Burly Men at Sea review
Adventure Gamers Awards
I’ve always enjoyed choose-your-own-adventure books, where you read a story and are able to determine how the tale proceeds by selecting what the characters will do next. Having the ability to make different decisions to see what the outcome will be is very compelling to me, and I was happy to discover that Burly Men at Sea, an indie adventure game from husband-and-wife developer Brain&Brain, is this kind of experience. There’s a lot to like in this minimalist folktale, with its clean graphical aesthetic, clever writing, and enjoyable score backing up a story centered on discovery and exploration.
The story follows the adventures of the Beard brothers, three rough-and-ready sailors who, in the opening moments of the game, catch a bottle in their fishing nets while out at sea. Unsure of what to do with the map they find inside, the brothers take it ashore to find someone in their village who can offer some insight into the map and its possible meanings. Once a bit of intentionally-vague knowledge on the subject is obtained from the local barista (because obviously no good fishing village is complete without a coffeehouse), the player can proceed, which means hoofing it back to the ship and setting out again to discover just what adventures the game has in store for you.
Burly Men at Sea’s gamebook-style approach means that most of your participation involves making decisions about how to handle the various twists and turns in the story. In contrast to other games that have one or two different endings and call it a day, the decisions you make throughout alter not just the ending, but various points along the way. There are a total of twelve different stories that can be told, each of which comes about as the result of making different choices as you set out from the village. Perhaps you want to try diving in after the enticing mermaids, or maybe you’ll decide to intentionally lose the race a certain character challenges you to win, just to see what happens differently.
Each adventure, or story, lasts around ten minutes or so, and the whole game takes between one to two hours to complete, depending on how quickly you discover new ways to proceed. At the end of a journey, when the Beard brothers have returned to their village, the map discovered at the very beginning of the game shows, in icon form, what path you took and the choices you made. It should be noted that both the beginning and ending events of each journey are the same for every playthrough, though I will avoid spoiling these outright for players who wish to discover them on their own. Some paths are mutually exclusive, with earlier decisions often changing the exact events you’ll encounter later on.
Each time you discover a unique story, a book containing that story’s map is placed on a shelf in the barista’s coffee shop which you can go back to and examine between journeys. This might seem rather anticlimactic if not for a mysterious code shown on the spine of each book. As explained by a comment from one of the Beard brothers, this code is meant to be entered at a special, hidden webpage (revealed in-game), which gives you the opportunity to preorder a physical copy of that particular story (currently set to ship on December 31, 2016), an intriguing effort to bring the storybook qualities of the game into the real world.
Though there are a few elements that could charitably be described as puzzle-like, such as finding flotation devices or discovering how to keep a sea monster from attacking you, the real fun comes from experimenting with different decisions and exploring their results. For instance, you could choose not to use the flotation devices, or decide to let the sea monster attack you. Some scenarios make it tough to figure out exactly what you can do differently, or how to do so, but overall this is very much a “lite” adventure, where curiosity rather than sheer brainpower is rewarded by discovery. I imagine some players will be disappointed by the lack of puzzles here, but I agree with the choice not to force overly-challenging obstacles into what is meant be a calming, joyful experience that focuses on mystery and wonderment. A highly-interactive environment enhances the sense of exploration, with much of the scenery clickable to various, sometimes amusing, effect.
Burly Men at Sea’s charm extends to its minimalist graphics, which features clean lines and a soft pastel color pallet that bolsters the whimsical nature of the environments, such as a whale’s belly, an island with an unusually large (and just plain unusual) inhabitant, and even an underwater sequence complete with talking seals. I was impressed by the use of simple geometric forms to evoke more complex scenery, as well. For example, flickering flames in a fireplace are made using several semi-circles that shift and pulse. Likewise, a hostile sea creature that you encounter during your adventures is illustrated using only a few easily-discernible shapes. Some games might retain their overall appeal even if you changed the visual design, but I don’t think the same can be said here. The subtle, pared-down art style really reinforces the game’s modern folktale aesthetic in a way that other art styles would not.
That said, the decision to use a stark white background during most of the game, over which the other graphical elements are placed, probably works better on smaller screens such as phones or tablets than it did for my PC playthrough. Using a larger screen created the same kind of eyestrain problems that looking at a white webpage or word processing document causes for me, necessitating a modification to my monitor’s brightness settings. It’s a minor issue, certainly, but worth noting since it was a problem from the beginning of the game.
Burly Men’s score is, like the rest of the game, an artfully simple affair, with a variety of instruments and musical styles blended together in one soundtrack. When the brothers sail away from their home to go on another adventure, the music takes on triumphant tones, while ominous moments are accompanied by strings and haunting vocals. In the village, a folksy guitar piece is backed by upbeat scat-singing.
Sound effects aren’t sparse, but they share a definite minimalist vibe with the rest of the game. Birds chirp, the wind blows, and the Beard brothers’ feet clip-clap on the ground as they move from place to place. Intriguingly, vocal percussion is used to simulate various sounds, such as rumbling ground, mechanical creaks and pops, and even the noise of doors opening and closing. One might think this would be annoying or silly, but rather than being a cloying gimmick, it seems a completely natural extension of Burly Men’s indie aesthetic.
The script is yet another carefully-honed part that adds something to the whole. By turns amusing, self-aware, and even hauntingly thoughtful at times, much of the game’s folktale sensibility can be traced to its atmospheric writing. For instance, a trio of strange, sage-like beings speaks nonsense riddles that nevertheless sound wise, a sea-creature waxes philosophic on the nature of the Beard brothers’ repetitive undertakings, and the brothers themselves use nautical dialect such as “aye.” I found myself repeating certain adventures simply because I liked the script in a particular section, something that I don’t recall doing in other games, as least not consciously.
On PC the game is controlled using the mouse, but it is clear that Burly Men is intended for touch-based mobile platforms. Most of the time you view the game through a round viewport, the edges of which can be dragged to elongate it and induce the protagonists to move in that direction. There is no inventory or even an on-screen interface aside from the mouse cursor and an escape menu that, among other options, allows you to end a journey prematurely and return to the village if you wish. At times there is also a dearth of information about the various ways in which you can interact with an environment, leading to situations where you know that you should be able to change the outcome of a certain plot point, but have no idea how to actually do it. One particular moment like this sent me in search of a walkthrough in order to solve it, but it turned out to be a fairly common-sense solution that in hindsight I wish I hadn’t spoiled so quickly.
Which leads me to one final point about Burly Men at Sea: this game is clearly meant to be taken slowly, so that’s how I recommend it to be played. I’m generally not one to tell others how they should play their games, but I powered through this one all in a single sitting (mostly because I was over-eager to see all twelve variations of the story), and now wish I had taken more time to really sit back and enjoy it.
Part of the reason for this is that, given that I was essentially playing the game over and over again, the repetitiveness began to annoy me after a while. Cutscenes can’t be skipped, and dialog text scans onto the screen gradually, although at least this effect can be interrupted so that each line immediately appears. It’s not much of a time saver, but if you’ve already read a line several times, it’s a way to get through it at least a little more quickly. Whether the repetition would have bothered me if I had taken the game more slowly is impossible to tell, but I suggest that if you feel irritated at the thought of seeing the same elements again when starting another journey, that’s an indication to stop and take a break. Really, this is a game that is meant to be savored, not rushed.
Underneath its unabashedly indie exterior, Burly Men at Sea is a modern, minimalist folktale that does almost everything right. This choose-your-own-adventure is bolstered by solid writing and crisp, clean graphics, then enhanced further by clever sound effects using vocal percussion and a varied soundtrack that changes with the mood onscreen. While some players might find the lack of puzzles disappointing, this decision allows players to enjoy discovering new paths through the stories unimpeded, rather than having their progress halted to solve an arbitrary puzzle. Though there are a few moments when you might not know what to do to unlock a new outcome, this game rewards taking your time with a relaxing, quiet atmosphere that invites you to curl up and enjoy the adventure.