Over the last three decades, storytelling in games has come a remarkably long way, but the stories they tell, unfortunately, haven’t. With precious few exceptions, we’re still hung up on the same basic themes we’ve always used: revenge, honor, and anything else that justifies slaughtering a metric ton of faceless bad guys. That’s what makes Papo & Yo, the debut title from indie dev house Minority Media, feel so starkly different. The narrative it weaves is so sincere, so deeply personal, that it makes most other games—even the great ones—seem about as mature and refined as the collected works of Pauly Shore.
See, Papo & Yo, to be blunt, is a game about child abuse. You play as Quico, a small South American boy who lives in constant fear of his alcoholic father. In an attempt to cope with his powerlessness, Quico creates a fantastical dreamscape where where his favorite toy is a superpowered ally and his father is a lumbering pink beast called Monster. The world itself is a whimsical, otherworldly take on the favelas of Brazil, with brightly painted shacks stacked atop one another high into the sky. (The parallels are as obvious as they are striking—if you slather enough lively colors on your problems, maybe you’ll be able to fool yourself into thinking there’s nothing wrong after all.) Within this fabricated reality, Quico sets out to find a cure for Monster’s strange condition.
That means, of course, that you’ll need to solve plenty of puzzles. There are switches, movable blocks—all the standard contrivances, really—but what sets Papo & Yo apart in the genre is the way you interact with Monster. He’s integral to completing many of the game’s puzzles, but he’s not really a willing participant in any of it. All he really cares about is sating his endless hunger. At the best of times, he’s wholly indifferent, only paying attention to you when you lure him around the map with coconuts. If he manages to capture and eat a frog, however, he suddenly transforms from a dopey, lovable buffoon into a savage beast that chases you down and flings you violently across the map.
And that’s where the real magic of Papo & Yo As kicks in. As you become familiar with Monster’s quirks, the game subtly, almost subversively conditions you to think like a victim of abuse. You’re relieved when you calm him down, even if it means you’re just enabling his addiction. You’re in constant fear of the inevitable relapse, but you know you need him around to get by. Above all else, you want so badly to fix him. You slowly come to understand, in some small way, what it’s like to live with an abusive father—not because you’re told or shown, but because you experience it firsthand. It’s an absolute triumph of storytelling and design coming together to create a single cohesive, compelling narrative.
Unfortunately, Papo & Yo stumbles somewhat when it tries its hand at being, well, a game. The best puzzle platformers take a set of clever, seemingly simple rules and gradually combine them into increasingly sophisticated problems that require creative solutions. Papo & Yo nails the mechanics side of things—the ways you interact with Monster and manipulate the world around you are delightful and often fresh—but the game never builds those individual elements into anything memorable or challenging.
The puzzles do get longer and more complex as you progress, but they don’t really demand all that much in the way of lateral thinking. Once you grasp the basics, beating a given segment is less about discovering what to do and more about simply going through the motions to get there. Some levels can feel a bit tedious as a result, with far too much emphasis on backtracking and vanilla platforming.
Still, for as much as Papo & Yo falls short of greatness, there’s no title in recent memory that better exemplifies the kind of risks we should be taking with the medium. Gaming is the world’s youngest art form, and while it’s gotten exceptionally good at a handful of things—shooting people in the face springs to mind—there’s so much territory we’ve yet to explore. Imperfect though it may be, Papo & Yo should be commended for pushing those boundaries and proving there’s something worthwhile on the other side.
The daring, deeply personal story is more than enough reason to give Papo & Yo a shot, but don't expect to be wowed by the underlying puzzle platformer gameplay.
|Papo & Yo is available on . Primary version played was for . Code/hardware was provided by for the benefit of this coverage. EGM reviews on a scale of one to five stars.|