Conflicting mix: great puzzles/story & technical/emotional issues
One of the reasons some people will never see video games as a legitimate art form is because unlike other forms of media, games generally tend to shy away from disturbing or sensitive subject matter. Games like Call of Duty and State of Emergency depict unpleasant situations like war and urban riot, but they do so in such a bombastic, comic, unrealistic way that it’s extremely difficult to take them seriously.
Sure, we have flower’s gorgeous depiction of urbanization encroaching on nature and Braid’s pretentious look at a deceptively haunting relationship, but these themes are typically ambiguous and open to interpretation. That’s not a bad thing mind you, but I struggle to recall a video game who’s story is as blunt as The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo’s look at misogyny or Requiem for A Dream’s soul-crushing focus on drug use.
Not surprisingly, the first game in quite some time to meet one of these issues head-on comes from the indie-space, in the form of Papo & Yo (pronounced Papo-ee-yo). In fact, the game’s creative director, Vander Caballero, has been completely open about his creation’s direct correlation to his and his family’s experiences living with an abusive, alcoholic father. In tackling such a touchy topic, Papo & Yo succeeds in crafting an emotional, poignant journey through the eyes of a child trying to cope and assume some measure of control over the uncontrollable.
At the start of the game we are introduced to young boy Quico, our first image being him hiding in a closet, clutching his toy robot Lula and fearing a large, lumbering monster just outside his makeshift sanctuary. Mysteriously, a pattern draws itself on the wall and Quico is transported to a make-believe world with very little explanation.
From there, we’re left to explore and make our way through a Brazilian favela. Before long we are shown images of a young girl who draws chalk outlines on the walls and floors, opening doors in a kind of hide and seek with Quico. In traversing this new world, environmental puzzles present themselves in an effort to emphasize its fanciful nature and present its story effectively.
To solve said puzzles, Quico has the aid of Lula, who has been given life and the ability to use his jetpack to activate distant switches or allow the protagonist to jump to platforms he couldn’t otherwise reach. He also has the help of Monster, a pink gentle giant of a creature who’s primary activities involve eating coconuts and sleeping. By luring Monster with coconuts, you can maneuver him to special pressure plates that open new passageways; and when asleep, Quico can bounce off his belly to reach higher areas.
But Monster has a vice, and like the human figure he represents, when he gives in to that vice things go very bad very quickly. As much as Monster loves coconuts, he completely loses it over frogs. When frogs enter the area, he eagerly hunts them down and eats them. Upon doing so, Monster is transformed from a docile, helpful friend into a flaming, violent beast. If he catches Quico during one of these amphibian-induced rages, Monster will thrash him around and throw him away as he cries out in fear. Quico can’t die and won’t actually be hurt, but the imagery of betrayal is obvious and affecting. As the game progresses, certain puzzles require harnessing Monster’s fiery state to proceed. Only by feeding him rotten coconuts will he pass out and come out of his stupor, oblivious to his back-stabbing behavior.
As you pass through each area, the puzzles presented require manipulation of the environment in some fascinating and imaginative ways. You will pull levers to separate and move houses that block your path. You’ll pull on ropes to fold out a set of stairs from a wall, even push phantom chalk-outline gears together to peel away a section of floor or wall like the skin of a fruit. Seeing the ethnic world and how it changes and reshapes itself according to Quico’s actions is half the fun in Papo & Yo. It’s magical and will have you smiling every time it happens; and when Quico picks up a set of boxes to manipulate a row of full-sized houses or turns a mysterious crank to make bug-like legs walk a piece of the land to a more useful position, it shows that in this place Quico has power that is unobtainable to him in the real world.
Every area you’ll pass through in Papo & Yo has a new mechanic and every puzzle is completely different from the last. This keeps things fresh and interesting; never once did I get bored because I’d seen a puzzle before. Unfortunately, while constantly changing, the puzzles never get all that difficult. Even though they become more involved and surreal as the game progresses, I only got genuinely stumped two or three times. In a way that’s a good thing; it would be hard to connect with the plot’s deeper meaning if you couldn’t figure out how to move forward, but it’s disappointing all the same.
There are also numerous technical problems that show up quite often. When multiple platforms are moving simultaneously or Monster is running around with flames billowing off him, the framerate dips noticeably. Screen tearing and environmental clipping are very common. Monster, in particular, would constantly pass through walls and trees, and Quico can usually walk right through him if he happens to fall in your way in a tight space. There was even one instance when I had to back out to the main menu and continue from my last save because the panel I activated didn’t make a handle appear as it should have.
As prevalent as these technical issues are however, they were rarely ever game-breaking. I am willing to overlook things like this (especially from an indie developer) if the rest of the game and story make up for it. Sadly, Papo & Yo’s two biggest problems have a much more detrimental impact on the experience.
As fantastical as the platforming and puzzle solving is, Quico’s movement makes things a lot harder than they should be. You’re constantly struggling with imprecise control and floaty jumping, and it makes landing a critical jump on a small platform or positioning yourself near a ledge a nerve-wracking task. This isn’t much of an issue in the early going, but becomes frustrating as you get to the more complex puzzles later on that require deft jumping or threading the needle to reach a staircase while barely outrunning a hurtful Monster.
The second major flaw involves Monster himself. Given the nature of Quico’s trek and the obstacles he comes across, Monster becomes either something to be avoided out of fear or a tool to reach the next area. It creates a kind of give-and-take relationship that rarely gets to the point where you feel affection for Monster. There are a couple of spots where he acknowledges you as a friend or even saves you from harm, but these events are too few and far between to create an attachment to the big lug. The rest of the time, he’s perfectly content to pay you no mind.
Papo & Yo wears its influence on its sleeve and is quite blatant in the themes involved. It’s possible that the emotional detachment from Monster is a commentary on what a child’s relationship with an abusive parent eventually becomes, but if the player were allowed to care for the creature and develop feelings for him, it would make the already bittersweet ending downright heartbreaking, as it’s clearly meant to be. As it is, only by putting the story in its real life context was I able to get any kind of meaningful emotion out of it. Without that to latch onto, it’s questionable if the story would be able to resonate at all.
Papo & Yo left me very conflicted, and ultimately it pains me to give it the score I did. The puzzle-solving is innovative, always unique and interesting. The imaginary world Quico has crafted for himself and the ways in which he manipulates it constantly elicits a child-like wonder. The moving story takes a sensitive, rarely-explored situation and presents it effectively. It’s very easy to make the connections Caballero intends. Much like reality, in searching for a cure to Monster’s addiction there is no easy solution, and everyone will feel the consequences of his uncontainable wrath by the time the credits roll.
That said, the loose controls take a large piece of enjoyment out of the later puzzles. If you intend to play through the game a second time to collect all the hats scattered around the world, as I did, your second run will be that much more aggravating. And not being able to make a loving connection with Monster means you won’t be as moved as you should be come the end of the game, and undermines the core feelings Papo & Yo is trying to invoke. The story still hits home in a way very few games can match, and for that reason should still be experienced if you’re the type of person that can appreciate it. Sadly though, the most heartbreaking thing about Papo & Yo is not the story itself, but the fact that its biggest issues keep it from being as penetrating as it could be.