Impacting the world
Papo & Yo never rests on its laurels. The blocks that move houses puzzle at the beginning of the game is not drawn through many iterations to pad out the game. It happens once. Right there.
There are common elements throughout the game. Mostly, you will be finding ways to exit an area by deconstructing the favelas around Quico, the main character, and remaking them into fordable paths. You do this while keeping Monster, your lumbering companion, in tow by luring him with coconuts.
Still, even with these standards, the game progresses with flourish. The shining white innards of the world, revealed as Quico pulls apart a wall or makes a staircase out of a house front, become a motif that reveals the inner creativity in Quico. Physical properties and drab exteriors lose ground to imagination. The ground feels like a turf you can pull up to reveal the shining wonder underneath.
Quico can change the world.
But he cannot change Monster. Though he quests to fix this dangerous creature, one that either sleeps, eats, or becomes a flaming, raging menace when he consumes pesky frogs, Quico is ultimately powerless.
That is what I find refreshing about this game. While it revels in the majesty of world manipulation, giving the player free reign to make beauty out of mundanity, it does not create a power fantasy. Quico is not hunting down his monstrous allegory with guns or fists. He's trying to lead it to a better place, to freedom from its dependencies.
The story revolves around this difficult truth: addiction is losing control, is giving up the body to a powerful force. Monster has lost himself. Quico can try to bring him back, but, if Monster remains a monster, doing so may be impossible. While the dialogue is sparse and a bit limited at times, this idea holds true to me.
Most important, though, the idea is dependent on game mechanics and interaction. As Quico, I felt that it was I who had to care for this beast, even though it looked so much bigger and stronger than me. It was I who had to build the world to make things work. Without me, the world just stood there and let me suffer. When my main interaction with Monster is, at best, using his desires to lure him where I want him, there is something deeper in this interaction than mere escort questing.
The joy of stacking flying houses sky high, then slowly, with full analog control, moving this leaning stack like a segmented snake to pick up more houses and reach the other side--that playful sequence exemplifies how playing the game reflects its purpose. So too does the helplessness when Monster eats a frog, the pounding beat of his feet and the reddened sky making every step Quico take feel just a little too slow for comfort. There is no fail state, but having Monster grab hold and thrash you about before throwing you away from him feels harsh without feeling disheartening. I wanted to get up and keep running, not merely to escape, but to progress.
The game slows down when particle effects are abundant. There are a few spots where jumping to a platform feels dicey. The models' collision is not consistent so clipping does occur. None of that matters if you don't focus on it. Where focus-tested masterpieces like Portal 2 can feel, at times, antiseptic. Papo & Yo feels organic.
This game does new things in a new way in a new setting with new meanings for games of this sort. It has the innovation, but it also has the appeal. The puzzles stumped me at times. The puzzles never bored me.
Papo & Yo justifies its innovation with a solid, enveloping experience.