Papo & Yo is something of an important moment in the medium of video games and deserves to be remembered as a historical waypoint for the part it plays in its emotional evolution. Yet it is also likely to be a game that is left largely unplayed or that many do not see through to its distinctly creative conclusion. This is because it isn’t a perfectly constructed or flawless game to say the least, instead carried through by its narrative depth and the creative ideas that make the whole journey worth it.
Set in South America the game follows the story of Quico, a young boy who, with the aid of his robot friend Lula, is attempting to live with and also find a cure for his best friend. This friend is a creature that goes by the rather original name of Monster, and Monster is sadly addicted to frogs. Once he consumes one, he becomes enraged and a danger to all those around him.
It quickly becomes apparent that Quico is actually using his imagination to escape from a much more tragic reality. It’s here that Papo & Yo pushes the boundaries of creative storytelling and emotional importance in video games, taking inspiration from the childhood of its writer and director, Vander Caballero. While it’s clearly not a strict autobiographical tale, it’s clearly one that represents a deep personal message which the writer wanted to convey.
For the most part you spend time in a fictional fantasy Favela, traversing traditional platform sections and solving increasingly imaginative puzzles. These are never really hard to work out and do more to convey the imaginative aspects of a child’s mind rather than test the player.
This is one of the game’s biggest strengths and best narrative tools, through which anything is possible. Cardboard boxes are picked up and arranged, while houses float into position in front of you. Water towers are wound up with keys and take flight to perch on top of each other, creating bendy paths through the world. Everything in the world is there for Quico to play with and manipulate, and the further you go the more vivid the imagination on show becomes.
Mechanically the game has issues. That’s not to say it’s broken or badly constructed but more that the work done on the basic platforming foundation is average at best. Quico has only a small handful of animations and you’re only really able to manipulate him to a limited extent. Its run or don’t, jumping is very limited when it’s just him, and the animations seem to do very little to give him a sense of life.
This is so much more noticeable in a game where every other aspect, from soundtrack to level design, is so imaginative, creative and full of life. The little touches that you’re used to in platformers are absent here, like grabbing a ledge when jumping, and this can make the early moments feel cheap or sub-par compared to what comes much later.
It’s a slow and somewhat shaky start but eventually once Lula is introduced the game opens up with the addition of a double jump and the ability to send her to press buttons. Monster also adds more layers to the game and its imaginative puzzles; Quico needing to lead him from place to place with his favourite treats and use him, and his large girth, to reach higher areas.
While the imaginative world and lively soundtrack help to make the ride a pleasure, it’s the narrative arc that truly makes the ride worth the price of admission. At no point more so then it’s deeply emotional, and even raw, third act. Believe us when we say that few games have the emotional punch that comes during the last stages of this game, tackling immensely delicate topics which is both brave and potentially dangerous.
It says a lot about the writers personal connection to the material, and the steady hand of the whole team at Minority Media, that this subject matter is handled with such a delicate touch. In its final moments it manages to be both a striking and heartbreaking experience whose message about the strength of all people, and eternal hope, leaves a resounding impression.
Simultaneously tragic and uplifting, without being heavy handed, Papo & Yo is a game that everyone who cares about the future of the medium should experience at least once. While no one can argue the game is perfect, it still manages to rise well above its issues to become much more than it appears at first glance.