It is not uncommon anymore for videogames to be used as a platform for art and expression. When it comes to blurring the line between a piece of entertainment and a form of expression, context is always put into consideration when assessing its value. However, videogames that can be considered a work of art often have their gameplay mechanics overlooked in favor of context. This isn’t necessarily a fault. In the case of Papo & Yo, its gameplay is serves as but a medium of interactivity within an allegorical autobiography of a man and his past relationship with an abusive parent.
Developed by Minority, Papo & Yo is a fantasy puzzle-platformer set in an unspecified Brazillian favela. It centers around Quico who progresses through the game with the help of his trusty robotic friend Lula as well as a giant pink monster. Lula enables Quico to interact with far away switches and allows him to momentarily hover in mid-air while the pink monster lets him use its belly as a launching pad to jump on otherwise unreachable platforms.
There isn’t much to say about the gameplay due to its overwhelming simplicity. Seemingly out of place chalk-drawn glyphs are scattered across each level which Quico can interact with to reveal surreal paths. Most of the puzzle-solving aspects consist mainly of activating said glyphs in a specific order or kiting the monster with food to certain areas where it can set off weight sensitive glyphs. Quico isn’t able to directly control the monster, he is able to kite it around the area using yellow melons. Getting rid of all the yellow melons will also put the monster to sleep in a designated area enabling Quico to use its stomach as a launch pad to jump to higher areas.
The levels are designed in such a way that platforming becomes inherent in the game. Though necessary for progression, the physics are problematic and highly inconvenient. You’ll often find yourself re-doing platforming obstacles especially later on when the puzzles become more complex. By complex, however, I only mean more glyphs to activate, more melons to lure the monster with and smaller platforms to jump on.
The puzzles are designed to be more aesthetically pleasing than innovative. Interaction with certain objects enables Quico to literally manipulate the environment. For example, there were white boxes that, when lifted, acted as a sort of voodoo doll but for buildings. Even though that puzzle was as simple as placing a box within a line to create a bridge, seeing the big buildings bop around as Quico carried the boxes was oddly satisfying. The game is full of beautiful moments like this but unfortunately, the gameplay won’t strike you as much as the tragedy the game implies.
The relationship between Quico and the monster is in direct comparison with the relationship between designer Vander Caballero and his father. The monster, who is actually referred to in game as a monster, is at first somewhat endearing yet indifferent. Quico is dependent on him and cannot progress through the game without him. He is this giant pink monster who likes to sleep and eat yellow melons. Though harmless at first, later on in the game the monster’s unhealthy addiction to frogs becomes apparent. Once in awhile frogs come and the monster eats them turning him in to an uncontrollable beast set to maul Quico. Most games would have you fight or run away from enemies but the monster isn’t an enemy; Quico depends and looks after him despite being a victim of his rage and sadly, no amount of rotten fruit will cure the monster of his addiction.
When I first started playing Papo & Yo, I was not aware of its context. I dove straight in without any research whatsoever and, given the seemingly whimsical nature of the setting, assumed it was designed for younger gamers. If you play Papo & Yo to the end without having any prior knowledge of its context, you’ll find a mediocre puzzle platformer that escalates into something extremely dark. The game gathers its meaning through its context which, right up until the ending, is quite subtle. However, I find things that masquerade as art quite problematic.
As Oscar Wilde wrote in The Portrait of Dorian Gray: “to reveal art and conceal the artist is art’s aim.” Papo & Yo is deeply personal to the point that it makes me feel uncomfortable, as if I’m unrightfully putting myself into someone else’s shoes. There is no question that Papo & Yo instills devastatingly difficult emotions but if I hadn’t looked up the context, its “plot” would have been the only puzzle in the game that would leave me scratching my head.
Running on the Unreal Engine 3, Papo & Yo is not the best console to PC port but the game’s aesthetic isn’t about how astounding Minority’s dev kit is especially since it was initially developed for the PS3. Despite the port, the art style is still absolutely stunning, highly unique and completely encapsulates the solace that comes with the imagination of a troubled child. Rudimentary spires comprised of favela houses tower over Quico and the pink monster while monochromatic otherworldly passages are unveiled by beautifully drawn chalk glyphs. In a sense, the painful reality the game implies is a lot easier to take in because of the gorgeously designed, extraordinary and dreamlike world Quico has created as an escape. Sadly, the reality that is Caballero’s childhood still seeps into this otherwise idyllic universe as if it taints even Quico’s imagination.
As a game, Papo & Yo is not at all that impressive. However, as an interactive allegorical autobiography, it is positively unsettling while being a visual feast at the same time. Not all gamers will like it; I certainly have some mixed feelings about it.
Papo & Yo delivers a very powerful and devastating visceral experience but falls short in terms of gameplay. It is the type of game that can be compared to an overly subtle book that needs careful dissection and because of that, not a lot of people will appreciate it.
My respect goes to Vander Caballero for creating something so beautiful from such a dreadful experience.