Papo & Yo
If you know anything about Minority’s Papo & Yo, you know it is an allegory for the abusive childhood suffered by the game’s writer, Vander Caballero. The story follows Quico, a South American boy who retreats into his imagination to deal with his alcoholic father. Once in the mind of the child, you must navigate puzzles in a surreal representation of Brazilian slums as designed by M.C. Escher, both guiding and running from the bipolar Monster that symbolizes your violent patriarch.
|PROS||Artistic vision, Puzzles, Music|
|CONS||Platforming, Lack of subtlety, Technical issues|
I’ve got to be honest: My expectations for this title could not have been higher. Such an ambitious, personal story is rare in this medium, even for indie titles. Every bit of information released about it was more enticing than the last, from the evolution of Monster’s design to the influences of real favela graffiti. Thus, it is with a heavy heart that I bring you the news that I left Papo & Yo feeling disappointed.
Part of my disappointment stems from the lack of subtlety in the narrative. There is no subtext–everything you could possibly read into the central metaphor is spelled out for you in excruciating detail. Alcoholism is bad, abusive parents ruin their children’s lives, and the slums of South America are a frightening place to grow up. There is a certain thematic thread about the ways kids try to “fix” their parents’ addictions, but it is so insular and personal that it likely won’t mean much to anyone but Caballero himself.
That’s not to say there are no touching moments to be had. More than once I found myself impressed with the emotional scope of simple gestures and visuals. The end of the game is particularly rife with such imagery, including one sequence so slow-paced that at first I thought the game had frozen. There’s a real bravery and respect to the core issues behind the game on display here, and I can certainly respect the artistic vision. Even the thought of the broken cities in the sky are enough to make me contemplate the shattered life that had to have happened to bring about this work of art. I just wish it wasn’t all so heavy-handed.
Without spoiling anything, let me also say that the central interaction between Quico and Monster really failed to deliver. Their dynamic is ostensibly about the love/hate relationship between a substance abuser and his child, but the minimalist narrative never really hits the notes that would make that ring true. Monster may loom as a frightening shadow in the opening moments, but minutes later you’re pelting him with coconuts. Instead of feeling like you’re dealing with a bipolar loved one, Monster comes off as more of tool to be used. You don’t work together to solve puzzles–you use him as a trampoline or a key. Even the segments in which he turns on you lack the necessary gravity, as his loping gait, unimposing presence, and lack of a real penalty for being caught relegate him to a minor annoyance.
Luckily, the puzzles themselves fare much better. P&Y takes a lot cues from ICO, as you are responsible for shepherding around what amounts to a bipedal door opener. Minority has learned a lot about proper pacing, lighting, and level design in the years since gamers were first forced to hold Yorda’s hand though, as almost every challenge in the game hits the sweet spot between intuition and intelligence. Most of the puzzles involve finding and interacting with everything in a given vicinity, but the more complex ones will stick out in your mind long after you’ve put down the controller. My personal favorite involved building a massive skyscraper out of smaller winged buildings (go with it) and then bending the resulting tower over to use as a bridge.