different things. At first, big budget, commercial games were the only ones to offer complex characters and well thought out plots, but through as time passed, indie games acquired the taste as well. The ability to maintain a well written and artistically independent story meant smaller studios could do much more with story than their triple A big brothers. Good writing in a general sense led the way, but today, I noticed that telling a good story in video games is much more than just good writing. The story has to flow with the game at hand. It has to mirror gameplay and art so perfectly that the entirety of the project feels like the same package instead of tiny parcels of separate mail. That philosophy of good storytelling in games is bent, challenged, and sometimes ignored in developer Brain&Brain’s newest title, Burly Men at Sea.
The experiences in my little adventure stemmed from three sailors and a world popping with color and imagination. It all starts when characters Hasty Beard, Steady Beard, and Brave Beard find a crudely drawn map with barely anything on it. After finding an island inhabited by a coffee shoppe owner, the map sends the three on a grand adventure. These beginning moments were (like most of the game) slow and methodical and consisted of learning brief snippets of information before being whisked away into some other situation. Nevertheless, Burly Men at Sea has a way of letting the player interact with it that is both interesting and unique.
Controlling the three sailors means using your controller’s triggers, an on-screen cursor that acts like a computer mouse, and one face button. That seemingly small amount of input is used in cool ways throughout the game, and though it took a minute to get used to some of the control designs, there wasn’t a moment during the game where I felt bored with the way I controlled what was happening. That’s important, seeing as Burly Men at Sea only falls into one “real” gaming industry genre: point and click adventure. I use that term loosely because, in reality, Burly Men at Sea falls into a genre of its own. Yes, you point and press a button to interact with things in the environment, occasionally solve puzzles, and progress using these two methods. But what the game brings with this is a presentation and style that makes it feel more akin to a child’s night time book. In fact, most of the game’s redeeming factors rely on its ability to make me want to shrink down to a child again just to enjoy the impeccable writing and amazing storytelling techniques.
The first of these was the ability of Brain&Brain to use writing that emphasized how childlike its story actually was. I don’t want to spoil anything, but most of the game carries you through a line of events very different from anything commonly seen nowadays. Those outlandish events are made believable in the way they are written about throughout the game. Language used to describe the simplest things rolled off the tongue in a simple yet poetic way. Mystical beings spoke in a tongue that made their existence a conceivable manner. All of these things combine to make Burly Men at Sea a master class in traditional writing. Keep in mind that writing is the only form of storytelling used. No in game voice-overs made scenes clear. For some, this may be an inconvenience, but for me it complemented what I thought the game did so well. Even more, scenes were often explained through text and merely represented with small illustrations or symbolic pictures. Never were full scenes played out before your eyes, and this fed into the children’s book aesthetic even more. You weren’t merely given the answers to what the story looked like, you were fed bread crumbs that forced you to imagine what each scene might be like. That resulted in looking at wonderful visuals that were fantastically represented with a soft, stress-relieving color palette. This amount of work that was done to invest the player in the story goes further than writing and visual storytelling, it bleeds into the score of the game.
Within minutes of visiting new locations, a toe-tapping score accompanied awesome sounds and FX. These audio cues were affected by several things: the setting the sailors populated, the seriousness of the situation they were in, and whatever objects were around. What made all of this special was the humanity in the sounds. In one area, you might hear an orchestra blare a ballad of serious tension, while banjo matches the mood in another area, and an obvious human-made sound capped it all off. This formula continued throughout the entirety of the game, and though I was expecting it, I was always pleased to see what my next stop would grant in terms of a score. These audio elements only helped the foundation of storytelling with words, visuals, and controls. When all was said and done, I can honestly say Burly Men at Sea is an indie game you should play for the pure experience of enjoying all of these elements contained within a neatly tied little package. But that’s also its only downfall.
The “ending” of Burly Men at Sea comes around 40 minutes into the game. Such a short time is almost redeemed by the number of different paths the game offers in full. The replay value here would be huge if only there was the same feelings of joy as in the first playthrough. Yes, new sounds and visuals accompany new sites and journeys, but these all felt like they had less impact the second or third time around. I wish they did, and for some it may, but for me the second or third playthroughs just didn’t capture my attention like that first one did. For this, I don’t hold Burly Men at Sea too much at fault, but still, it deserves to be brought to attention.
Platforms: PS4, Xbox One, PC, Nintendo Switch (soon)
Release Date: 19th September 2017