Papo & Yo
by Diego Beltrami
Papo & Yo starts with an interesting premise. An allegory to it’s creator’s troubled childhood. A way for him to express his experiences of his father’s alcoholism and how it affected him as a child growing up. It’s a very personal story and that’s why, at the start of it, it seems cruel to say that’s a much more interesting game to read about rather than to play.
And that’s what I though about it at the beginning. Papo & Yo is a plataforming game dressed as an allegory. Problem is that is not a very good example of the genre with the jumping being a bit sluggish and the starting puzzles being a bit bland. It doesn’t help it that the allegories can be heavy handed sometimes. With Monster and his addiction to frogs that puts him in a violent trance being a parallelism much too direct.
So after dragging myself through the first part of the game and abandoning it for some time I came back and with my return I brought a new perspective. I could appreciate another thing from the game. Something that feels like the real star here, and even though I noticed it at first it really shines later on. I’m talking about the art direction and the world building.
Taking root in the same place as the story, Vander Caballero’s childhood, the game takes place in a dreamscape favella. It represents Quico’s (the protagonist) escape from his father’s condition into his own imagination. It’s the idealization of a place through the eyes of a child.
This oeniric landscape is a testament on the advantages of drawing inspiration from strong cultural legacies and how to re appreciate its value. One of the best examples within this game is the use of graffiti art. It’s presented as a centre piece of the level design, always in the spotlight. It’s not used carelessly in every surface or in place that could be missed. They’re always used as a detail to reinforce a theme or a concept and in a place where it can best communicate those notions and where it can be best admired. From my understanding, graffiti art has an important place in the favella culture, and it’s mostly appreciated as an important artistic endeavour by all people. Including it in the game is a way to add another element that grounds the game to the reality while still keeping the oeniric themes behind it, as it’s quite well supported by the fantasy themes and aesthetics of the graffiti.
And that’s not the only thing the game takes advantage of. The disjointed nature of the Favela’s construction is used in the game to build puzzles, paths and general aesthetic. Houses will pile up or move out of their way to form a bridge. Roofs will change position to make jumping platforms, the whole map can rotate and reconfigure itself. The place fells alive it’s breathing. In this wondrous world Monster and its inhabitants are the least fantastical things the player will stumble upon.
This feeling of wonder and fantasy is what makes Papo & Yo worth playing. It’s not the jumpy bits or the underlying story, it’s this view of the world, of a culture, through the eyes and imagination of a child. I’d love for this to become a series. Not the story of Quico, but the story of different children throughout the world. To see and experience different cultures this way, to extract what makes them unique and see them as magical things. It shouldn’t be necessary to treat deep and complex themes like alcoholism and parenting, it could really focus in the world. But if this is going to be a path (of course, this is me daydreaming, Caballero and co will doubtfully read this) it should reassess how it interacts with the world. Plataforming is too rooted in gaming and has a lot of default characteristics and tropes that might be tempting to pursue when making a “platforming” game . This should be different, it should be about navigating the environment but maybe it should focus on manipulating the place, instead of jumping around it. More puzzle than platforming.
As it is, Papo y Yo hit and misses a lot, but its approach to culture and fantasy is something worth experiencing and it creates the hope of seeing similar things in the future. Maybe we won’t but still, a man can dream.