Or: Someday it really does get better.
By: Xeawn R
(c) Dragon House Studios
So, I’m going to begin this review by letting people know that there will be slight spoilers, though I’ll be avoiding 98% of what I could say because this game, this experience, is one that you need to go through yourself without being told what’s going on. I’ll follow that statement up by letting y’all know first thing, the subject matter in this article might make some people a little uncomfortable. That’s perfectly acceptable, on the topic of surviving abuse, physical or otherwise, society could stand to be shaken up a little rather than following the modus operandi that survivors shouldn’t talk about it on account of it makes other people uncomfortable.
Papo y Yo is a title that I believe you will either understand and be touched by, or be put off by and reject. It’s not the prettiest game in the world, and it doesn’t need to be. Graphics don’t make the game, the experience does.
Born from Minority Media Inc. and the mind of Vander Caballero, Papo y Yo is both a game and an experience, and an experience that is a game. The story follows a young boy named Quico and his friend and guardian, Monster as they traverse and explore a fantasy influenced barrio with a very Brazilian or Portuguese feel. Quico is a boy relatively alone using his imagination to turn his squalor surroundings into a fantastical wonderland that is directly influenced by his mind.
As you go through the game, you’ll use cardboard boxes on hopscotch drawings to move entire buildings about to make bridges. You might come across a large path that needs to be traversed and move houses around to create a giant centipede to ride to your next destination. You’ll come across a place Quico will want to go that’s too high, and pull a string to squeeze structures closer together or grab hold of the side of a building and pull, causing it to fold out and reveal an ivory stairwell.
Sooner or later you’ll find a challenge that’s just too big for the small boy to handle, and that’s where Monster comes in.
Now, I knew the background of the game before going into it, so I already knew why I should be afraid of Monster or feel uncomfortable and mistrustful around the seemingly gentle giant, but even without all that the game does a great job of letting you know that everything is not on the level from the very start.
We open with a scene of Quico sitting in a dark room, knees pulled to his chest and clearly afraid of the large thing stomping around outside. At a certain point he has enough of the noise and escapes from his trauma into his imagination, as so many people must. He makes his way through doors made of chalk and bridges found by rotating gears painted on the walls of graffiti covered buildings. To digress for a moment, the graffiti in this game is absolutely gorgeous.
I went a long time without running into Monster, but even that made me uncomfortable. As I explored my way through my wonderland, and it really is your wonderland, I kept waiting for Monster to show up and ruin my fun.
After a certain point, chasing a pretty and mysterious girl wearing mask like face paint, I, like Quico must at times, even forgot that I had anything to worry about. I became focused on solving puzzles, hopping along buildings, and simply just playing. Even with controls that weren’t quite tight enough in many areas, and puzzles that had me smacking my head going “Duh! I totally should’ve guessed that!” or “…Why isn’t this the solution?”, I was having a blast and everything seemed great.
I eventually caught the mask girl, who proceeded to scream at me and tell me I was cursed. She then shoved me off of a building. Sweet kid, huh?
When I came too, I met Quico’s little robot friend Lula. She informed me (with a voice that I really wish I could mute) that I had to go back to Monster. Much like Quico must feel, I felt a little black sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. This was either a bad thing, or a very bad thing. Because I knew; Monster would either be happy to see me and upset to see me later, or upset by the time I got there anyways.
I traversed the concrete jungle solving various puzzles with Lula operating as a jet pack, and again some of these puzzles did make me want to toss up my hands, but all the while that creeping sensation was mounting higher and higher as I played. I knew that I was doing what I had to, because as Quico, I am a child and I have to go home some time no matter what’s waiting.
I picked up on interesting little things along the way. In addition to this narrative feeling of fear and understanding, I also got a curious look at Monster. As I was climbing through pipes on my way back home, Monster walked by. He was far larger than I thought he should be. I couldn’t see him, only his silhouette. That entire time all that I saw was his silhouette as he went on about whatever it was that was so important to him. He was focused on what he wanted, and set about going to get it, whatever that may be.
As he walked, the vibrations from his angry footsteps coming from a beast that was too large to be who and what I knew it was, the pipes that I was crawling in high up the ground began to break and dislodge. I was afraid; didn’t he know I was there? Couldn’t he see me? Didn’t he know he was going to hurt me? Didn’t he care?
Monster kept going, and the pipes didn’t fall, but the game’s point was made: I was not as important as whatever it was he was after at the time.
Eventually you make it home and find Monster asleep. He’s big, but not as big as his silhouette and destructive walking made him seem. Some reviewers stated that he seemed almost cute, this big pink almost dog almost dinosaur looking thing with its leg twitching like a puppy in its sleep.
I looked at it and knew only that it was something that I was supposed to trust that I knew would not always operate with my best intentions in mind.
Using Monster’s belly in a very Totoro manner, I as Quico bounded out the window and out to go play more. Quico decided it would be fun to play with Monster, so I had to pull back some various puzzle trappings to open the door like the pages of a book and coax him out.
You can feed Monster these fruits, which he really really loves. He pats his belly to tell you that he’s hungry, and you go and you feed him and he’s happy with you. You can find a soccer ball and throw it to him, and he’ll throw it back. You can go exploring and he’ll go with you.
Eventually however, his problem rears its ugly head. Monster has an addiction to green frogs, and you don’t immediately know why that’s a bad thing, but from how the game’s narrative and play mechanics gently guide you to take certain actions, it becomes clear from Quico’s uncharacteristic malice towards the frogs that it’s a very bad thing to let Monster have them.
As soon as he smells the frogs, he gives chase. The first few times they’re somewhere he can’t reach, and you have to throw them into walls and make them splatter (it’s not very gory; it’s pretty clear that Mr. Caballero wanted both kids and adults to be able to play this game). Quico hates the frogs, and tries to hide them away or destroy them every chance he gets.
Eventually though, hiding or getting rid of Monster’s favorite treat just isn’t an option anymore. He wants it, and what he wants matters more to him than you do, because Monster is sick, and he has a problem.
The moment Monster gets ahold of the frog and eats it, everything goes to hell quite quickly.
The cute pink puppy dinosaur becomes a massive flaming muscular beast, and he turns on the child he is supposed to love and protect. He slaps the boy around, he throws him into things, he shoves him down and bites down on him, shaking the child this way and that in his mouth before slamming him to the ground or hurling him across the room.
There is no blood, there is no gore, there’s just Quico’s frightened whimpers and screams as he is beaten by the person who he is supposed to be able to trust.
The only way to stop this nightmare is to get Monster a blue fruit that will calm him down. You are compelled to run and hide because you are scared; you are compelled to help him because that is what you do for people whom you love. You help them, even if they hurt you in the process.
Every reviewer who reached this first transformation segment felt something different. Some felt fear, some felt disgust, some felt filled with sorrow and empathy. I was filled with rage. Not towards the game, not towards the designer, and no, not even towards Monster.
I was filled with rage that came from being made to feel helpless.
You can’t dodge, you can’t dash, you can’t attack. You can only run and pray that you run fast enough. Many players were jarred and made to feel frantic during this, but I just sort of went into a zone, and became very focused. The emotion of the matter drained into cold logic; I need to get that fruit. I need to rise to this challenge and do it quickly or you are going to hurt me.
I will stop you, and I will help you, but I will not be hurt.
You have to lead Monster over to four various places that will trap him and free blocks of pure imagination. You collect said pure imagination to build a stairway to the sky. Once you’ve done this four times, you can get the fruit and feed it to Monster.
Monster becomes calm and falls asleep, and Quico, now shirtless with no shoes and torn up pants, sits and tries to catch his breath and find some calm for himself as well.
Lula comes and asks you how you’re feeling. She asks if you’re alright. She’s worried about you. Quico, who isn’t a silent protagonist, can’t talk. He’s shaking and afraid. She asks him “That bad?”
Then she gently tells him “It’s not your fault.”
Those four simple words hold so much weight, and mean so very, very much to any survivor to hear.
Over the course of sequences completed in the game, especially these ones, you go to a frightening town that is pitch black save for the lights in the buildings, and is hit with a heavy downpour. You have no choice but to go forward; there is but a single path and it has already been set for you. Unlike the other segments, so full of imaginative freedom, you are confined to following a single chalk line with no other control working.
You first find Quico afraid in the back of a car. The next time that car is in an alley. The next time his father is confronting a man in the alley, and the silhouette of his father is that of Monster. A gun is involved, and Quico is terrified. And there, his little toy robot gains a voice.
“I’ll protect you.” She promises him.
Again she reminds him of this as the flashback ends.
“I’ll protect you.”
The girl you’ve been chasing from before (who seemed happy to see you at first then shoved you off a building later) uses her unique power to manipulate the world however she sees fit with her chalk to create a cage for monster. She warns you not to go near him. She tells you to stay away.
But you don’t. You can’t. Not just because the game won’t let you progress, but because Quico loves Monster. He’s scary sometimes. He hurts him sometimes. But, that doesn’t matter. Quico loves Monster, and he wants to be near him.
So you climb the stairway again and drop down onto his belly, and the cage disappears. The girl tells you Monster is born to hurt, and to kill. That he has no choice. When asked why she says it’s because Monster is sick, and that only Quico can save him. She tells him there is a shaman who can make it all better, and to go find him.
This girl has been a thorn in my side, and a bit of an antagonist. She kept running from me, she shoved me off a building when I thought we were playing, and she took away the block I needed to be able to go see Monster and made me chase her all over the place to get it back. Her imagination is different than mine, allowing her to manipulate her environment to escape through holes and doors to anywhere else that she pleases. She also runs much faster than me. I had to go through a lot to stop her, because her powers counteract mine, and she can do the one thing Quico can’t do.
She can leave. She can escape.
This girl is a source of frustration, and so what came next was very surprising to me.
Quico is afraid and very sad, but determined. He has an answer now, and he knows that he can find a way to save Monster and make things better again. Still, he is afraid. The girl comes over and embraces him, holding him close in her arms.
“I’m sorry…” she says. Two simple words. Not for teasing him earlier, but for the nightmarish hell this poor boy has to endure. And while those two simple words can’t fix that, and while the situation is in no way her fault, they are still two very important words, for they give Quico strength.
And then, she’s gone. Because where he’s going, she can’t. Because only Quico can save Monster.
Over the course of the rest of the game’s chapters you are placed in increasingly more dangerous situations with Monster, but no matter what you must forge on. You do not do so because the game tells you to. You do not do so because that is the objective to complete. You do so because you have no other choice; Quico’s life is hell, and there is only this faint glimmer of hope that might make it better.
And because when you love someone, you will try to help them, to save them, to fix them, even though they are killing you in the process.
Vander Caballero shared that Monster was an allegory for his own father, who was a violently abusive alcoholic. Every day he would try to escape into his fantasy world, and sometimes his father was great, and other times he was a Monster. Rather than being destroyed by this pain, he and his mother and sisters survived it, and he used that trauma to create something beautiful that should be experienced by everyone.
Papo y Yo does not have the most gorgeous graphics in the world. It doesn’t need them. It does not have the tightest controls, and you can get over that. The music isn’t always there, but when it is it’s absolutely beautiful and when it isn’t the silence is fitting.
Papo y Yo is not the most polished game in the world, but it doesn’t need to be. As an experience it is like no other, and once you look past its flaws to the game that is within, it becomes very clear why Sony gave Minority Media a chance.
Papo y Yo is a game that should be played alone first, because it is a very intimate experience. It is not to be played with friends who will laugh and joke and talk through it. It is not to be played with those unwilling to make an emotional connection. Play it alone first, and by the game’s rather surprising ending you just might find yourself gaining perspective on your own personal trauma, or having a bit more insight into the pain that someone you know is fighting to survive.
Some reviewers who may or may not have something they survived have said that putting this in the form of a game cheapens the experience, or that the control and design issues in some areas take away from the overall message.
As a survivor of abuse, I can honestly say no, it does not. My personal survival was not from an alcoholic and was not at the hands of my parents (whom I love dearly), but it was at the hands of someone you should not have to fear harming you, and it is something that I fight against every single day. To see someone on the other side of their trauma utilizing it as an engine to help others is a beautiful thing that cannot be trivialized or cheapened by its media of choice or the hiccups the design experiences.
Whether you are a gamer or not, Papo y Yo is tailored to be an experience that you can make it through without needing to be a master with a controller. If you are not a survivor, I do hope you understand Mr. Caballero’s goal and purpose, and if you are I urge you to spend the $15 needed to get this off the PSN and play through it to completion. Because as a game it is worth it, as a piece of art it is worth it, and, it is simply worth it.
To see resolution, to experience the game, and to hear those few simple words:
“It’s not your fault.”
“I’ll protect you.”
Papo y Yo is exclusive to the PS3 and is available via the PSN/SEN store for the retail price of $15. I hope you enjoyed the review, which is the first of many that I’ll be migrating from my old page. Feel free to leave a comment below! Be blessed, and happy gaming!