Papo & Yo Review: A Heartbreaking Meditation on Alcoholism and Child Abuse

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Don’t get that title wrong, Papo & Yo is still a video game through and through: It has climbable ladders, autosaving, platforms you tap a gamepad to jump between and geometry-bending puzzles (no really, actual geometry bending) that enable passage from one area to another.

Its child-protagonist, controlled in third-person, can run, jump and — wearing his toy robot pal Lula as a jetpack, Ratchet & Clank style — leap into empty space to hover for several seconds, making impossible jumps possible.

There’s even a playful narrative: a boy named Quico and his inseparable pal, Monster, tramp through a shanty-filled fantasy world, Monster occasionally saving Quico when he makes a mistake, Quico searching to find a cure for Monster’s sinister vice.

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But Papo & Yo is also a playable metaphor for something much darker: the tortured relationship between an abusive father and his terrified son. Pull back a step more and it becomes a kind of autobiography-in-abstract of its creative director, Vander Caballero, who’s openly admitted the game echoes his troubled relationship growing up in South America with an alcoholic and drug-addled dad.

All of which sounds like a great way to depress the heck out of players with $15 to burn ($12 for PlayStation Plus members). But Caballero isn’t out to bring us down in Papo & Yo. Instead of melodrama, the game preaches reverie. Instead of nightmarish scenery, we’re treated to dilapidated yet beautifully sunlit favela-scapes that groove with soothing, trance-like tunes.

In these slum-cities, wattle-and-daub houses sport windup keys that cause chalk-doodle legs or wings to appear, Baba Yaga-style. These house-creatures trundle or flap around shantytown arenas, forming bridges or gateways to new areas depending on the order they’ve been activated. Pushing or pulling chalk-line levers that sprout from walls like TNT handlebars can prompt a tower of stacked favelas to flout gravity and arc sideways like a giant bending over to touch its toes.

And if you trigger cogwheels etched on walls like ghostly sections of some vast, hidden Rube Goldberg contraption, you’ll power up ley lines that conjure architecture like stairs from thin air, or cause the ground to peel back like someone rolling up a tinned fish lid. Underneath: layers of coruscating alabaster, a kind of seraphic skeleton beneath the wounded skin of Quico’s imagination, suggesting the psychological damage done by the father-figure isn’t irreparable.

All the while, you have to manage that monstrous, mottled-pink companion. He likes coconuts, and sure enough, they’re scattered through the game, along with other, less savory things. You have to drop them like fishing lures to drive Monster along. But let him eat frogs, which sometimes appear from pipes or as part of puzzle solutions, and the sky blackens, the air thickening, a smoky pall blotting out the sun. Monster can’t help but wolf these colorful critters down, and when he does, he transforms into a real monster, all hellfire-red and demon-eyed, who then chases and wallops the bejesus out of poor Quico.

What to do about poor confused, destructive Monster? That’s the question at the heart of Papo & Yo: How do you handle an addict — or harder still, the memory of an addict — long after the harm’s been done? I won’t spoil the game’s answer, but I can say a little about how it comes up with one.

Caballero has spoken in interviews of generating player empathy through Quico and Monster’s interactions, and that’s how their story unfolds, whether you’re carrying coconuts around to guide Monster along, playing catch with soccer balls or trampolining off Monster’s stomach as he snoozes to access out-of-reach areas. There are no expository cutscenes here. No narrative hand emerges to trace Quico’s path forward, and there are no sermons or tidy denouements.

It’s something only a video game could accomplish, and Papo & Yo almost pulls it off. When the transformative moments arrive, literally and figuratively, they resonate less in the run-jump-run gameplay than the totality of the transformation, intended to startle (and indeed, startling) after carefully paced stretches of benign, almost tender interplay between Quico and Monster. It’s difficult to imagine the psychological tumult of living with an addict who could turn on you any time, and when the victim is a child, who has words? That’s what Caballero’s attempted to convey in Papo & Yo.

For those of you looking for the next great puzzle game or platformer, a few caveats: Like Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP or Limbo, Papo & Yo is more about the ambience than acrobatics, and like those games, the puzzles can sometimes feel a little too easy. Since they’re so straightforward, you’ll clock three, maybe four hours of game time, title screen to end credits, and since the story’s a one-way ticket, the replay value’s marginal — four or five feat/collection trophies you won’t get automatically, tops.

So there’s my disclaimer out of the way. This isn’t a game for gameplay purists or players who think a phrase like “interactive allegory” has no place in video games. That’s okay, because I’m pretty sure that’s just as Caballero and the rest of his design team wanted it.

Version reviewed: PS3

Score: 4.5 out of 5

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