“I think the most beautiful thing of all in this is having a living piece of a document, a story about your family that's so important. I'm showing the game to my son—he's now two years old—and I say, ‘you see that pink monster? That's your grandfather!’ [laughs] I think it's really funny because then later on he's gonna play the game when he's older and think, ‘Oh wow, that was what my father lived. That was what my father experienced.’ And I find that so moving, that I will be able to connect with my son and my nieces on that level.”
–Vander Caballero, Kill Screen interview
Due to the amount of people it often takes to make a game and the dissolution of individual ideas amongst the sea of people involved in development, it is rare that one sees a game which could be described as “autobiographical,” especially outside of the independent scene. Anne Frank’s generally misunderstood mantra, “write what you know,” is at least understood by most game writers, if the rarity of autobiographical games is any indication. The few games that fall under the spectrum of “autobiographical games”, such as Anna Anthropy’s dys4ia and Mary Flanagan’s [domestic], are hailed for their emotional content; after all, when one is writing about something that they know, something that they are truly passionate about because it is their story, the author’s skill tends to shine.
Thematically, Papo & Yo has much in common with dys4ia and [domestic]; it tells the tale of creative director/writer Vander Caballero’s youth with an abusive, alcoholic father through an allegory. Caballero is the protagonist, Quico, and his father is Monster, a beast that becomes angry and sadistic after ingesting frogs. The duo have a symbiotic relationship; Quico needs Monster to help him traverse the world, and Monster needs Quico to keep them both safe from Monster’s addiction. Two other characters join them: Lula, a toy robot and close friend of Quico, and an unnamed girl who guides the protagonist through the world and tries to help him cure Monster of his addiction.
As with any allegory, Papo & Yo’s characters and setting have symbolic meaning. Most of the game takes place in a fantastical favela filled with magical chalk drawings, which are used as the equivalents of switches and buttons in the puzzles. The contrast between the hard, straight lines of the favela and the curving alterations made by the chalk drawings creates a wonderful visual style that makes up for Papo & Yo’s less than stellar texture-work; it also illustrates the difference between harsh reality and the boy’s childish, metaphorical view of the world.
Papo & Yo’s story is not especially complex. In terms of delivery, it takes many cues from games like Ico (note the main character of Papo & Yo’s name), with more emphasis on telling its tale through your traversal in the world rather than through dialogue-laden cutscenes. The allegory is integrated into the game with such skill that it ends up being quite engaging, despite it feeling a bit too obvious at points. Later chapters manage to add a significant degree of weight to your interactions with Monster, the ending being one of the toughest sections of a game I’ve ever had to play through because of this. Not enough games are able to tie emotion and story to their gameplay in that way; I hope Papo & Yo becomes an inspiration to designers everywhere for it.
Gameplay-wise, Papo & Yo is also clearly inspired by Ico. Most of the tutorials are visual, unless you use one of the cardboard “hint boxes” to assist you, but they are largely unnecessary. The puzzles generally involve manipulating switches and/or Monster to move Quico or Monster into a specific place so they can hit a switch to allow the other character to move forward. It’s basic puzzle-platformer material. What makes the puzzles engaging is the way they manipulate the environments; houses grow legs and crawl or grow wings and fly to move and help you, they stack high and turn into organic bridges, and so on. Very few of the puzzles are difficult (only one felt particularly challenging) and most have a hint box that spells out the solution, but the game isn’t really about being intellectually taxing; it’s about telling the player a story and allowing them to have a hand in its progression.
Papo & Yo goes so far as to not have any sort of fail state. The closest equivalent the game has is when Monster becomes enraged after eating a frog. This places a red filter on the world, darkens the soundtrack, and turns Monster into a fiery demon that will chase after Quico; if Quico is caught, he is bitten, shaken around, and flung into the air, screaming. No matter how many times Quico is attacked, he will not die, but, as stated earlier, the experience isn’t about difficulty. Papo & Yo manages to make Monster’s enraged state horrific enough and Quico appear frail enough that the frogs become a dreadful sight, as the narrative intended for them to be. Unless you are unable to become emotionally invested in the story, the lack of a fail state isn’t an issue.
The narrative Papo & Yo was enjoyable the entire way through the game, but that wasn’t a very long while. It’s only two-and-a-half to three hours long, which, if you ascribe a game’s value to how much time can be spent playing it rather than how much enjoyment you can get out of it, makes its fifteen dollar price point a bit steep. On top of this, there is little replay value outside of experiencing the story again. At the end of the credits, the game reveals that the dolls you can find in the environments are now all wearing goofy hats; if you start a new game, you can find the dolls and collect their hats for Quico to wear. After experiencing Papo & Yo’s grim narrative, going through it all again while collecting and wearing goofy hats doesn’t seem especially enticing.
Despite its short length, Papo & Yo is a must-buy for anyone looking to experience a great story exclusive to the medium of games. The gameplay isn’t on the level with classics like Team Ico’s creations, but there are few games of its sort, thematically. Tackling subject matter this personal and handling it well requires a high degree of skill, and Papo & Yo does it flawlessly.