Papo & Yo is heavy-handed with its metaphors, but bittersweet and beautiful in execution
Papo & Yo
Vander Caballero’s semi-autobiographical PlayStation Network exclusive Papo & Yo is like a sad book you can’t help but read before bed. Take the sentimentality from your favorite tales of growing up under tragic circumstances and use it in a network of puzzles and mazes so that it becomes a game, and you’ll produce the sort of feelings Papo & Yo evokes. It’s a sorrowful – sometimes uncomfortable – experience, but it’s also touching and worthwhile.
The game is, at its core, about the relationship Caballero had growing up with his abusive, alcoholic father. Everyone who has heard anything about Papo & Yo knows that; it’s a selling point of the game now, and Cabellero is always willing to tell the story to a new audience. He wants Papo & Yo to be like a Pixar film: something that can bring up serious, adult drama while presenting itself as enjoyable and even maybe kid-friendly. I’m unsure of how well the game succeeds at that goal.
The game opens with a well-dressed young boy hiding in a closet, clutching his yellow robot action figure as an enormous shadow lumbers by, growling his name. “Quicoooooo,” it slurs. Quico looks around the closet and sees a glowing white spiral magically appear. He falls through it to a seemingly alternate dimension. The world he enters is modeled after the shanty towns of Brazil, where stacks of housing seem to erupt from the mountains and caves create a vertical playground.
Though the location is exotic and fascinating in its own way, the look of Papo & Yo feels a bit outdated. Quico’s animations are jerky, and the low resolution textures of some objects, plus an abundance of clipping, can be a distraction. The more you let the story grab you, however, the less you’ll worry about the game’s technical failings.
Papo & Yo‘s puzzles blend the real with the fantastic
Quico may enter this world he enters alone, but he soon finds a young girl who possesses magical chalk. The chalk, and Quico’s imagination, are at the heart of Papo & Yo‘s game play.
The chalk can create all manner of things in Papo & Yo, from doors and portals to stairs and wind-up keys. The chalk can alter reality as well, and the blending of reality with childish fantasy is executed well. In one of my favorite puzzles, Quico tries to follow the girl only to watch her teleport from one end of a gaping chasm to another. At Quico’s end are several boxes, scattered within a square drawn by the chalk.
Quico isn’t just moving cardboard when he grabs a box. From the cliff face across the chasm, a house rips loose from its bindings and floats in mid-air. It moves exactly the way Quico moves the cardboard box, including the light bouncing motion Quico makes when he walks. It’s a surreal effect, and plays off the expectation we have as gamers of encountering a simple puzzle and expecting our reward once we’ve completed it. Many of Papo & Yo‘s puzzles produce such rewards as you solve them instead of waiting for all input to be completed, and this tiny change makes a big difference.
Puzzles become increasingly complex as the game goes on, though they only occasionally stump the player. Most of the time it’s obvious what Quico needs to do, it’s just a matter of timing jumps and pushing the right buttons in the right order to progress. There is very little frustration or expert skill required; the puzzles are there to funnel your progression through the story. They can be fun to solve, but that’s not the point; this isn’t Portal or Quantum Conundrum.
Quico is soon reunited with his robot toy, Lula, who is now both larger and alive. The robot also gives Quico a rocket boost to his jumps. Lula tells Quico they must find their friend, Monster. The first interactions with Monster are sweet and kind, as Quico perches on his belly like Mei atop Totoro, and bounces off with a comic, trampoline effect. Quico feeds Monster coconuts to lure him different directions, as many paths in Papo & Yo are blocked until Monster can step into the appropriate chalk square. Then, the game introduces frogs. How I hate frogs.
Monster is addicted to the frogs, and the game warns that should he eat one, he’ll turn from being Quico’s friend to his enemy. It’s unsettling the first time Monster reaches into a pipe, desperately clawing at the frogs. In early trailers, Monster had a more animalistic design. Now he has distinctly human-like features, and his movements are less alien. He looks like someone rooting feverishly through a cupboard. It’s unnerving, and though I hadn’t yet seen Monster eat a frog, I feared what would happen if he did.
Papo & Yo‘s heavy-handed metaphors - 99 bottles of frog on the wall
It becomes impossible to keep Monster away from the little green nuisances. His rage is intimidating, and although Quico can’t die and the game doesn’t punish you for getting caught by Monster, it’s not something you want to see happen, and that’s enough motivation. It may be stylized, but it’s hard to watch something you know is meant to represent a father chasing his son, only to watch him savagely beat and tear at the child.
The metaphors in Papo & Yo are on the nose and, by the end of the game, they’re no longer metaphors at all. The conversations and actions in the final act of the game lay the groundwork for much interesting discussion, though that may be a conversation that needs to wait until more people have played the game. For now, I’ll say that it bothered me that Papo & Yo seems to give an absolute answer to a personal situation.
The story is touching and bittersweet, but there are some oddities about its pacing. The girl Quico meets shoves him and calls him cursed, but soon after wants to help him cure Monster. There are dream-like sequences that show Quico running while everything else is frozen in time. He charges through the rain as his father drives through the streets and stands over an unidentified person, but the dream sequences happen in the early hours of gameplay and only pop up twice. They end abruptly, without resolution or explanation.
I had hoped the puzzles would be metaphors unto themselves, but they seem to be just puzzles for puzzles’ sake. Their arbitrary implementation doesn’t make sense in the grand scheme of things, enjoyable and fun to watch though they may be. This is always going to be a problem when it comes to telling smaller, personal stories in games; it’s hard to reconcile the characters and their interactions with the need for meaningful interaction in the context of a game.
Papo & Yo dares to explore an adult subject in a mature way in a medium often criticized for its shallow subject matter. It’s short, simple, and effective; I was bordering on tears by the end. I don’t feel the mood Papo & Yo gives off is one for kids, despite the warm colors and magical presentation, and even adults may be turned off by what the game teaches as its final lesson. Those setbacks are minor in light of experiencing something that feels new and different, where the stakes are much lower than trying to save the world, but much higher for a child trying to save his father.