Burly Men at Sea [Review]

Don’t you sometimes get tired of saving the world, pulverizing alien invasions and blasting your way through hordes of generic Eastern European mercenaries? I sure do; the sound of seagulls, the quiet breaking of waves on a sandy beach and, yes, even the occasional conversation with an anthropomorphic mountain are great ways to escape those tropes so often filling up most of our video game diet. Sometimes you just need a salad.

Burly Men at Sea is a small, heart-warming indie game from the husband-and-wife duo Brain&Brain, who developed the game during their nomadic extended travels around the United States. It draws a lot from Scandinavian folklore and is visually similar to their first adventure game, Doggins.

Having a choose-your-own adventure format, the game features the motley adventures of a trio of brothers, seasoned fishermen braving the seas off of some fjord in the north of Europe. Eschewing arbitrarily assigning the brothers quirky-sounding Scandinavian names, the developers simply call them by their distinguishing characteristic: the blond-haired Hasty Beard, the calm Steady Beard sporting a chestnut facial mane and the ginger Brave Beard. Besides the colours of their magnificent beards, the brothers are visually equivalent, which makes their adventures feel like real folk tales, which usually don’t bother distinguishing their brother characters at all.

The game opens with the brothers finding a mysterious map in a floating bottle, which a wise old barista (who roasts his own coffee beans btw) examines and concludes to be calling them to adventure! Shrugging, the brothers leave his coffee shop and set sail, only to be instantly swallowed by a giant whale.

I can’t remember much from the time my mom used to tell me folk tales before bed time, but I do remember a few of them. I mostly remember being spooked by most of them and the fact that a lot shared the same structure. Exposition was sparse, the plot progressed in short bursts of action and the ending usually linked some natural phenomena to the story. Although the world of Burly Men at Sea is much more colourful and pretty, the choppy structure is duly maintained. This neat congruence of choice-based adventure games and the simple-sentence-structure of folk tales is one thing the developers take full advantage of in this game.

The other aspect of Burly Men at Sea which is very harmonious with the literary genre that inspired it is the way the game looks. Employing a minimalist aesthetic of simple, uniformly-coloured shapes that seems to pull from an artisan coffee shop, IKEA instruction manual and infographic design, the game presents a slick and polished look, framing most of the scenes in a circular window the player can extend to control the characters. With no undertones and fluid movement, the game presents a simple and whimsical world in which being temporarily transformed into a seal is not a big deal.

The closed loop frame can also be seen as echoing the repetitive structure of the game. Whereas most choice-based games take pride in the fact that a lot of their content is not seen by a player due to the branching structure of the plot, claiming that it lends realism to their narratives, Burly Men at Sea encourages players to explore every single possible storyline in subsequent playthroughs. Since there is no way for the brothers to perish in one of these adventures, every adventure begins and ends at the same village. At the start you always get swallowed by a whale and at the end you always meet a ghostly entity that encourages you to try a different path next time. The sage barista records every tale in a book at the end and you’re let off to set sail again. In a post-Undertale world it’s also not surprising that some scenes you had already been through will feature different dialogue in subsequent runs as characters will remember your previous voyages. This repetitiveness encourages playing through one adventure at a time, as going in for multiple ones in a row can get tiring.

With humour reminiscent of Superbrothers: Sword & Sorcery EP, acapella sound effects and plenty of scenes you will want a poster of, Burly Men at Sea is a true testament to the brilliance of simple game design.

Score: 5/5

+ Visual Design
+ Great Controls
+ Relaxing, Yet Fun Stories
+ Talking Cliffs
+ Beards