A man I respect once told me, “You never know what demons are swimming around in someone’s head.”
Though the context of that discussion was quite different from the one surrounding Papo & Yo, I couldn’t help but think of that statement while playing. Papo & Yo is a haunting emotional ride that was just released on the PSN, and deserves to be both played and discussed. It is a game that addresses those demons that can live inside a person. These are not the hell-born fictitious demons that entice and derail lives, but rather the metaphorical specters symbolizing the unresolved psychological issues that poison minds and taint lives.
Specifically, the game’s creator, Vander Caballero, is giving life to one particularly nasty demon in the torment inflicted by his abusive alcoholic father. He has been open about the nature of this game representing that relationship, and this baring of such personal issues imbues the game with a pervasive melancholy that colors the whole experience. Papo & Yo is an unforgettable tale outlining that relationship and exists, not just as a metaphor of an abusive father, but as an allegory to a life that involves coping with and growing up in such an environment. The message here is deep and cathartic, lingering long after the game’s meager play time.
The relationship between the protagonist Quico and Monster (representing his father) is not one that is explicitly defined through text boxes and exposition. It is ephemeral; a bond that bends and frays as it is strained, but is touching and survives the errant assaults born of addiction. Monster serves the role of an escort character, requiring chaperoning through the levels. He naps, forages for fruit and at times, will play ball with you, but all is not rosy with Monster. He has a dark side. Monster is addicted to frogs and once he catches one, he enters a flurry of rage that shatters his peaceful lackadaisical nature. He seethes fury and lashes out at Quico for no clear reason other than he is an easy target. Monster can be pacified, but knowing what that frog-induced rage represents evokes feelings that no other game ever has.
Quico’s world, which you will spend just a few hours in, is a blend of four parts South American shantytown and one part pure imagination. It feels very Neil Gaiman-esque, specifically reminiscent of Neverwhere. What seems to be an ordinary building may sprout legs or wings and move around the environment. Keys, gears, and ropes that are just begging to be pulled might expand the side of a building into a doorway or an entire set of stairs to open up new traversal options. In this world, gravity has little meaning, and magical portals abound. It is a world grounded in realism, but freed from those constraints before the real world rules have had a chance to set.
Playing Papo & Yo amounts to a series of rather simple body puzzles where you and Monster are the pieces that must traverse locales by creating bridges, bending buildings, and platforming your way to the end of each section. In a way, your escort of Monster is reminiscent of the bond between Ico and Yorda, where you must lead her about, but textured with darker undertones. The puzzles are quite simple, requiring only a few seconds to figure them out. The goal of each new area is really just to go through the required motions to progress to the next section, not to have an “A ha” moment when solving a puzzle.
While not difficult to solve, the imaginative implementation of the puzzles goes some way toward alleviating the tedium. A bridge is not just a bridge when you have assembled a flexible stack of buildings twenty stories tall.
The puzzles tend to be straightforward because you don’t have the freedom to manipulate the environment in novel ways in any given area. The linearity feels like a missed opportunity given how interesting some of the basic pieces that make up the solutions are. Despite the value of the game’s message, the overall experience would have benefited quite a bit by establishing a set of rules that allow the player to mix and match pieces of the world in order to arrive at the solution. Instead, the trigger points are all highlighted in bright white. You merely need to get to them and push the square button to activate.
Making matters a little worse is the overall performance of the game. Patches of environment have a tendency to be jumbled together as reality and imagination are wont to do, and this can create seams in the world. Quico fell through these seams a handful of times. Though there are colorful ways to include this phenomenon in the overall allegory that is Papo & Yo, they are clearly unintentional and a shame to see. Coupled with Quico’s wonky jumping and the tough time he has getting onto platforms he clearly should be able to, there’s a bit more frustration in the game than there should be.
How do you score a game like Papo & Yo? The message and weight of the game are top notch and impressively implemented, but the bland puzzles and inconsistent polish hold it back a little. These issues may mar Quico’s journey, but they should not be your focus. Not in this game. The interspersed possibly autobiographical moments, Monster’s rage and Quico’s coping mechanisms; these are the issues that bear mentioning, not the blemishes. Some games exist purely to make money while others are designed around the implementation of a novel idea. Papo & Yo seemingly exists as a way for Vander Caballero to drag the demons of his youth out into the light. That is a noble goal in any medium, and certainly one that has not been fully explored in video games. The thought that others might also be able to find some measure of solace through Papo & Yo is a good sign for the future.
Review copy of game provided by publisher.