By Nathan Grayson on April 18th, 2013 at 7:00 pm.
Papo & Yo is, at first glance, a puzzle platformer about a young boy and his best pal, a multi-ton, bulbous bellied pink gum wad rhino dog. Same old, same old, right? But beneath its sunny, wildly imaginative exterior is the bleak tale of creator Vander Caballero, whose alcoholic father physically abused him and his family when he was a child. And so, when Monster eats a frog (read: METAPHOR), he stops helping you solve puzzles and starts lobbing fiery punches at your tiny cranium. That relationship, then, lies at the heart of Papo & Yo, weaving an extremely personal thread through both story and gameplay mechanics. But does it bind them together or leave them straining at the seams? Here’s wot I think.
It was dark. Too dark. I could barely even see my tiny hand in front of my face. Anything could’ve been in that room with me, and I was certain it was waiting – licking its lips, grinding its rows of rusty sawblade teeth – for just the right second to strike. I was so gripped by fear that I could hardly even move.
That, for me, was the experience of going to sleep at night as a child. But I was also fortunate, because just one bedroom over were these superhuman creatures known as my parents. For some reason, my half-formed peanut brain decided, their merest presence could make all the bad things go away. Monsters were definitely under my bed, in the walls, and mind-controlling my cat to distract me from my sweat-soaked fetal position vigil, but they had no idea what they were in for. No idea.
At one point in Papo & Yo, I managed to fail a puzzle that’d stop a wall from squashing me flat as an origami pancake. I braced for impending doom. But then, at the last second, Monster yanked me out, dusted me off, and glared at me with these stern, disappointed eyes. He was upset that I’d put myself in danger. Very upset. But, even with his bright pink brow furrowing under the weight of disapproval, I knew I was safe.
I probably wouldn’t be doing what I do today if it weren’t for my dad. He made games for a living, in part, because of me. He played games almost entirely because of me – or rather, because Warcraft II was the only language I spoke during the latter portion of my single-digit years. But honestly, when we played together – sitting side-by-side, zig-zagging and zug-zugging our way through the campaign for the gazillionth time – it was the most connected to him I ever felt.
For better or worse, I think that still holds true today.
I found a soccer ball. Random, I thought, but not entirely unsurprising in a South American favela – labyrinthine, twisting, and dreamlike or otherwise. Hefting it over my head, however, had an unexpected side-effect: Monster suddenly snapped to attention. I lowered the ball and punted it. Monster immediately plucked the tiny marble of a thing from the air with a massive, creased paw and hurled it back. So I kicked it again. Back and forth we went, for no other reason than the pure sport of it. We weren’t solving a puzzle or hunting for a switch. It was just brief, pointless fun. A distraction.
Monster looked down at me, and he let out a warm, thunderous chuckle.
I remember the first night I stayed at my dad’s new apartment after my parents decided to get divorced. I spent a lot of the day crying, so I was pretty well exhausted by the time I crawled into my new bed. Its frame smelled of freshly cut wood, but the normally intoxicating scent made me retch. It was foreign. Everything about the situation was wrong. It was dark and new, and I felt all alone. If something awful and wriggly, all legs, teeth, and terror, was slithering around under my bed, no one was coming to my rescue.
I think that’s when I first realized my parents, like everyone else, were human. They had flaws and fears and monsters of their own to battle. And right then and there, the biggest baddies of all were each other.
Monster’s first rampage came out of nowhere, like a speeding 18-wheeler wreathed in angry flame. All it took was one harmless little frog. He slurped it down, and I became a twig-limbed target for his rage. Always right behind me, his girth – no longer jolly and wobbling, instead still as steel – took up almost the entire screen. Each cracking blow made Quico scream. Rain poured, mud splashed, and blood formed tiny, oozing rivulets in both.
I was a fortunate child. My parents never abused me in any way, shape, or form, and – while I grew up with my fair share of loneliness and dysfunction – I never felt un-loved. But, in most cases, I think that’s sort of how it goes. As we age, parents go from superheroes to humans to monsters, eventually imparting many of their greatest vices onto us. They make us. They break us. We live with the consequences. But, tempting as it might sometimes feel to disconnect ourselves from them entirely, we never can. And honestly, most of us don’t want to. For every craterous, cancerous down, there’s an up. For every time you can’t connect with your dad, there’s the nine-hour Warcraft II session you spent together. For every time Monster pounds you into oblivion, there’s the time he chuckled pure, innocent mirth while you were playing soccer, and you really believed there was nothing else he’d rather be doing in the world.
Papo & Yo is a game about family ties turned toxic, and it immediately – by its very nature – inspires reflection. My childhood situation was nowhere near as grim as creator Vander Caballero’s, but it was impossible to avoid drawing parallels. It’s an incredibly personal tale told with utterly captivating imagination, and that mentality quickly becomes infectious. For Caballero, this game’s creation was clearly about rooting out personal demons, and I think he wanted players to bring their own baggage along for the ride.
In that sense, Papo & Yo is a wonderful success, pairing triple-A scope and spectacle with real, honest, oftentimes excruciatingly painful heart. Without spoiling too much, Quico’s quest to cure Monster of his frog-born wrath quickly escalates, forming a rolling avalanche of gut punches right up to an ending that will have you sick with grief, guilt, relief, closure, hope, and fear. It’s a journey, and one well worth taking.
But then there’s the other side to the proceedings – the, you know, videogame side. Papo & Yo is, at its core, a puzzle-platformer, and in truth, it’s an exceedingly mediocre one. First and foremost, jumping and movement feel stiff, weightless, and at times, inexcusably imprecise. Fortunately, platforming challenges are usually rather simple, but even basic leaps between bobbing slivers of land often became quite frustrating for me, as I just never felt comfortable in Quico’s skin. So I’d fall, go back to the start, and try again. Over and over and over.
Puzzling’s main strength, meanwhile, lies in the glorious magical realism of Papo’s world, but even that eventually grows predictable. The first time I picked up a cardboard box and gasped as a full-sized house floated along accordingly, I was utterly enchanted. It felt like I’d stepped into a child’s imagination, this place where adult perceptions of plausibility haven’t even begun to take root. That, however, quickly becomes a common puzzle-solving theme, as does moving giant plots of land and stacking objects into magnificent twisting towers that literally bend to your will.
To be sure, these puzzles are empowering, and they form a fascinating contrast when matched against Quico’s complete helplessness in the face of Monster’s stampeding rage. For Quico, this world is an escape, and that part of the metaphor is undeniably powerful. But the mechanics of puzzles never really move beyond arbitrary block pushing and lever pulling outside a couple big standouts later in the game. And unfortunately, even those standouts felt artificially lengthened, which is quite a feat in a game that only lasts four or so hours. Instead of adding new wrinkles and creases to the Monster-like back of their basics, they opt to stick with repetitive verses to the same old song and dance. Did you twist that lever to make that cool thing happen while avoiding Monster’s single-minded wrath? OK, now go over there and do it again. And again. And again.
In these scenarios, sadly, the other big problem is Monster himself. He stops being this fearful creature of pure, unbridled carnage and transforms into, at best, a puzzle-solving element and, at worst, an infuriating nuisance. He can’t actually kill you or give you a game over, so instead he just flings you 20 feet into the air, impeding your progress ad nauseum. Initially, fleeing from Monster is a sickening thrill, but when he finally catches you, it’s a total anti-climax. Then he becomes just another obstacle, and a persistent one at that. Combine that with falling repeatedly due to clunky controls, and the illusion breaks. Papo & Yo never becomes particularly difficult, but repeated annoyances don’t do its driving point any favors.
But Monster can be controlled, corralled. And while the plentiful availability of rotten fruits – which render him briefly unconscious – alleviates frustration, it only adds to the feeling that Monster isn’t a living, breathing manifestation of alcoholic abuse. He’s a tool, a system – especially when he’s not in rage mode at all, instead following trails of coconuts you’ve laid out from switch to switch. And so, when the story doesn’t have the wheel, it’s hard to feel, well, anything for him. The moment I discovered we could play soccer was completely brilliant, yes, but also an exception – not the rule.
A series of minor technical issues also bear mentioning, as they poke smaller yet still noteworthy holes in the spell Papo is trying to cast. Mainly, I encountered clipping, one instance of falling through a surface I shouldn’t have been able to, occasional frame rate dips, and a bit where Monster briefly got stuck in a wall. None of it was game-breaking by any means, but it definitely left Papo feeling rough and fairly unpolished.
And so, Papo & Yo ends up a series of brilliantly, beautifully, devastatingly evocative moments alternatively buoyed up and anchored down by an only sometimes successful game. When those two sides colluded and hit the mark, I was left sprawled out on my back, gasping for air. Misses, however, were more frequent than I’d have liked, and painful for entirely different reasons. Still though, Papo & Yo is, while it lasts, a ride well worth taking – ups and downs and all. It’s a potently pointed vision, one serrated with feeling. I may not have enjoyed every single second of it, but I’m fairly certain the experience will stick with me for years to come. In that sense, Caballero and co have created a Monster of their own: a mixture of joy and pain that we can pan for some reasons and praise for others, but never quite let go of.
Papo & Yo is available now on Steam.