Papo & Yo did something that too few games manage to do: it let me step into the life of another, actual-living-breathing person. And once I did that, I played through an experience that showed me how that person got through a painful relationship and was left with a lesson that I too could pick and use if I needed it.
Look, I love being embedded inside the fictional events in a made-up character's biography—as in Mass Effect 3 or Max Payne 3—as much as the next person. But the same trauma, ambiguity and joy in either of those games feels more poignant when attached to the facts of an actual life. Some of my decisions in ME3 tied me up in knots and I winced as Rockstar's ex-cop kept drinking himself to death. Nevertheless, there was a safe remove that I could play in as that super-capable space soldier or slo-mo-shooting bodyguard. With Minority Media's downloadable game, however, I couldn't ever stop thinking that another human being had offered up parts of his memory for me to play inside of.
Papo & Yo drew strength from the fact that it was drawn from pieces of designer Vander Caballero's life. Yet it found even more power in how it didn't ape reality.
It was a big, fanciful metaphor, in part because it needed to be. A rote recreation of the abuse Caballero suffered at the hands of his alcoholic father would have been too specific. I could have moved through the whole thing and shrugged it off, thinking "Well, that was one guy's story. Doesn't apply to me."
The layer of magical realism in Papo & Yo—cartoon legs that popped out of homes and shuffled them around, boxes that let you pick up buildings and plop them down where you needed—taps into an emotional core that resonates more broadly. I didn't grow up poor in Colombia but the game's hero Quico, his companion and the world he lived in brought back feelings from my own childhood. My single mom's surprisingly goofy sense of humor. The impotence I felt trying to move the crushing weight of her depression. The way she tried to get me out of my shell. Hiding under the couch so she couldn't beat me when she got mad. Finding escape in places where she couldn't follow: drawing my own crude comics, playing video games or hunkering down in the public library.
And my rapport with Monster—the oversized fantasy stand-in for Caballero's father—reminded me of my mom, too, even though she was very different from the elder Caballero. When he's drunk on frogs, all you can do is run from him and reel from his blows. But when he's calm, the symbiotic need he and Quico have for each other is touching. So it was with my mother. Experiences like having an abusive parent can be difficult to talk about, even with people who went through it with you. A game like this one could, amazingly, make those conversations happen.
Does it make sense that the person who raises you also tries to cut you down? Even if you factor in the substance addiction or other shitty stuff that happens in a parent's past? No, it doesn't. Not really. But there you are, needing to create something out of the puzzle pieces you've been handed. A personality in response to the ones you grew up around. A mythology to make others understand. A philosophy that governs how you'll act as an adult. And maybe a video game, even.
Papo & Yo is a creation that tells us that we don't have to be ashamed of our lives if they're occasionally ugly. Its painful ending isn't a feel-good denouement. But you leave the PS3 title with an understanding of what it took for one person to craft his own closure with his past and get on with the business of living. Call it a sign of video games' burgeoning maturity, or evidence of another of the medium's facets. It's the game of someone's life, playful and sad all at once. Can it be Game of the Year, too? Yes. It certainly can.
The writers of Kotaku are nominating nine games for 2012 Game of the Year. The nominations will be posted throughout the first week of January. The winner of our staff vote being announced on the Monday following and that game will be our 2012 GOTY, shifting 2011 GOTY Portal 2 a little further down our imaginary trophy shelf. Read all of our 2012 nominations, as they're posted.