“Such wonder the mind of a child is.”
This phrase is obviously salvaged and only slightly changed thanks to Yoda’s ever-so-wise use of broken English, but the essence of the saying is still one that will always resonate with us. That maxim is what fuels Papo & Yo. With the opening by the writer/creative director, Vander Caballero, paying respects to his mother and siblings “with whom I [Caballero] survived the monster in my father” and then directly cutting to a child hiding in a room from what seems to be a strange beast, it’s clear to understand where the motivation to create this game has been drawn from at the very beginning. Despite holding to such powerful motifs—and delivering a glimpse of a much more unsettling creative inspiration that I have yet to see elsewhere in our video game culture, this indie adventure quickly loses its footing in executing worthwhile mechanics to its perspicuous allegory. I hope that doesn’t make me a monster for saying so.
The protagonist, Quico, is that child cowering from the silhouette of that loud monstrosity as it looms nearby; the only separation between them is a flimsy, bi-fold door. There’s only one goal Quico has: escape. That wish is granted when a strange drawing is etched in the back of the pantry, opening a portal to an illusionary realm. Finding himself in a strange world, Quico’s now impelled to play chase with a young girl and traverse through a fantastical South American inspired landscape. But these two characters aren’t the only ones that rove these empty favelas. Along the way, a cool toy named Lula and a pink, portly creature known as Monster join in.
This is where Caballero’s true story begins to take shape. At what first seems to be a wonderful escape-fantasy from a traumatizing childhood, you begin to realize Quico’s real life experiences are intertwined with the characterizations of this world—for good and bad. For most of the time, Monster is just a docile animal, even playful when a soccer ball is involved, that either sleeps or progresses with the tempting of delicious coconuts; the rest, he’s thrown into paroxysms of fiery rage upon consuming a green frog. The simulacrums of these two individual products manifesting a symbolically-similar destructive force from Quico’s real life can either be instantly understood by those familiar with the backstory or slowly elucidated to those completely ignorant of it, which is what makes the message just as accessible as it is powerful. Outside of the straightforward task of finding a “cure” for Monster, quick segways are well-paced throughout to reinforce a player’s understanding of the multivalent subtext behind so many of the actions taken before reaching the end. And what an end it is. The methodical pacing of so many poignant moments is what causes this multi-tiered denouement to be a tour de force in storytelling.
All is not perfect, however. The reason I stated the ending has tiers is because its gameplay and story closures are essentially partitioned. After providing a few hours of a metaphor-driven mechanic and then finally contextualizing its meaning, one of those moments just bludgeons the point home by having Quico handle what’s obviously alcoholic beverages in order to progress. I understand allegories are meant to be evident in their message (heck..the more apparent the better), but this is something else entirely. They shouldn’t be used to make the thing represented be the only way to move forward, but instead continue weaving the obvious meanings OF the creator's intent for the audience through a narrative. This nitpick could be seen as a minor spoiler for some, but I feel it necessary to mention this because it seemed to be the best way of illustrating my point and the ESRB details only listing “Fantasy Violence” for their E10+ rating.
Overall, Papo & Yo contains the kind of story-driven style I love seeing in art games: heavy on interpretation through actions and subtlety instead of text. Whether weighing in the Quico/Monster symbiotic relationship or diving into headier interpretations the mechanics may also tell, the profundity of presented symbolisms is there for the player yet the game takes its time for them to be easily understood. It’s not without its errors: the middle seems hungry for more to happen and one facet of the ending(s) could be changed slightly. But these quibbles hold little weight in comparison to the effectiveness of mixing such a light-hearted adventure with the elegiac direction pushing the game towards its conclusion.
In keeping with the whimsicality of this child’s imagination, the artistic visuals retain what's almost certainly a familiar backdrop to Quico while containing unfamiliar properties. Rather than just being dilapidated shanties, these buildings are able to sprout caulk-line wings or legs, turn into a staircase, and much more. Although the sense of awe at wondering what may occur next is a great visual stimulus to progress, it begins to wear thin as these initially-grand ideas feel relatively the same since the level design retreads certain areas and means of changing the landscape. It doesn’t take long for this journey through a child’s creativity to—ironically enough—feel limited by an adult, or at the very least by "adult problems" such as limited resources and time. Serving as a rather charming optical distraction are murals that sell a heightened sense of vibrancy to this connected ghetto. There’s such an intricate detail to them; almost feeling as if they were taken directly from worn-down places that inspired the setting.
Although the technical proficiency of graphics is rarely something of great importance for lower-budgeted titles, it’s such a shame to see the predictable problems of the engine drag down the artistic look. The culprit here: Unreal Engine 3. Despite the PC version of Papo & Yo delivering on slimming down the reported problems of the PSN version released last year and offering a wide variety of settings to choose from, this ‘true version’ is still bogged down with texture pop-in and frame rate issues occurring on even the lowest setting. Aside from the consistency issues, the technical visuals vary from dated (character models), bothersome (overdone bloom lighting), or decent (Monster’s animations); serviceable, with all things considered.
The music can be upheld with story as one of the best qualities in the game. For its sheer variety alone, the soundtrack composed by Brian D’Oliveira and La Hacienda Creative deserve a healthy amount of year-end nominations in sound design (again). Ranging from typical acoustic and percussion instruments to...what I can only describe as “strange devices,” gentle music themes can segue into much more hectic ones in a moment’s notice. It’s in this blending of so many different cadences and the dedication of authentic sound effects that authors such a profound sense of place to this non-existent world while never making any one moment feel repetitious like the visuals.
The passion behind the design is admirable in its simplicity: aiming for the player to reap the greatest amount of dazzle with no taxing effort involved. That philosophy seems to work perfectly as the game begins: push gears to create a new walkway, pull a string to turn a building into a staircase, or grab hold of boxes which in turn causes a house to float in midair. Though those wonders are awe-inspiring, it doesn’t take long for the mechanics to bring more ennui than excitement. Airing closer to that of chores than conundrums, so many moments of moving forward are just simple tasks of interacting with the next emanating white pulley or gear again and again and again. The environmental consequences of achieving these actions can create some unexpected changes to the landscape, but the tedium in performing the actions of pushing one gear just to unlock another one and the ‘floaty’ platforming controls typically associated in carrying out these puzzles sap so much player agency. The lack of elegant puzzle variety becomes even worse in the latter half when a certain ability is temporarily stripped away.
Despite Monster’s excellent storytelling structure, gameplay execution results in tractable situations and actually discarding one of the game’s central themes. The ways he helps the game move forward are simple: use viands to attract towards a chalk-drawn square or jump on his belly when he’s sleeping to access new areas. Although his fits of rage do provide a very unsettling picture of Quico being violently thrown, it’s mechanically just a short period of losing control and never receiving any sense of punishment. And these are just the problems when everything is going smoothly. Aside from the inconsistent camera when Monster gives chase to Quico, he’d sometimes go right through corners of buildings, making some instances of being caught feel unfair, or have trouble path finding by being stuck in the geometry (almost to the point of causing me to restart in one particular instance). Even one of the puzzles for hiding frogs from Monster was based on an abstruse rule of them leaving his interest upon bringing them to the roof of a building—which…somehow immobilizes them.
On far too many fundamental levels, Papo & Yo fails to escape beyond its initial one-note boundaries: the quandaries seldom elevate beyond acting as monotonous inconveniences and as a result produces a lack of feeling any true accomplishment upon completing them. “Perhaps that’s the point,” some may address “the redundant use of rudimentary tasks can be representative of the player living vicariously through Quico’s struggle with Monster in real life.” A great point to show what interesting narrative-fueled gameplay ideas can be fashioned in art games; however, any message—regardless of its importance or quality—shouldn’t feel like a burden against the actual playing experience when delivering it, especially when capable of achieving so much more. After witnessing a simple pulley yank bending the world to an Inception-like degree before the series of endings, I kept asking myself where that magical wonder and resulting gameplay initiative had been for so long. What proved to be a wonderful appetizer in the first forty-five minutes offered becomes dull rote until it’s ready to close.
Despite my expressed ire towards it, Papo & Yo is a title that’s unpleasant for me to denigrate because of its rather audacious aspirations. Anchored by a sense of purpose, it’s truly remarkable to see such a finish and the over-arching, painful-to-tell story so sincerely handled and capable of being viewed by an audience of many ages; however, a passionate story can only be distanced so far from the medium in which it’s presented. Faltering on the adventurous promise, we’re left with a three hour puzzle-platformer with close to no replay value (only hat collecting and steam achievements) whose gameplay qualities are typically bland and padded by design. There’s no denying the importance of what an autobiographical recount of a traumatizing childhood can do for opening more unique opportunities and deeper conversations in the industry, but that doesn’t mean the industry also got a good game as a result.
Now, if you’ll excuse me...my frog a la mode is getting warm.
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