The following post contains spoilers for Papo & Yo.
Video games are often criticized as being childish and obsessed with power fantasies. It’s an understandable sentiment. Whether it is an uninspired cartoonish aesthetic or a simplistic plot in which a 90-pound weakling becomes the master of the universe, many games come off as immature. In games in which kids are the main characters, it’s easy to find a combination of these two tropes: shallow child characters that somehow manage to get caught up in a grand conflict in which they become the hero. It’s a fun daydream, but not especially representative of the real challenges that youths face.
Papo & Yo got me thinking about the topic of children in games, largely because its child-protagonist has modest abilities and its story is grounded in reality. Quico is the main character, but he’s not the world’s savior. He makes use of unique abilities, but he is by no means invulnerable to harm nor totally in control of his situation. Quico’s journey of personal growth serves as a metaphor for the private battles that people face every day, rather than a literal war for control of the universe.
On a related note, I think it’s interesting that putting children in dangerous situations remains one of gaming’s bigger taboos. Studios that are no stranger to controversy, like Rockstar, usually avoid explicit depictions of violence against kids. BioShock goes a bit further, but the Little Sisters that you can choose to hunt or save are never fully fleshed out as characters. We don’t learn their individual names. We don’t know much of their backstory. Most of the time they look grotesque and are actively trying to sic a Big Daddy on us. Most importantly, they have mechanical influence on the game. Regardless of the emotions they elicit, their worth can be expressed numerically. Superficially, they are kids, but they are also commodities to be quantified on a spreadsheet that determines your in-game abilities.
Heavy Rain‘s unorthodox gameplay sets it apart from other games, but so does its willingness to put children in immediate danger with lasting consequences. Say what you will about the game’s messy plot and clunky dialogue, but the kind of danger its child characters face is hard to ignore. I’ve heard rumblings that Telltale’s breakout hit, The Walking Dead is taking a serious run at creating a child character who is both an important part of the story and a fully-realized character. It’s a welcome development, as it would stand in contrast to countless other action, adventure, and RPG titles in which you control (or protect) a kid tasked with saving the world from some generically evil force that will do some vaguely evil thing should you fail (although failure rarely seems likely).
Returning to Papo & Yo, we’re presented with Quico: a boy trying to grow in the shadow of his abusive, alcoholic father. Try as he might, he doesn’t have the power to change his father’s actions. He can only attempt to stay strong and survive the ordeal. While told from a child’s perspective, it’s a story about mature themes, and it illustrates a kind of subtle heroism that games often avoid.
The game’s systems are used as a metaphor to explain Quico’s relationship to his father. Quico is accompanied by “Monster,” a beast who is at times helpful and at times violent. You need Monster to progress just as any child needs adult help, but you can never fully rely on him. There is a physical power imbalance throughout the whole game. Quico has no way of overpowering Monster, and therefore must hide or trick the monster in order to escape his rage. Overcoming the danger posed by the monster isn’t a matter of beating him at his own game. Instead Quico (and the player) has to use his wits and determination to survive.
In Papo & Yo, Quico faces a harsh truth that all children learn eventually: parents have flaws like anyone else. Monster’s flaws are downright dangerous to Quico, but this doesn’t stop him from trying to help Monster. Ultimately, it’s revealed that there is no external cure, and the game shifts to focus on Quico’s realization that he is ultimately powerless to help Monster. At multiple points towards the ending, the game slows down so that the player may reflect on Monster’s tragic existence as well as the equally tragic choice that Quico must make.
I’ve heard people criticize Papo & Yo as lacking subtlety, but I think that’s missing the point. What other game forces you to play as a young boy who must watch as his father is destroyed by his own failings? The game follows the consequences of addiction to their logical conclusion, obvious though they may be. In the end, Quico can do nothing to help Monster, and must ultimately leave him behind. The last action you take is both simple and agonizing. For Quico to “succeed,” you must push Monster into the abyss and accept that sometimes survival and the opportunity to heal is the closest that you can get to “winning” a game.
Papo & Yo’s obvious symbolism is important because it forces us to consider the game’s themes. We have no choice but to think about how children handle trauma, what violence does to a family, and the importance of being able to let go of pain and obsessions. It is an unflinching examination of themes most video games never touch, especially when kids are involved.