Writing this review should have been easy. I’ve been anticipating Papo & Yo for some time now; I know the story. It’s essentially an allegory for Minority Games’ creative lead Vander Caballero’s childhood, during which he dealt with an alcoholic father he loved, but also feared. The surrogate players in the allegory are Quico, a young boy living in the favelas of Brazil, and his fearsome pal Monster, a giant, reddish mix between a gorilla and a rhinoceros.
I knew what to expect going in, but damn did it still affect me. The allegorical nature of the tale is impactful, but Caballero doesn’t stop there; there are no qualms made about this being an entirely personal, specific game, and yet there’s both an empathetic and widely applicable sort of “truth” to it. It tackles some weighty, heartrending topics at face value. From a technical standpoint, it’s imperfect. Beyond that, it’s elevated itself sixteen shanties high above its contemporaries.
The game sets itself up, briefly, in a seemingly normal realm before devolving into the slums — favelas — of some vaguely South American country, as the protagonist slowly loses his shoes and fancy prep school jacket as he falls deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole. With this descent comes the introduction of mystic and surreal elements. Quico gains a robotic helper that straps itself to his back so he can double jump and an enigmatic girl covered in white paint designs captures Quico’s attention. This aesthetic shift is multifaceted.
Caballero grew up in a household that was comparatively well off monetarily. Yet in many underdeveloped or otherwise tumultuous countries, the wealthy and impoverished live within razor thin dividing lines. Life in the favelas would then be omnipresent, if not experienced as consistently or as thoroughly as someone who lived in them. This duality serves to further an eventual gameplay and narrative device: Monster’s rage.
You aren’t introduced to Monster right off the bat. Quico — and, by extension, the player — is eased into this foreign escape. The mysterious girl, with her ability to draw circles in the ground and disappear through them like a Looney Tunes character, leads Quico about until her stumbles onto Monster, who it turns out is his companion of sorts. From there begins the quest to find the Shaman, who has to fix Monster, and so begins the heavy surrealism that pervades the aesthetic. Chalk scrawlings are imbued with power; activating them can sink walls into the ground or let a shack sprout wings. Strips of earth peel back from the ground like tongues hanging over the environment, exposes a pure white underbelly in the area of extrication.
Aside from being overwhelmingly pleasant to look at, this art direction lends itself greatly to representing the imagination of a child. Yes, a simpler time when chalk drawings made dirt encrusted walls something more, something magical. This fantastical surrealism is layered over the blanket image of the favelas — the familiarly exotic — in a way you’d expect from an onlooker with one foot entrenched in the culture, one not. The architecture is there. The colors are there. Red and blue and green homes painted to make the slums look more pleasing, like multicolored Skittles rats. But the people aren’t there. No, it’s Quico’s world to explore, save for the presence of Monster and the mysterious girl that at one point kisses him and runs away. Quico’s world.
Caballero has cited Ico as a source of inspiration for the emotions he is trying to evoke. Papo & Yo treads toward Team ICO’s ability to create a bond between player character and an AI. The problem with Monster is that he isn’t characterized enough over the first half of the game. He’ll play soccer with you if you kick one of the various balls strewn about, but other than that interaction is left to when Quico manipulates him to solve a puzzle and progress, though bouncing higher off his sleeping stomach in some instances is a nice touch.
Monsters actions are supposed to be contingent on his own needs. If you’re not leading him with a fruit, he’ll pluck ones for himself and chow down. Or if he’s bored, he’ll go to sleep. This independence is supposed to, by contrast, heighten the sense of dependence when you do need him to progress, but it could have been done more effectively. The dark aspect of Monster’s personality is done well, however. When he gobbles a frog (his addiction), he becomes a seething, fiery mass of violent energy that will seek out Quico and toss him about like a ragdoll. It’s legitimately disconcerting and disempowering, as it should be. Monster is something of a pal and necessary to get things done, but he can break bad. Particularly interesting is that when Monster chases you in an open field, a strange slow down effect is enacted, giving everything a dreamlike quality as in dreams where you’re trying to run from some impending threats but it feels like you’re treading through molasses.
The puzzling isn’t particularly challenging. The solution is almost invariably “find the next chalk thing to activate.” Yet, there’s such a surreal whimsy in your interaction with the world. At one point, you’ll have to activate over a dozen different shanties, reachable by platforming, which all stack up to make a giant, malleable tower that can be tilted down as a bridge and bent left or right. The art style and surrealism, supported by a wonderful musical score, make for a world worth exploring, and it often feels like you’re exploring it through appropriately youthful eyes.
There are other little touches, too. Cardboard hint boxes are strewn about. To read them, Quico puts them on his head, spinning it to the next panel for more information. You can even run around with the box still on your head for some Solid Snake cosplay. The frogs, which should be the bane of your existence, are delightfully colorful. Rather large, too. When you pick them up, it’s like they’re giving Quico a big hug. And strangely, I didn’t feel bad splatting them against walls to make them disappear, because they seem to turn to 2D drawings at impact.
Most impressive is Papo & Yo’s concluding arc, which deals with the issues at play, hinted at in the mechanics, in a decidedly transparent, heartrending way. There are some emotionally challenging moments. For Caballero, early video games were an escape from his troubled home life, but in retrospect he didn’t feel they made him a better person. His goal was to offer the same escape, but offer more; anything that might help individuals deal with the things that affect them. I think he’s succeeded at making the world a little better.