If a videogame is a conversation between player and developer as asserted by critic Leigh Alexander, what shape should that dialogue take? More than in most games, the appreciation a player has for Papo & Yo will come down to how they answer that question. Should the conversation be one that puts the player in charge – a conversation focused on finely-tuned systems and player freedom? Or should the conversation be like the one Papo & Yo initiates, which restricts player agency and prioritises the delivery of themes over those systems?
From its opening image – the player-character, Quico, hiding in a closet as the silhouette of a monster passes through the light outside – Papo & Yo positions itself as an extended allegory for writer/director Vander Caballero's own experiences living with an alcoholic, abusive father. Caballero is Quico, and Caballero’s story is the game’s story, albeit with more monsters and buildings that can be pulled out of cliff-faces and moved around. The game doesn’t begin and end with this fantastical reimagination of a son abused and a father drunk though, but instead uses that story as a springboard to provoke other, more universal discussions with the player.
As Quico, the player’s mission is to cure Monster, a giant pink rhino-man-thing, of his addiction to poisonous frogs. Monster is Quico’s lazy but benevolent pal, meandering between fruits, napping, protecting him from traps, and joining in games of soccer. However, he has a desperate thirst for those frogs and when he eats them, he turns into a volatile beast, single-mindedly pursuing Quico with violent intent. Quico is aided by Alejandra, a young girl who accuses him of being 'cursed' but who nonetheless agrees to take him to a 'shaman' to help cure Monster of his compulsion. He is also joined by Lula, a heroic little robot.
Through the player’s interactions with these characters – whether it’s sending Lula to hit switches or following Alejandra’s instructions to open a door – Caballero fills out our understanding of Quico and his dynamic with his father. He doesn't understand why his father turns from friend to abuser at the drop of a hat, yet he blames himself for his father's condition and believes it's his responsibility to cure it. That alone is immensely poignant, and it’s to Caballero’s credit that he doesn’t rest on the point. Instead, that dynamic is developed exceptionally well within the first hour, and the game soon branches off to explore broader, more universal concerns.
Indeed, Papo & Yo doesn’t just tell us the story of a boy who believes he's responsible for his own victimisation; it also tells us the story of the man that boy grew into, and of that man's memories, guilt, and inability to let the past go. Caballero's not just exorcising demons here (though it is incredibly personal); he's examining the very nature of victimhood, helping the audience to understand how pain and resentment at such a betrayal can manifest as depression, self-loathing, and unwarranted remorse.
This examination comes to a head in the final set of puzzles, forgoing some subtlety and some of the metaphor in order to confront the audience with the truth of the destruction and its effects on its victims. This is a powerfully raw and honest game; Caballero may tell his story through a metaphor but it still feels like his story, unvarnished and presented without the comfort of easy answers or tidy conclusions. Indeed, its heart-wrenching third act may well be the strongest piece of visual storytelling in any videogame this year.
One could argue that the aesthetic compromises that honesty. The game’s environment is dominated by a colourful but rundown landscape of sewer grates and favelas, with hollow white dream-structures underneath. Buildings are stacked to the sky and pieces of land are peeled back like doors on advent calendars. It's a striking, even grand backdrop, oddly so for such a personal story. But by filtering the subject matter through this magical playset and slowly exposing that which is hidden beneath, Quico's story becomes one of naive hope in a hopeless landscape; here is the boy who believes he can make a change, here is the man who won't let himself forget his ‘failure’.
It's almost inevitable that Papo & Yo will be less appealing to players who prioritise mechanics over theme. Papo & Yo is fundamentally a simple puzzle game; the level design is straightforward, and most challenges come down to a few jumps across some platforms and a tap of the X button when the relevant cog, lever, or switch is reached. A strong difficulty curve is hardly the game’s main concern, and the none-too-demanding puzzles effectively link back to the game’s motifs of childhood and the innocence and hope that comes with it, but the ease of play will nevertheless frustrate those who prefer more nuanced systems.
Similarly, Monster only poses an impediment rather than an actual risk to Quico’s journey. When jacked up on frogs, Monster's role is to hunt his friend down, maul him and toss him about – nothing more, nothing less. That's not to say he isn't a terrifying presence; Caballero's team have done a great job animating him, and when he's under the thrall of the poisonous frogs he doesn't so much charge Quico as he does stalk him, taking a calculated pace that's far more chilling for its intent. But despite all that, he's still more of an obstacle than a destroyer – something to work around systemically, something to fear in the abstract. It also means the game has to work a little bit harder to make it clear that the things Monster represents were and are more than an inconvenience. While the game meets that challenge, it didn’t need to put itself in that position in the first place.
The graphics aren't exactly cutting-edge either. Textures are rough and the aliasing is hit-and-miss, a telling result of the game's independent roots clashing with its triple-A ambition. There are also minor graphical glitches and clipping issues that show up every so often, though they’re essentially cosmetic and don’t impact on the game experience. None of this is to say Papo & Yo is ugly or messy. The exaggerated favela landscape is vividly-realised, and the game uses vibrant colours, canny lighting, and open space in thoughtful and impressive ways. The graphics may not be crisp, but the aesthetic is more reliant on architecture and colour than spatial resolution and bump mapping.
It’s easy to suggest that Papo & Yo's shortcomings as a 2013 puzzle-platformer undermine its accomplishments as a story and as an experience, but this isn't a game about mind-breaking puzzles, volatile random variables, or photorealistic presentation. Everything here serves a bigger purpose than being 'fun' or 'challenging' or 'kick-ass'; rather its parts feed into a devastating, profoundly personal story about addiction, betrayal, guilt, and making peace with the past. Papo & Yo displays the kind of unity of vision that gaming should be pushing towards, regardless of whether it’s developed by a 200-person team or three developers in a garage. It feels like something that needed to be made, and the end result is sensitive, intelligent and engrossing. All games should feel this vital.