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Papo & Yo: A Decade On

There’s not much I can say about Papo & Yo’s cathartic nature and striking visual storytelling from a critical standpoint that hasn’t already seen ink many times over. Neither another glowing review, nor, for that matter, a score — no matter how high — properly articulate my thoughts and feelings on the game. This is not a review, per se, but more an expression of how Papo & Yo’s ability to channel the effects of childhood trauma into an interactive, intrinsically therapeutic narrative allowed me to process my own wounds through “play” and player agency. Please, be aware that this article contains spoilers for Papo & Yo, and if you have not played it before but are interested I strongly urge you to do so. ***I will highlight the section with spoilers this way.***

While I do feel that play, and particularly gaming, can have an incredible impact on development, social awareness, and critical thinking, this isn’t to say that there is no toxicity in the world of gaming. In fact, there are a plethora of examples of homophobia, sexism, racism, and generalized gate-keeping here, here, and here (as well as many others). Sadly, in any community or subculture in the world there are segments — sometimes larger than others — that are more intent on poisoning the well than allowing others to drink from it. As a mixed man of black, native american, and Irish descent, I’ve faced discrimination in virtually every group, hobby, profession, or community I have ever been a part of. But, it is in the corners of these communities that remain un-corrupted by these hateful influences, the portions that still bear resemblance of their original purpose, that beauty, art, and culture thrive.

One such piece of art was Minority Media Inc’s Papo & Yo. Released on PC in August of 2012 to immediate fanfare, the game quickly proliferated to a much larger audience through a variety of means such as the PlayStation store and Humble Bundle, becoming the talk of what seemed like every games publication around. Sadly, initial reviews from typical publications such as IGN were less than favorable, citing the game as “a technically disastrous and wholly uninteresting adventure game with brief moments of emotional resonance”. However, glowing recognition from larger, non-gaming related publications such as the New York Times, claiming the game “set a new and altogether different standard in gaming for representing the world as it is”, continued to bring more and more eyes to Papo & Yo. Ultimately, it is new eyes, new experiences that keep any culture vibrant and evolving — even if those who have existed in a culture disagree. Punk rock will always be spitting in the face of whatever was “punk” just before it.

I have respected Mitch Dyer (formerly of IGN, and the author of the quote above) for years as a critic of not only video games, but the various subcultures that surround them. So, I was a little surprised when I read his review of Papo & Yo nine years ago and found it very out of touch (especially given much of his criticism was on the lack of complex logic puzzles in a game meant for players 10 and older). 2012 was a turning point in video games, challenging old notions that all that mattered was graphics and gameplay — game developers and players were clamoring for more immersive story-telling experiences. Perhaps, it was time for a new measuring stick. There is plenty of room for a big budget, expansive, technically sound, well written video game experience — and they certainly exist. But, small games telling personal stories feel to games what poetry feels to fiction.

In 2012, and the years to come, titles that would become synonymous with meaningful gaming experiences such as Bastion, Journey, Proteus, and many others would break the mold of large studio projects and annual sequels, reigniting the fan-bases of older character action/adventure and exploration games. These titles, especially in those early days, often had wildly different critic scores than fan scores — Papo & Yo, for example, boasts both a 9/10 by players on Steam and 4/10 from IGN. However, as these titles gained recognition as art (such as Journey’s Grammy nomination for Authin Wintory’s original soundtrack, the first for any video game) outside the limited scope that seemed to often stifle video games at the time, critical acclaim from publications — especially those skewing younger like Kotaku — began rolling in.

In short, Papo & Yo is a tale of fear, trauma, and of our ability to overcome them at our own agency. Players embark on an imaginary adventure within the mind of a young boy, Quico, as he enters a tunnel through his closet where he is hiding from his drunk, abusive father — drawing a distinctive line between the harshness of childhood trauma and the solace of escapism through playful imagination. Quico is accompanied by his best friend, simply and aptly named “Monster” on a quest to cure Monster of his blinding rage. Additional characters, such as a mysterious, helpful older child and the omni-present and mechanically and narratively significant toy backpack Quico carries with him, seem to represent sibling and motherly figures.

Throughout the course of the game, the player encounter a series of logic puzzles, using the varied landscapes of this imaginary Brazilian fa-vela to maneuver the Monster toward some unknown destination — all while avoiding the Monster’s mean streak. That’s the trick, the Monster actively seeks out poisonous frogs to eat, which immediately enrage him and he can only be calmed by completing a series of tasks. And this is the rhythm of the game: enter a new area to explore, Monster eats frogs, the player desperately attempts to quell the beast, the Monster falls asleep, and you make progress. This simple, predictable structure provides the foundation from which a variety of modular obstacles are constructed throughout the life of the game.

Creative director, Vander Caballero, based this narrative on his very real experience with an alcoholic, abusive father; and, in the opening, dedicated the game to family who, alongside him, survived their “monster”. The frogs are clearly representative of his father’s substance abuse, and players become intimately familiar with the dread of sudden violence and disarray associated with the Monster’s discovery of them. Likewise, the game delivers a sense palpable relief upon the completion of tasks that lead to the Monster’s immediate slumber — though these moments are punctuated by the looming fear for the next time a frog appears. Caballero crafted a world with both a sense of imaginative timelessness in puzzling and exploration and simultaneous sense of urgency to make progress — to get to the next level, the next day. There is no reprieve from your task, simply the trial and error associated with attempting to lure this Monster you are intrinsically attached to, and terrified of, from checkpoint to checkpoint.

Even the structure of the levels themselves feels allegorical of a day with an abusive parent: the landscape may be varied, but the events of the day are always somehow the dreadful same. There will be moments of clarity, of joy, of supremely childlike weightlessness; and, inevitably, there will be moments of gripping horror, pity, and disdain.

I began writing this almost a decade ago, but at the time I was not ready to finish it. Honestly, the idea of putting to paper how Caballero’s enthralling narrative about his volatile relationship with his father mirrored my own with my father wasn’t something that I could do at the time. My father passed away in 2017, his hand in mine — after not speaking for nearly a year, after never properly addressing the horrific treatment that I, my brothers, sisters, and mother had all suffered at those same hands — a broken, sad man who drank and smoked himself to death around the age of 65. As I stood next to him, holding his hand as the life support was shut off, I was painfully aware of two things: the sympathetic looks and comforting touches from the nurses on staff, which they would give to any son standing beside his father’s untimely death bed, and the fact that I was in need of no sympathy or comfort.

Simply put, I felt nothing. This man had numbed me from feeling, kept me from experiencing a childhood, a fulfilling young adulthood, and I was left with nothing — not even relief. That is, until I walked from the building. Once all of the necessary things were handled, those morbid and awful things that always have to be handled after someone passes away (tasks which were all mine to complete) were handled, I was finally able to breathe a sigh of relief. I was reminded of the feeling Quico, and by proxy the player, had at the end of Papo & Yo. The monster was gone, and I could go on without him.

***SPOILERS AHEAD***

After the final task is completed, and the Monster asleep after once more succumbing to his own habits, the player is left with only one way forward — to push the Monster off the edge of the world, and move on alone. I recall being totally, emphatically beside myself with emotion at that point of the game. Torn between the societal guilt placed upon a son to value and love their father and the pain and burden of my father’s addiction that each of us had been forced to bear alone, no matter how “together” we were. I was crying, because in a way I was jealous of Quico, of Caballero, of anyone who had been able to push their abuser off of the edge of their mind and move on. In 2017, I was able to.

When I first experienced Papo & Yo, I was reminded of how many years ago The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask became my escape mechanism, along with books and a near unhealthy obsession with professional wrestling. I was reminded of what it was like to escape into the world of Majora’s Mask and play until things went inevitably wrong upon the third day, the same way they inevitably went wrong every day of my real life, and being so captivated with my ability to rewind time at my choosing and get back to riding my horse around in an open field. But, in real life there is no way to rewind time to a better, brighter moment. There was no magical song that I could play to escape the terrifying moments, the oppressive nights. No, in real life, you just have to do your very best to survive each day, to enjoy the little things along the way — and when the time comes, leave your monsters behind. Papo & Yo was not just the game I needed in 2012, it was the game I’d needed my entire life; but, I’m not sure I would have been ready to experience it before then. I certainly wasn’t ready to write about it until now.

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Jack Daisy

Sort of a traveling writer. If you enjoy what I write, please consider tipping or subscribing. Thank you! (Buy My book: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B08W9RS63H)