A common argument against gaming, mostly from outsiders, is that games aren’t art. Some would argue that games are incapable of telling a moving story or dealing with emotionally difficult subject matter. Others would argue that mature themes have proven to be effectively utilized in games without resorting to said maturity being nothing more than glorified T&A. Of course some games intentionally cross the line for the sake of being gritty, all the while generating publicity and buzz over nothing more than barely relevant content. While games have certainly come a long way from controlling a yellow circle chomping ghosts and dots, one title has quickly become the standout icon for a challenging narrative combined with striking visuals and interesting puzzle mechanics. That game is Papo & Yo.
Papo & Yo is a modern fable of a young boy (Quico) torn by his love for his father, who becomes a true terror when drunk. Quico escapes from his father’s drunken rage by exploring a dream-like world where chalk outlines can become doors, small boxes, when moved, shift entire buildings and Quico’s toy robot, Lulu, can fly. Like any father-son relationship, there are moments when a son needs to rely on his father and in Quico’s escape world, his father is manifested as a giant yet gentle pink creature aptly named Monster. Monster is mostly benign and seeks only to fill up on coconuts and take lazy naps wherever there is enough cardboard to create a makeshift bed. Monster is playful as well, though, and will retrieve and throw back a soccer ball if Quico throws or kicks it near Monster. Even in dreams, terror has a way of creeping in and Monster lives up to his name whenever he eats a frog, shifting from an unassuming pink pal, to a fiery, rage-filled demon.
While the story starts out as an escape for Quico, after Monster harms Lulu, the plot shifts to focus on the goal of healing Lulu and curing Monster. The journey is told through a series of puzzles that require moving boxes or triggering platforms with the aid of Lulu or Monster. I found the story to be fairly engaging, especially with the minimal exposition through narration or dialog. You really get to feel the impact of Quico’s sorrow, fear and pain when he or the ones he loves are hurt by Monster.
Visually the game is a completely wonderful spectacle with detailed favelas that unfold into a magical realism that I wish was articulated in more games or movies. Darkened chalk lines trace out where puzzles begin or end, depending on the situation, and often times reality is skewed to the point that buildings that would traditionally fall over instead become malformed bridges or primitive steps. The puzzle mechanics aren’t overly difficult and there isn’t any one style that is relied on too heavily, which is fortunate for the game, because it allows the development team to focus on telling their story, which is the whole reason the game was created.
Unfortunately I found myself playing through one or two areas wondering what benefit the puzzle was adding to the overall narrative. In particular there is a puzzle later in the game that requires triggering three buildings to hop from one spot to another, making a bridge of sorts to access a higher, out of reach pathway. As each building is moved, frogs are unleashed and Monster immediately gravitates to the poisonous amphibians. I spent more time trying to figure out how to move the three buildings while keeping Monster away from the frogs, becoming more and more frustrated with the game, than the game should have allowed. Once I figured out the puzzle, I moved immediately to the next section to face yet another slightly obscure puzzle.
I almost wish that the puzzles in Papo & Yo were paced more like the ones in Portal 2, where trial and error didn’t feel as punitive. But I also think partially that the punishment is a credit to Papo & Yo. How else do you convey in a video game just how horrific it must feel to have a drunk, raging father beating down on you? While I applaud the design choices and how the emotions are conveyed, I also found myself slipping out of my concern for Quico because I was getting so frustrated with solving a relatively simple puzzle.
One other aspect that I take issue with is the crossover real-world memories tying the escapist magical realism. Muted and dark, bleak slow-motion vignettes show how destructive Quico’s real father is, but those vignettes aren’t called back at the end to tie everything together. Instead Quico is faced with a decision to go on without his father while remaining in the escape world. Artistically I understand the need to cast off the past grievances and get on with life, but getting on with life doesn’t typically mean spending the rest of your days in a fantasy world.
I realize I’m being a little bit picky, but for all of the beautiful visuals and strong personal attachment that formed the basis of the game, I can’t help but want a more grounded or less fantastical payoff in the ending. I felt deeply sorry for Quico during any moments where I had to run away from an enraged Monster, because no kid should ever have to face that sort of fear from their own parent. What was equally touching was just how playful Monster could be when Quico would kick a soccer ball around. Monster playfully reacted as any caring father would during a quick game of catch. These little moments carry a lot of weight; however, combining a few frustrating puzzles and (to me at least) a finish that is powerful but also missing an extra level of emotional resonance closes the game on a slight down note. I can recommend the game, but you probably shouldn’t go in thinking the world is going to dramatically be redrawn.
One last aspect to the game that I want to mention is the music. The music adds an extra layer of mesmerizing beauty to the game. I found myself lazily searching sections of puzzles just so that I could soak in the music. Vibrant and local Latin themes fill the melodic sounds and help the dichotomy of playful yet dark whenever Monster is around.
While there are some slightly frustrating puzzle moments, the overall narrative and subject matter outweigh most of the minor issues I have with the game. Papo & Yo offers a compelling game experience and provides collectibles that unlock after completing the game the first time through. In a summer of smaller downloadable titles, Papo & Yo is certainly worth playing once but is short enough that adding the collectibles for a second playthrough offers a bit more bang for the buck. Games as an art medium are crossing conventional boundaries, and Papo & Yo is helping to lead the way.
+ Beautiful, surreal visuals
+ Compelling story
+ Masterful music
- Campaign is not very long (but there are replay options)
- Some puzzles feel out of place or forced in relation to the narrative
Platform: PS3 via PSN
Release Date: 8/14/2012
ESRB Rating: E10+
Source: Review code provided by publisher