Papo & Yo
First posted on 01 October 2013. Last updated on 01 October 2013.
If the argument for video games as art ever needs an exhibit for its defense, then I cannot think of a more compelling piece of evidence than Minority Media's Papo & Yo. Based on lead designer Vander Caballero's own childhood experience, Papo & Yo delivers a moving experience—a surrealistic adventure whose immersion and beauty will stay with you long after the credits roll.
It is difficult to classify what Papo & Yo exactly is. Like many great experiments, it defies convention. The core gameplay itself is not much more than a platforming puzzler, but the use of surreal imagery, plot, and theme create a gaming journey that is much more than sum of its parts. It is a game that any adventure fan interested in innovative and artistic games must not miss.
In Papo & Yo, you play as Quico, a young boy growing up in an undefined South American favela or shanty town. The game begins with little introduction. Quico is seen hiding in a closet, as a large and foreboding shadow paces back and forth just beyond the closet's shutters. Suddenly, a magic swirl of light appears, and when Quico enters it, he finds himself outside in a fantasy version of his neighborhood.
It is through this fantasy land that he will journey for most of the game. Although each new section of the village that you will be exploring is not particularly large, the attention to detail in each environment is astounding. In fact, the quality of the game's 3D graphics simply cannot be praised enough. From the shadows of the dilapidated and crumbling buildings to the frequent local murals and graffiti that you will discover, each element adds to the sense of being in a both a very real and otherworldly location at the same time. Even the weather patterns change and the time of day shifts based on the emotional theme of the current puzzle that you are solving—when you see a rainbow hangs above the village in the distance, you will find it hard not to pause for a few moments just to admire it.
Soon after Quico's journey begins, he meets a young girl (whose identity is only revealed much later in the game) who beckons him. It is here that you will solve your first puzzle in the game of trying to reach her.
Throughout the village, there are chalk drawings which spring magically to life when you interact with them. Navigating within the game is pleasantly simply through the keyboard and mouse. In addition to pressing the WASD keys to move around, a single click allows Quico to jump or to touch or pick up items around him. Later in the game, Quico also finds a toy robot, Lula, which provides him with some added unique abilities such as being able to jump farther and reach new locations. As well, the magical drawings allow Quico to manipulate his environment, often making significant changes to the homes, walls, and buildings around him. By pulling a chalk line in a drawing, for example, he can reveal a staircase that allows him access to a new area. Likewise, turning a drawing of a magical key may move an entire home to a new location, opening up a new avenue, or building a ladder. As the game progresses, the complexity of these puzzles and their solutions increases.
It is a testament to the developer's talent how much I have enjoyed solving these puzzles. This is because, all too often in adventure games, puzzles can be an obstacle to storytelling—perhaps an evil necessity in order to provide interactivity throughout a narrative. In Papo & Yo, the puzzles seem nearly perfectly integrated with, and complementary to, the story itself. There is no mistaking that this is the wild fantasy of a young boy, who seeks to escape from the harsh reality of life by creating a new world where he has control and power.
The difficulty of the game's puzzles is also welcome. While you may need a few moments to meditate on their solutions, you will rarely need to rely on the in-game hint system for help. Puzzles never get in the way of the experience, and each new adventure flows into the next. The in-game hint system is rather clever. You will find boxes on the ground which Quico can pick up and place over his head. Scrawled in childish drawings are clues that will nudge you in the right direction.
The game uses music to its marvelous effect. The haunting soundtrack is composed by Brian D'Oliveira, who has been able to craft an accompaniment that not only provides the backdrop to Quico's surreal adventures but even responds to his actions. The score captures the essence of Quico's loneliness and sense of wonder. The use of classic South American instruments, from a sarangi to a pifano, adds to the score's ethnic landscape. It is an audio treasure that, like the game's visual tableau, is a delight to experience.
Of course, at the heart of the game is its story. The English translation of the game's title is "Father and I". It is a fitting description, since the game's story is a personal tale of Quico's own uneasy relationship with his alcoholic and abusive father. Early in the game, Quico meets an intimidating behemoth of a pink monster who will accompany him throughout the game. The metaphor of who the monster is seems obvious, and Quico's uneasy relationship with the beast—manipulating the monster's behaviors (and fondness for fruit) is essential to solving many of the game's puzzles—reflects a feeling of deep fear and unease from being so close to a beast capable of so much violence. A few cut scenes allow the real world to seep in and make the metaphor even more obvious to young Quico.
I am struck at how much playing Papo & Yo feels eerily similar to watching Guillermo Del Toro's The Devil's Backbone and Pan's Labyrinth. Like those films, Papo & Yo uses fantastical images and elements to make you see through a child's eyes and emotionally invest in the child's experience.
The conclusion of Papo & Yo is also remarkable. Without spoiling the ending, it provides an emotionally powerful denouement as Quico himself slowly wakes from his own fantasy and come to terms with how to deal with it. The final sequence as Quico finally returns to his closet is nearly heartbreaking. You will have to determine whether you consider Papo & Yo a joyous cathartic release or the journal of a broken coming-of-age. Although this emotional journey is not always easy, I am glad, and inspired in many ways, that Caballero is able to share it so openly. Games which are as personal and beautiful as Papo & Yo remain all too rare. Papo & Yo is a game that shows how brilliant the medium of computer gaming can be—and ends any argument whether games can aspire to be true art. Even as a fairly short game (the game can be finished in 8 hours or so), the experience and the emotional resonance of Papo & Yo will stay with you for a long time. Just be prepared that you may find yourself changed forever from the journey.