If 40+ hour long RPGs are the three-volume novels of the video game world, then games like Papo & Yo are its poetry. Theologian and novelist Frederick Buechner has claimed that poetry is “the language of truth.” The narrative “poetry” of Papo & Yo offers an insight into the realities of growing up in the company of a violent father.
The game opens with a dedication from Vander Caballero, the game’s creative director, “To my mother, brother and sisters with whom I survived the monster of my father.” Since the culture of video games usually defines survival via zombies and apocalyptic landscapes, Caballero’s choice of the term “survived,” creates a tension between the game’s fanciful imagery and the terror of an adolescence in which life seems all too tenuous.
At its core, Papo & Yo is a third-person adventure game in which the player controls Quico, a young boy, as he progresses through a vaguely South American urban conflagration of buildings stacked haphazardly upon one another. But slicing into this world are dark images of a reality on the other side of what we experience in the game’s levels. These brief flashes of Quico hiding in the closet while his father rages through the house, or of Quico clinging to Lula, his toy robot, in the backseat of car as it drives through a rainstorm suggest that the darker reality may pierce the veil of the game’s bright urban landscape at any moment.
Monster is the figurative intersection between Quico’s imaginative world and his actual experiences. As a representative of the abusive father, Monster demonstrates the complexity of a father that can be helpful one moment and terrifying the next. By plying Monster with fruit, Quico can lead him around to complete various puzzles, but if Monster encounters one of the game’s colorful frogs, he devours it and flies into a rage. The first time Monster went through this transformation, I was quite scared–the suddenness of the change was startling.
If anything, Papo & Yo’s imagery reveals the distances that a child might go to escape the fear and the pain of an unstable parent. In a life where Quico feels completely out of control, he has constructed a world where he can move buildings by lifting cardboard boxes, stack water heaters end to end to construct a fantastic bridge, and use his toy robot to fly through the air.
However, the game falters in its attempt to navigate the space between being a strict roman-a-clef and offering a visual metaphor open to interpretation. In suggesting a 1:1 correspondence between characters in the game and events Quico’s life, the game piques our curiosity, but it doesn’t deliver a complete interpretive package. On the other hand, the game’s ambiguous ending and evasive narrative allow for some critical interpretation. In the end, the game might have worked better as a more generalized metaphor for the kind of imaginative world that an abused child might create.
Still, the experience of a poem is quite different from that of a novel. Poems creep into the soul and stir everything up; they are beautiful, puckish things that help us to see and understand the world in ways that we might not have seen before. Papo & Yo is a wonderful poem, despite its faults, that draws us into a world that we should all experience.