Papo & Yo Review
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On 09/04/2012 at 08:52 PM by Nick DiMola
Gaming’s boundaries and purpose have been redefined.
Everyone should give this powerful and moving experience at least one playthrough.
Straddling the line between video game and interactive experience, Papo & Yo explores some very mature subject matter through an innocent façade. Through the eyes of Quico, a young South American boy, players take a journey through a unique and abstract world in order to cure companion Monster of his frog addiction. Portrayed in no uncertain terms, Monster represents Quico’s abusive alcoholic father who is a friend and tremendous burden. While Papo & Yo’s gameplay is certainly rough around the edges, its presentation, story, and delivery are unparalleled in the medium.
At its core, Papo & Yo is a fairly simplistic puzzle-platformer. The jumping mechanics are on the stiff side and the puzzles are often simple and more a matter of just finding the highlighted areas of the level to perform the required tasks. However, the puzzle-platformer mechanics are little more than a vehicle to tell the unique story of Quico and Monster and expose a brilliantly and beautifully crafted world.
When the story begins, it’s not clear what exactly is going on – only that Quico is escaping to a dream world to avoid the realities of his life. In this world, Quico has amazing and impossible control of the entire environment. Buildings move at his whim and some simple chalk drawings grant him complete control of the situation. It’s clear that in his dream world he is empowered in a way that he’s typically stunted in reality.
While Quico finds himself in complete control of his surroundings, there’s one element of his world that he still cannot control – that’s where Monster comes in. At first glance, Monster seems harmless enough. A bit goofy and lumbering, the oafish creature has little interest in anything but consuming coconuts and sleeping. Despite his even disposition, there’s a tangible gravity around the character – he’s never quite happy and it’s abundantly clear that he is a huge burden on Quico. Monster has no direction outside of Quico leading him along with the proverbial carrot on a stick; that is, until Monster sees frogs.
Monster will drop absolutely everything to chase them down and eat them. He'll root through pipes, barrel across the stage, and seek them out if they're even in his general vicinity. Perhaps worse, when Monster consumes the frogs he quickly turns from friend to foe. Instead of maintaining his agreeable relationship with Quico, he becomes violent, chasing him around until he's able to attack. Understanding the context, it's quite disturbing when Monster makes his first transformation.
A special fruit will return Monster to his normal state, so during these instances, you'll have to quickly scramble around as Quico to deliver the remedy to Monster. However, with each frog Monster eats as the game progresses, the more violent he becomes. This trend in Monster's behavior shapes the story until its unexpected, yet moving conclusion.
While I'm no victim of abuse, experiencing this story through the eyes of Quico had a profound effect on me. I believe that's testament to the quality of the game's concept and design. If you look hard enough, you can glean some amount of meaning from any aspect of the game. The means in which Quico makes his alternate world bend to his whim is demonstrative of his impotence in the real world. Before the introduction of Monster, Quico is running, jumping and playing, but after, he’s burdened with caring for and curing this hulking beast. He’s forced to carry around coconuts to get Monster to his next location because Monster has no motivation to do it himself. I find it amazing (and horribly saddening) how this singular mechanic perfectly parallels the real world burden Quico is faced with.
Even if you're not the type to read into things like this, the way in which the world moves is interesting to observe and control. Buildings will get up and walk, or fly into a stack to make a bridge, or provide a convenient form of transportation with the turn of a key. While the platforming can be stiff and at times a bit unresponsive, the game rarely requires nuanced control to accomplish the tasks at hand. Some puzzles are interesting to solve, others too simple to provide much satisfaction, but most of the time you’ll be taking in the surroundings and the circumstances until the next major event in the story. Rarely did I find anything about the experience frustrating from a technical perspective, so the game mechanics provided an adequate vehicle to deliver this unique story and experience.
It’s easy to get hung up on the mediocre gaming content within Papo & Yo, but Papo & Yo isn’t as much a game as it is an interactive experience. Clocking in at around four hours, there’s not much content to sink your teeth into, but every minute of play time is building to something that’s so powerful it’s surprising to experience it in the context of a game. If nothing more, Papo & Yo blows the door open for what content games can convey in this modern world. Instead of faux meaning, Papo & Yo delivers a message loud and clear that I can only hope aids people who have suffered similar abuse.