Papo & Yo PS3 | Minority Media | August
“To my mother, brothers and sisters with whom
I survived the monster in my father.”
-Vander Caballero, Creator of Papo & Yo
Papo & Yo takes place in a world that both exists and doesn’t exist. It’s filled with architecture and graffiti found in the slums of South America, but it employs them in ways that defy the laws of physics: stacks of dilapidated houses can bend to your will while harmless chalk drawings hide portals and staircases. A young boy’s dreams momentarily take him out of a harsh reality, but even dreams house traces of our real lives. Papo & Yo grounds surrealism to help craft one of the freshest environments I’ve seen in games this year, but also one of the saddest.
Minority Media wastes no time in drawing attention to the mature themes that underscore Papo & Yo: an abusive father and his troubled relationship with his son is stirred up in its opening lines. At the heart of Papo & Yo is its story, and how you traverse its world acts as an alternate means of telling it. The childlike nature in which our protagonist, Quico, imagines buildings growing legs, sprouting wings, floating and reconfiguring themselves into more useful constructions is his way of taking back control of his surroundings. But there are some things in which he can’t control, such as his father, Monster: a giant red horned beast who loves fruit and poisonous frogs. Although Monster will aid Quico in reaching places he otherwise couldn’t, the mere scent of a frog (representing alcoholism) enrages him to hunt and attack anything in sight – most of all, Quico. This might seem like a convenient gameplay mechanic, calling upon tension when needed, but this is Quico’s world. In it, anything is possible, even the salvation of his father.
Despite his creativity, Quico is not without flaws. His means of getting around are not only limited, but his inability to walk away from the situation is represented in his need for Monster to exist in this dreamworld. From time to time, intermissions transport the player to a past reality where things are not so metaphorical, allowing them to explore a defining moment for Quico as he witnesses his father’s reckless behavior. My only problem with these scenes is that there weren’t enough of them, or perhaps they were just oddly spaced out. Aside from the occasional technical hiccup and some pacing issues later on in the story, what I wish the game did differently was offer up more of its most vulnerable moments. When Papo & Yo pulls you out of its more “gamey” elements (platforming, solving puzzles, etc.) is when it feels most effective at pulling you further into another layer of its story.
There is a major exception to this, however, which was both the highlight of Papo & Yo and one of the most different and satisfying endings I’ve experienced in a video game. With the music dropped out and Quico now adorning the chalk on his skin like a Día de los Muertos parader, his world literally and figuratively turns upside down, and the search for a means to scale it ensues. Papo & Yo leverages its one-of-a-kind setting, its playfulness with the bounds of reality and the personal dilemma that drives it, into a powerful closing statement. It is haunting, and this closing song does a good job capturing that without ruining the experience.
Similar to Home, Papo & Yo‘s aesthetics suggest it could have been a purely visual experience when so much of its raw power resides within them. But its existence as a game enables it to comment on the habits we develop when taking it upon ourselves to try and solve every problem, and not just as gamers. Tapping into our creativity might seem like the ideal solution for redirecting hostilities, but the message in Papo & Yo is one of closure, that we can’t always let our imagination cloud our better judgment. Escapism can come to a fault, and that’s when pulling ourselves out is not so easy.
The bravest video games are often the most personal. They use the medium to put us in difficult positions without having to bear the weight of their reality, while allowing us to visit places beyond our own imagination and experiences. The challenge of Papo & Yo is in stomaching it, but sometimes the hardest part is waking up.