Papo & Yo
Posted By Austin Yorski about 1 year, 5 months ago
Minority Media’s Papo & Yo is a brave game. The puzzle platformer tells the story of Quico, an imaginative young boy, and Monster, a hulking brute that lives to eat frogs. Of course, this basic premise belies a work that deals with themes of alcoholism and child abuse. Given the heavy subject matter, and my personal connection to a lot of its concerns, I forewent my usual tact of examining the themes and symbolism of the game and instead went directly to the source: writer and creative director Vander Caballero.
Note: Ending spoilers follow.
Papo & Yo is a game about an abusive father/son relationship—it’s both the central allegory and an eventual literal truth in the game, as Quico is faced with statues of his alcoholic dad. Can you explain how you approached the subtlety of that metaphor? What’s the line between showing a child’s point of view and being too heavy-handed?
Caballero: The first plan to finish the game was with a traditional boss fight. But I realized that if I finish it like that, I would not have given closure to people who suffered a similar experience as I did. So I needed to change the rules of how games are made and end the game with something that will give closure. People criticize Papo for being a heavy-handed metaphor, but what they do not realize is that the only way to fight alcoholism and abuse is to scream your lungs out, “My father is an alcoholic.” Many kids who live through abuse and go to school do not talk to their friends about their lives. They will never say, “My father arrived home yesterday, drunk and …”
Video games need to do better than what we’re doing. We’re living this fantasy where we have created this disconnection between the virtual and the real world. That’s maybe because we’re shooting too many people and the only way we can cope with it is putting the game far away from reality. But by doing that, we are actually cornering ourselves in creating meaningless, disconnected, escapist realities that do not help us become better humans.
In the game, frogs are used to symbolize alcohol. Why frogs? As someone who dealt with both alcoholic and abusive parents, I couldn’t reconcile my personal experiences with those adorable amphibians. They even hug you as you carry them.
Caballero: Frogs are my personal phobia. I hate them. I cannot get close to them. They scare me. That’s the reason that they’re the alcohol. Sorry if you like them!
From a gameplay perspective, the fruits make sense. Monster chases after the ripe fruit, but is sickened by the bad, which is an important mechanic for solving puzzles. How do the fruits figure into the symbolic framework of the narrative? Isn’t it counter-intuitive to give Quico access to something that can quickly quell Monster’s anger? There’s no off switch on a drunken, angry father.
Caballero: You should read the analysis that Colette Bennett did. She related the rotten fruit to holding her mother while she was vomiting in the toilet, and I related to that.
The world of Papo & Yo seems to represent Quico’s imagination, as he finally is able to assert agency in the cityscapes of his mind. Are there any particular bits of intentional architectural symbolism? What’s the significance of the graffiti? What about the centipede-like appearance of the platform that carries Monster? How about the technological dissonance between the favelas and Lula?
In a subconscious way, it does represent Quico’s imagination. Having something normal like a house transforming into a bug – a walking giant bug that you can climb on – is a way to emphasize the power of imagination related to the lack of power Quico felt in his real life. The more Quico is powerful, the more he is covering his suffering.
Graffiti is common in South American favelas. It’s the only way people have to protest, and I just love the idea of having real graffiti artists sharing their lives in a virtual canvas.
That is one of my favourite parts – technology makes up an intricate part of favelas, that’s why you have all these cables connecting TVs, radios, cell phones, fridges, etc. One of the biggest causes of death in favelas is electrocution.
Throughout the game you run into a mysterious, unnamed girl who is eventually eaten by Monster. Scenes of a man standing by a car are occasionally cut into the main narrative. What is the connection between these? I came to the conclusion that Quico’s father had accidentally killed a girl with his car, which led to his drinking and the subsequent abuse. Is this too literal? Did you intend for players to project their own lives and emotions into the narrative, or did you want this to be a window into your personal story?
Caballero: I wanted people to project their own lives into the story and for me, it’s crucial that people do it. It is one of the rules of lyric composition and songwriting to always make phrases that could have multiple meanings so people can interpret them as their emotions need. So Papo & Yo does that in a way. I don’t want to reveal the significance of the flashbacks and the relationship because it will take away the experience from people who have played the game.
You said that the game originally ended with a boss battle. Were there any other incongruous video game tropes that were narrowly avoided, or even some that made it into the game? What do you think are the advantages of telling a story like Papo & Yo through interactive electronics, instead of a book or film?
Caballero: One of the things we decided to do at the beginning was to create great puzzles that could be solved by multiple ways of thinking, not only pure rationality. I hated Braid because it made me feel stupid. I really want to know the story and feel it! But I couldn’t, because it followed traditional old-school game mechanic rules.
The advantage of creating emotional simulation is that you’re actually confronted with the actions that created discomfort, and you have to deal with them, something that doesn’t happen in movies. For example, I have heard many conversations about people feeling like they were punched in the stomach when Monster first attacked Quico. And then they have to run to escape Monster. This is something that movies cannot do.
Over the course of the game, Quico uses Monster to solve puzzles and progress forward. However, he never really interacts with Monster in a truly positive, intimate way. Is this due to AI limitations, or was it a deliberate design choice? Combined with the ending (in which Quico symbolically lets Monster go, causing him to plummet from the sky), it seems as though the father character is denied any real agency. Is this a result of the game being told from Quico’s perspective or part of the substance addiction metaphor?
Caballero: My father was aloof. I was always afraid of him. And as much as I wanted to get close to him, he was in his own world dealing with his own problems. So the AI in the game fully represents the frustrations I had when I was a kid.
When someone is self-destructive like my father was, there is nothing you can do to stop them. Monster put himself in the situation that forced Quico to let him go. In consequence, the final scene is an interactive metaphor of letting go.
Near the end of the game there is a scene in which Quico and Father/Monster are separated by a fence, but moving together upward on a platform. What is the significance of this sequence? How does the continuing increase in elevation near the climax relate to the overall narrative structure?
Caballero: I just wanted to place people in a situation where they would be confronted with the reality that Monster is a construction of Quico’s imagination. I wanted them to feel uncomfortable playing the game, and it was a way to prepare them for letting go of Monster.
It’s interesting to me that there is no damage or death mechanic in the game. At worst, an enraged Monster will just throw Quico to the side, slightly impeding his progress. Can you articulate your approach to the explicit and implicit violence inherent in the game’s premise? How did you go about balancing the need to portray Monster as a credible threat without resorting to brutalizing your protagonist or succumbing to genre conventions like a health bar?
Caballero: At the beginning, we didn’t know how we were going to solve the design challenge of not following traditional rules of game design of using health or dying systems because in reality, you never die in the game, you just re-spawn a few moments back, and dying just becomes a time penalty. So we experimented and by pure luck, having the Monster attacking and throwing Quico away was enough of a pressure back system feedback for the player because they knew it was a real kid who was getting hurt. So the autobiographical aspect of the game really helped in closing the feedback loop.
At the conclusion, Quico learns he has to stop trying to fix his father and move on. It’s a poignant scene, but a problematic one as well. In addition to leaving no hope for reconciliation, it also seems to ignore that, back in the real world, Quico is stuck with his father for at least a few more years. Is it possible that the game is really more of a reflection back on a childhood trauma, instead of a narrative meant to occur simultaneously with the abuse? How is this audience meant to understand the world that Quico returns to after Papo & Yo?
Caballero: Protecting yourself or someone who is hurting you is a process, not an instant action. And it takes time. Letting go of someone you love because he’s hurting you is a process that can take years. What is important for players is to realize or identify themselves in a point in this journey, either at the beginning or the end. A good example of how to cope with abusive parents is described in the Penny Arcade article. I had to take responsibility and know the only way I could conciliate this experience was that I could not do it in my father.
Letting go and coming back is different for every person. I didn’t want to close people into my reality. I wanted to give them the space to go back to their reality.
Pixelated Pretension is a bi-weekly column by Austin Yorski dedicated to discussing the literary conventions of video games, including themes, rhetoric, and symbolism. Tune in every other week for more analysis. Feel free to disagree with, add to, or question everything. I welcome your feedback. Also, follow me on Twitter @austinyorski (please).