Papo & Yo
“To my mother, brother and sisters with whom I survived the monster of my father”
Escapism is an essential part of the human experience, and nowhere is it more powerful than within the creatively lucid minds of children. Literature and Cinema often tell tales of imagined adventures: from Alice’s tumble down the rabbit hole, to Ofelia’s ethereal visits from the faun during the Spanish Civil War. Yet surprisingly, videogames, as perhaps the 21st century’s most potent form of escapism, have rarely considered the power of a child’s imagination as a lens through which to tackle difficult subject matter.
Papo & Yo does just that, exploring designer Vander Caballero’s tumultuous relationship with his father through the interactions of child protagonist Quico and the quite literally named Monster.
Just as Alice’s hyperreal English rose garden setting was reflective of Carol’s Victorian England, Quico’s adventure takes place in a maze of tin-roofed shacks – a crumbling favela reflective of Caballero’s own Latin American roots. And this being Quico’s escapist imaginationland, his navigation of and interactions with it are often wondrously creative: Platforms of moveable cuboid shanties crawl around on miniature legs, strips of rock peel away exposing a glistening fruit-like flesh underneath the skin of the world, and luminous white chalk outlines keys, cogs and other environmentally interactive features.
Caballero’s mind makes for a wondrously unique setting, but it is one stifled by muddy textures, clipping issues and choppy animations – particularly the lack of mouth movement during conversation. Thankfully this visual mundanity is brightly outshone by a vibrant soundtrack of South American guitars that perfectly ebb and flow alongside the emotional tone of the moment.
Papa & Yo is a puzzle platformer, but equally it is also a drama, with its mechanics designed around not only Quico’s Inception-like manipulation of his surroundings, but also his interactions with Monster.
As both a necessary puzzle solving companion and the sole source of threat for Quico, Monster proves a tormenting presence. Your first few moments with the bipedal, rosé pink-skinned, rhinoceros-like behemoth are surprisingly serene, introducing his love for coconuts and how carrying them to different areas can cause him to act.
Let Monster consume a luminous frog however, and he becomes a fevered beast, licked in flames and violently aggressive towards Quico. It’s this relationship that forms not only the thematic, but the mechanical core of Papo & Yo, with Monster’s frog addiction being the centre of many puzzles as well as the metaphorical representation of Caballero’s father.
Much like Jonathon Blow’s comparably personal creation, Braid, it’s when the combination of the thematic and the mechanical is successful that Papo & Yo really finds itself, managing to engage on both levels simultaneously. One such section requires you to lead an angry Monster through a maze to giant rock mouths in order to squeeze the fire from him, using it to return life to your toy friend that he murdered.
Destructive as Monster may be though, his attacks never amount to anything more than an assailing animation, which is impactful the first few times it happens, but the illusion of threat quickly wears thin after the twentieth. Some form of loss on the player’s behalf could have served to emphasise the torment of Monster throughout.
Sadly other design issues slightly dilute the poignancy of Papa and Yo’s message: Most puzzles are restricted to a singular solution, a guide to which is often given explicitly twice beforehand, and there’s a lack of variety within the design of those puzzles.
Mechanically, you’ve played Papo & Yo before, and in better incarnations. But thematically, Caballero’s work is a strikingly personal, cathartic tale of substance addiction and child abuse, one that handles such sensitive subject matter with grace and maturity.
And more than any of its clipping issues or framerate dips, it’s Caballero’s opening words that resonate throughout the entire experience: An emotionally raw dedication to his family that lingers in black and white, piercing each heartbreakingly symbolic interaction between Quico and Monster.