Papo & Yo
The downloadable PS3 title Papo & Yo is a platform-jumping puzzle game that tells the tale of a young Portuguese boy named Quico. We first meet the wiry, wide-eyed kid hiding in a dark closet, trembling and clutching his toy robot while a large shadowy figure slides past the closet's slat doors and grumbles out his name in a half-seductive, half-terrorizing growl.
This isn't a game devoted to wading through a sea of real-world terrors, though. At least not directly. This is a story of a child's imagination—an imagination that lets a boy slip away from danger through a magical white spiral that begins glowing in the closet's depths. Within seconds, he's whisked to an exotic yet near-silent Brazilian shantytown of stacked tin-roof houses, large empty courtyards and chalk-line graffiti swirls.
Chalk and Monster Magic
Quico drops into this seemingly lifeless place all by himself, but he soon realizes that he's not completely alone. His favorite robot toy has come to life to help him with some of the puzzling situations in front of him. And there's a young girl (maybe an older sister) with a magical chunk of chalk who leads him up ladders and over rooftop chasms. She draws whimsical patterns on the walls and beckons him forward to find a way through the urban maze. Push a chalk swirl here and a door magically opens, pull a chalk line there and a staircase takes shape, drawn from a solid stone wall.
By pulling and turning levers and keys, Quico reshapes the world in which he now travels. Moving a box in some cases can move a house and create new rooftop pathways. And just like that, the boy gains a power and control that he never would have had in the real world.
Solving puzzles isn't the only task at hand. Quico must also deal with a monster known as … Monster. It's an imposingly large creature that looks like a cross between a rhino and a thick-muscled giant from some fairy tale. In many instances, the beast just lumbers around and falls asleep in the corner somewhere. Quico can bounce on its ample stomach to reach high ledges or he can lead the ever-hungry brute into puzzle solutions with the promise of fresh, tasty coconuts.
Monster isn't always so docile though. It has a dark problem. Little frogs occasionally hop around the area, and if Monster pops one of those in its mouth, bad things happen. A mouthful of frog turns the massive beast into a raging, roaring, fiery creature that is set on nothing less than chasing poor Quico down to savagely tear at him and hurl him into the air.
The Point Behind the Puzzle
You've probably already figured this out: Layered beneath Papo & Yo's magic-infused platforming and colorful puzzle solving is a veiled metaphor for parental addiction and child abuse. And to make that intent more clear, the game starts off with a simple statement: "To my mother, brothers and sisters with whom I survived the monster in my father."
The game was created by design veteran Vander Caballero as a way of venting some of the pain of his own childhood. And it's also a vehicle meant to, as he describes it, get gamers playing, thinking and talking.
"In the case of alcoholism, many families live it, and it's a secret," Caballero said in a penny-arcade.com interview. "Children go to school after their fathers get drunk, and it's a secret. When you get a person to talk about it, you talk about it, and you feel better. Talking about the story made me feel better. I'm not ashamed anymore that my father was an alcoholic."
The game's story involves Quico seeking out a cure for Monster. And as things progress, gamers shoulder a greater and greater responsibility for the creature when it loses control. They see its abusive ways through the prism of the game's world, eventually confronting painful and bittersweet truths while ultimately turning away from Monster's destructive choices.
[Spoiler Warning] That "turning away" involves Quico pushing Monster over a cliff. And I should note that while metaphorically his action becomes a picture of moving away from the constant damage he's been ingesting, if taken more literally it hints at something much darker.
Clearly, Papo & Yo makes the point that a video game can be more than just a button-crunching time-filler. Caballero aimed to offer real hope through digital drama to those struggling with the pain of a seemingly senseless reality.
"Our goal is not to create an artsy-fancy experience where no one can get into it. I want to create games like Pixar creates movies," Caballero said.
So, without showing anything graphic or overly scary, the game quietly conveys its subtly drawn tale of a boy trying desperately to fix his damaged, addicted father. A boy in equally desperate need of help understanding how and when he should try to escape from his father's cruel grasp.