Papo & Yo is an exorcism.
Because ghosts do exist, don't they? Not necessarily in the shock-horror or Casper-friendly forms from movies or TV shows, but in the shape of memories and aftereffects left behind by people who've touched you. Those ghosts pop up in your lives, sometimes when you expect them and sometimes when you don't. So, yeah, game designer Vander Caballero is haunted.
We all are, probably.
We're also lucky that Caballero and his Minority Media development team have performed an expunging ritual by way of an lyrically engrossing video game called Papo & Yo.
Papo & Yo is about schoolboy Quico and his relationship with a monster. For the most part, there's no way for them to journey separately in this game; they have to move together. If you've read about this game before, chances are that you know that Caballero has channeled his relationship with his late alcoholic father into this game.
At first, Monster—who's sort of a pink, three-story-tall id—doesn't seem all that bad. There's a surly engagement that adds another dimension to the giant character, even though you know something fearful lurks within. He points at his mouth in a pitiful, endearing way when he's hungry and will toss around a soccer ball with you in quieter moments. His leg even twitches in the cutest way when he's asleep.
But then he gets angry. Early on, you run into the neon-colored frogs that send Monster on insane rampages. Those otherwise harmless frogs clearly stand in for alcohol or other dangerous substances in Minority's playable fable. You can even pick them up and throw them against the wall, so that they disappear after going splat. It reminded me of hiding a liquor bottle when you live with an angry drunk. Nevertheless, that drunk is going to get their fix and when he or she does… Oh, the rages that follow.
My Lord. The first time I had to endure one, I felt helpless in a way I've rarely felt as an adult. I kept mashing the X button, hoping to conjure up a dodge move for Quico that I knew didn't exist. Or at least I could jump out of the way and not get tossed around like a helpless rag doll?
I ran Quico around in a panic as Monster—now deep red with flames licking off of his skin—stomped around the level stalking me. When he caught me, he chomps down on the boy and flings him around. The cycle repeats itself until you can get him to eat a rotten fruit that makes him double over and pass out.
Later, Monster saves your life from a deathtrap puzzle you're not ready to solve. For that moment, you're left unsure as to how the game wants you to feel about him. That ambiguity is a bittersweet thing. It would have been easy for Caballero and the Minority development studio to make a game that rendered his father as an unremittent asshole. Instead he went for something harder. Something harder and better.
Quico's journey—guided by a mysterious, magical girl—is to extinguish the anger that burns inside of Monster. He also gets help from Lula, the toy robot that promises to protect him. You also use Lula to jump further and to trigger switches in faraway places. She's more than just a tool, though. She comforts Quico, telling him that the abuse he suffers from Monster isn't his fault. Despite her attempts at soothing, something bad happens. Then I hated Monster again.
You keep hearing that Quico is cursed. Only after it's all done can you consider what the nature of his curse is and he—and you—might survive into a life worth living.
You don't know where you're going most times, only that more wonder and fear await. Some chapters get bookended by haunting dream sequences where all you can do is move towards the insidious Bad Thing that lurks in the distance. Despite that, the color and inventiveness of P&Y's wonderful art direction spurs you forward. The gameworld is a shantytown wonderland, where poor neighborhoods get transformed by magical chalk drawings into canvases where anything can happen.
It'd be disingenuous to not mention Papo & Yo's flaws, which are mostly technical. Collision detection is clunky and there's lots of clipping, with body parts and walls passing through each other. Mouths and bodies don't move when characters talk. The framerate stutters sometimes, too. None of that matters, though. Shortcomings aside, you're still getting a gently hallucinatory, one-of-a-kind experience in this downloadable, unlike anything else in video games today.
Playing through Papo & Yo mainly consists of hunting throughout a level for the scattered gears, switches and levers that will re-orient your surroundings enough to let you move on. The puzzles range from simple to mildly tricky but for the most part you'll never be incontrovertibly stumped for too long. The right wall can hold a set of gears that makes buildings sprout or flatten. Spin a key and you'll see houses sprout legs and walk. A chalk-scrawled lever can see warps a coconut tree in and out of reality. Even when a puzzle's wracking your brain, you can't helped but be charmed by the whimsy of the game's logic and aesthetics.
You'll need to move those walking houses and other moving parts into just the right position to cross gaps or jump to higher platforms. At times, you'll find yourself floating on a glowing white cube of pure imagination with the puddles of the favelas far beneath you. It's in these puzzles and in their solutions that the magical realism of Papo & Yo lives.
There are a few moments where Quico has to put himself in danger to fulfill his quest to cure Monster. One puzzle had me carrying frogs dangerously close to Monster to trigger a required mechanism and I shuddered with fear that he might notice. Aside from throwing frogs against walls, the only violence in the game comes from Monster's abuse of Quico. Because of the why and hows of how they come about, those beatings feel more devastating than any gory first-person shooter melee kill.
Papo & Yo revolves around the idea that children—and adults, too—can craft miracles out of the mundane. Flying water tanks, enchanted coconuts and hidden teleportation doorways all provide diversions away from a terrible reality if you wish hard enough. But all that imagination only gets you so far and diversions aren't solutions unto themselves. At the end of Papo & Yo, Monster rages with no calming fruit in sight. You have to be brave in a way that a grade-school kid should never have to be. Papo & Yo is about using your imagination as a coping mechanism and coupling that with the courage to grapple with your past. You don't have to have suffered through a bad childhood to feel this game's impact.
Papo & Yo teems with a lyrical kind of beauty. It's quiet, tender and imaginative in a way that can only come from having experienced too much malevolent noise and roughness. This PS3 game joins titles like Braid, To The Moon, Where Is My Heart? and Catherine in the DNA chain of games that point the way towards another more personal evolution for the medium. But you don't have to care about any of that either. Just pick up Papo & Yo and play it, and you'll experience a deeply-felt slice of human nature.