Papo & Yo
In the industry we have giants such as Sid Meier and Peter Molyneux, and auteurs like David Cage and Ken Levine. But none of them tell distinctly personal stories. At least, it’s not obvious that they’ve drawn upon experiences, even traumas, of their past and told this story through the medium of videogame. In fact, given that the industry is perhaps more collectively minded than other creative industries, crafting personal stories could be difficult with other visions acting as part of a collective whole. That’s what makes Papo & Yo so special. It’s a magical realist story based on designer Vander Cabellero’s childhood with an alcoholic and abusive father.
“He enters another world, a sort of idealized version of a Brazilian favela, which is far more colorful and bright than the world Quico comes from.”The opening scene starts in the real world, showing Quico escaping through an opening in the wall, fleeing from his father who’s looking for him. He enters another world, a sort of idealized version of a Brazilian favela, which is far more colorful and bright than the world Quico comes from. An escape from a horrifying reality. He encounters a girl, Alejandra, who at first runs away from him and tries to prevent his progression in the world, saying the he is cursed. From the start, there are noticeable white markings on the houses, later on in the form of keys and ropes. When you interact with them, the environment morphs in some way to allow for progress.
This works well because it creates a more intuitive way to play. Gone are intrusive text boxes or videos. And should you get stuck, there are hint boxes to help you on your way. Actual hint boxes, made out of cardboard which Quico can hide in, with childish drawings inside is the ideal way of conveying this. It fits in with the theme, as the entire world is an abstraction in his mind, and he fills it with things that make sense to him. Objectives are also often told through symbols and images, rather than direct prompts. For example, at one point a specific task needs to be completed three times, which it elegantly shows with three hovering circles.
It’s best described as a third-person puzzle game, as the player navigates the levels using whatever tools are available to them. This varies stacking a bunch of anthropomorphized houses together to form a bridge, to aligning pieces of a stairwell to you can reach something high above. The puzzles are imaginative, especially as you progress and world begins to lose its form. Unfortunately, there’s little challenge to be found in them, though it makes sense from a narrative perspective to keep them simple. It takes place in Quico’s world, and he can morph them however he likes. But for the player they feel unsatisfactory, as there are no big “oh, that’s it!” moments. However, it doesn’t impair the experience too much as it’s more concerned with the relationship between Quico and his father. It needs some traditional game elements to engage the player, but they’re of secondary importance to the story.
“And if you kick a football towards him, he’ll merely take a look at it, then tossing it away without a care for Quico. It’s self-absorption taken to an extreme.”Once you’ve passed the first few levels you encounter the second main character in the game: Monster. An ugly, fat, pink creature with horns protruding from his head. The first time you see him in his full form, he’s sleeping in on filthy ground, snoring calmly. He doesn’t seem dangerous, at all, in this form. You can even jump on his belly if you need to reach something inaccessible. Instead he seems pathetic, especially when you feed him the coconuts that lie on the ground. You need him to stand on a square to lower a bridge, and lure him over there with a trail of coconuts which he follows like the addict he is. A moment later, he’s looking at a coconut out of his reach. He pleads Quico to bring it to him, pointing at his mouth. And if you kick a football towards him, he’ll merely take a look at it, then tossing it away without a care for Quico. It’s self-absorption taken to an extreme.
Even after the frogs – also symbolizing alcohol in Quico’s world – come into play, and Monster turns violent, you still feel a sliver of sympathy for the guy. It is, after all, not its own fault. “He cannot control himself”, as Alejandra says at one point. It’s also not coincidental that in the intro Caballero writes “…I survived the Monster in my father.” Quico still sees him as his father, and hopes to banish Monster. There’s a genuine hope that redemption is still possible. A naïve, childish hope.
Another important character is the robot Lula – another object that is given life in Quico’s mind. We first see Lula in the opening cutscene, where he’s holding it in his arms while his father searches for him. You get the impression that Lula has become Quico’s best – maybe only – friend in the harsh world of reality. It has a few gameplay benefits, as it can reach inaccessible areas and provides a small boost to Quico’s jump, but the most important feature is the emotional support it provides for Quico. Unlike everyone else in his life, it unconditionally loves him and follows his advice. It helps him feel a bit more empowered in his world.
“Despite the terrified scream Quico lets out when he gets caught, the feeling of dread dissipates quickly. There’s no fail state involved, so Monster becomes a nuisance rather than a threat. ”The scenes where Monster gets violent are genuinely frightening, due to his overwhelming size. The music changes from mellow guitar and flute tunes to darker tones, and the world gets a sharp red hue as Quico tries to evade Monster. However, there’s a missed opportunity in not making Monster more dangerous. Despite the terrified scream Quico lets out when he gets caught, the feeling of dread dissipates quickly. There’s no fail state involved, so Monster becomes a nuisance rather than a threat. To real-world Quico, getting caught presumably results in violent abuse, so surely there’s a way to convey that in his imaginary world – other than getting tossed about.
I once had a discussion with a guy who expressed his concern with the games industry. He said that because most people involved in the industry come from privileged backgrounds, you’d very rarely get personal stories about hardships. I find that Papo & Yo is a perhaps not a proof, but at least an indication that it is indeed possible to tell those stories through games. While it can’t compare to living with an abusive parent, you do get an insight into what it’s like, and you get to experience a sliver of the emotions the creator went through. And that’s the unique strength games have. You understand those emotions a little better by feeling them yourself.