Creators always put themselves into their games in some shape or form—they cannot help it. We naturally infuse the things that we create with all the experiences, cultures, values, and ideologies that we call our own, even if we do not recognize them consciously. While these outside influences vary dramatically in size and function, they are ever present in the games we make. None of this is more true than in Papo & Yo, one of the few truly autobiographical games. The first game from the new Minority Studio undoubtedly sprang from the childhood of its lead designer Vander Caballero.
Papo & Yo wears its themes on its sleeves. Even without knowing the story ahead of time, it is hard to miss the game’s blatant metaphors. Quico, the game’s protagonist, begins his journey wanting to save the big pink rhino-like monster that is obviously a metaphorical stand-in for his father. The coconuts that make him fall asleep and the green frogs that turn him into a fiery vessel of anger clearly represent alcohol. I have serious doubts any player missed this, even before the game literally turns bottles of liquor into frogs before your very eyes. This is a very personal story about Caballero’s confrontation with his history of abuse.
Considering the autobiographical nature of Papo & Yo, Caballero’s take on the game is an interesting one: “It’s not about me, it’s about giving the space for everyone to bring their own vision of their childhood and put it in the game.” For those who grew up in abusive homes, the game may resonate deeper than most. Colette Benett, in an excellent article for Joystiq, describes her own reactions to the game, finding a personal meaning in the story of another. “Papo & Yo is about a different type of alcoholic relationship than the one I had growing up, but all the same, I recognized my ten year old self in it.” (“Comforts of Violence in Papo & Yo”, Joystiq, 21 August 2012).
The blunt nature of the game’s central metaphor serves its purpose by spotlighting the more detailed and personal moments that Caballero and his players bring to the experience. Caballero defends the metaphor himself in a Giant Bomb interview stating, “the only way to fight alcoholism and abuse is to scream your lungs out, ‘My father is an alcoholic’” (Alex Navarro, “Q&A: Papo & Yo Creator Vander Caballero On How His Troubled Past Inspired His Newest Project”, Giant Bomb, 16 June 2011). While screaming is generally not my style, I should say here that I too am familiar with abusive relationships. I grew up in a household plagued by alcoholism, mental illness, and violence. My appreciation for Papo & Yo stems from the design of transformative moments, not just from shared experiences.
Moments of lucidity and even joy are not uncommon in abusive relationships. While Papo & Yo conveys a sense of protection towards the monster by requiring his presence in various puzzles, the most tragic moment of tenderness comes midway through the game. In a pit below the ground, if players fail at a simple ball and shell game, walls threaten to crush Quico. If this occurs, the Monster will reach down and pluck Quico from danger. Lifting him with a single hand and setting him down gently, the monster shakes his head in a sign of parental concern and disapproval. One of the hardest things about growing up in an abusive relationship is the deep desire to salvage the ideal parent within the abusive one. For much of the game, Quico is both a victim and a guardian without realizing the connection between the two.
In another scene, Quico must create a bridge of buildings towards an exit, but each time he moves a platform into place, a frog escapes and threatens to drive his father into a rampage. While yes, the frogs are cute, in this moment they become the embodiment of fear and the potential for danger. They become symbols of violence, triggers for the emotions that are sure to follow. In my own experience, bottles of alcohol are just as easily transformed into representatives of abuse.
A twenty-four pack of beer sitting on a kitchen table, from a child’s perspective, can be a warning sign for what’s to come. It can encapsulate the abusive relationship in blinding moment of panic and prescience. As players frantically catch the escaping frogs and smash them against the wall, they recreate through play the way a scared and angry child might shatter bottles of liquor in a futile and courageous form of resistance.
For those that confront in some way their own history of abuse, the experience is both a momentous event and a process. Quico’s journey in Papo & Yo mirrors this change. As the story progresses, Quico’s appearance changes. He loses his regular clothes and eventually dons body paint, an act of visual transformation to accompany his psychological one. The world itself shifts as Quico nears the moment of revelation and decision. By the time he makes the call to give up on a relationship with his father, the fantastical realm of his imagination is in tatters, floating above an abyss. Even Lula, a toy robot he fashioned into a companion is left behind. The changing play experience comes to represent a profound moment as Quico begins to free himself from a tragically abusive relationship.
Papo & Yo ends shortly after Quico makes the decision to abandon his father. The imagined world is set aside, and he confronts the reality of his situation. It is fitting, then, that Caballero tells his story in the realm of fantasy. Like Caballero, when I grew up, video games were a form of escapism. Now, through play, participants can partake in a personal and universally shared story of liberation. As Caballero states, “what is more important as a human is that you are able to tell your story, no matter how painful it is, because by telling it, you actually free yourself.”