I played through all of Papo & Yo on Sunday. I knew every plot “twist” that would occur, and how they’d play out in the game, and I still felt sick afterwards and had to sit for a while here in the office and smoke cigarettes feeling unaccountably sorry for myself.
If it’s true that Papo & Yo doesn’t reach the dizzying majesty of the Fumito Ueda games that seemingly inspired it, the game is a far more personal one, and that matters more in a case like this. There aren’t enough memoir games. I think that it’s no surprise that reviews of Papo & Yo typically fall into two camps: “flawed execution” and “This made me think about my own father a lot.” I couldn’t help but be in the latter camp.
We talk frequently about how writing games is not the same thing as writing other forms of narrative, because of the interactivity. But we do so most often in terms of “choices,” or “emergence” and rarely about how actively participating in even the most linear story can have an effect on how we experience it.
If Papo & Yo were an animated film, it would likely be intolerable. Ham-fisted, both in allegory and resolution. But it is not an animated film, it’s a series of actions that you take as a player, even though it’s a game with no choices.
When Quico reached the plaza at the end – the “truth about the Shaman” sequence – you need to rotate four statues that reveal the truth behind the allegory so that Quico will face them. When I played the game this past weekend, I did not immediately understand why these four switches were not activating properly for me. After a moment, I noticed the chalk only lit up when the statues were halfway turned – when they were revealing the other image. Most switches in the game do not work this way, you pull or push them all the way. I realized that I was actively hiding the truth, and the game would not let me do so.
You might find that these images being revealed are very on their nose with their archetypes, the father with the belt, etc. But the realization that I was unconsciously pushing past these images to hide them up again, that was the point of that sequence, and it was in gameplay. The images were overt in service of the player’s engagement and seeing this story through Quico’s eyes.
In the game’s final moments, you force feed Monster bottles, and then the corpse of your dead sister, in order to push him to a place where he slumbers close enough to the abyss to shove him into it. I found myself doing it more than I had to. Dozens and dozens of them into the pipe, over and over. More than Monster wanted, even. Angrily. I’m not saying that you would, if you played. But I did.
The critical consensus, from what I’ve read, is that this game wasn’t good enough. It seemed to me in playing (and remembering) that it was very much a game for creator Vander Caballero, and also for people like him – and people of all ages, at that. A certain subset who aren’t going to gain anything from the message being more closely kept subtext.
I don’t attest to being changed by it; I do know how glad I am to have played it.
…And every minor technical gaffe, to me, was worth it to play a solid, beautiful little game in which you also get to play as a Brazilian boy in a favela – this story could have been told in a Midwestern suburban subdivision that shifts and rolls in the same way, because the core of it is sadly universal; but how wonderful that it wasn’t, that it was a game that hired real graffiti artists and musicians of the region to show even a tiny scrap of that culture in a medium which is almost entirely set in the same two nations every other time.