My favorite description of the relationship between a video game’s story and its rule systems comes from renowned game designer Warren Spector:
What story does in games is provide a context for player actions, player choices. In essence, when you’re playing Deus Ex, or any other game, all you’re really doing is you’re moving a green pixel over a brown pixel, pressing a button at the right millisecond, that causes a red pixel to appear. That first pixel is a bullet, and that second pixel is a bad guy who’s threatening your brother and that red pixel is “You’ve now saved your brother.” All of a sudden, that’s significant, and that’s what stories can do.
It’s an elegant explanation that recognizes the symbiotic relationship between a game’s authorial intent and the emergent stories that arise from its mechanics. The best story-driven games recognize that traditional narrative elements (like visual aesthetics or a linear plot) can imbue meaning into seemingly neutral actions, thereby exposing the ways that interactive systems can shape our behavior and convey messages. Papo & Yo achieves this synthesis and, in doing so, masterfully conveys a deeply personal story.
Structurally, Papo & Yo is a third-person platformer/puzzle game. You control, Quico, a young boy who escapes a troubled home life by entering a fantasy world in which favela buildings sprout wings and magic chalk pictures come to life. This world is also inhabited by a hulking beast called “Monster.” Monster can be docile and, at times, even helpful when you need to reach high ledges or trip specific switches. The game becomes an exercise in utilizing and placating Monster while piecing together the magical, physics-defying rules that govern the world. However, Monster loves poisonous frogs. Eating them sends him into a fiery rage and causes him to turn his anger towards Quico. Despite these violent attacks, Quico takes it on himself to lead Monster to a shaman in hopes of finding a way to exorcise his demons.
So often games either aim for verisimilitude (think Uncharted or Call of Duty) or fully embrace fantasy (like Mario or LittleBigPlanet). Papo & Yo displays a refreshing mixture of the supernatural and the realistic that resembles films like Pan’s Labyrinth or books by Gabriel García Márquez. The favelas that make up most of the game’s settings are decorated by magical chalk drawings. Touch the images and they reveal hidden switches, doors, and gears with the power to peel back entire sections of the landscape and expose mystical passageways. You navigate grimy sewers and dilapidated neighborhoods, but you also have a toy robot that comes to life when you need to rearrange buildings or hover in mid-air. And, of course, a huge monster accompanies you as you run through the city streets.
At times, Papo & Yo‘s magic-infused platforming is weak, but it is bolstered by the game’s strong thematic elements. The slightly loose character control and occasional collision detection problem are easy to shrug off thanks to the game’s gripping story. Vander Caballero, the game’s creative director, sets the tone for all the subsequent action with a simple, yet startling, preface: “To my mother, brother and sisters with whom I survived the monster in my father.” Such an explicit dedication, especially at the very beginning of a game, is nearly unheard of in the video game space. From the very beginning, it is clear that Quico’s retreat into fantasy, his interactions with Monster, and his journey to save him are an exploration of the power dynamic between a child and an abusive parent.
Entering new areas is both exciting and nerve wracking. You don’t know what obstacles you’ll face, and you don’t know if you’ll have Monster’s help, as even one frog triggers his anger. As Quico, you are simultaneously reliant on and responsible for Monster; you need his help to progress, but you must also take care of him when he loses control. The weight of this responsibility gets heavier as the game progresses as Monster’s actions grow increasingly destructive. With every passing stage, you are asked to put more and more faith into the abstract idea that the shaman will somehow help Monster and put a stop to all of this pain.
Thanks to the medium’s interactivity, Papo & Yo does more than simply describe the ambivalence and pain of a dysfunctional relationship—it makes you feel it. In one of my favorite sequences, you guide Quico across a series of buildings, jumping from roof to roof while a calm Monster tags along below you. Later, you have to backtrack over this same terrain, except this time Monster is enraged and snarling at you from below. While your basic abilities are the same, the jumps somehow feel harder. Your one-time protector is now an enemy, waiting for you to make a mistake. There is a new sense of pressure not only to help him but to avoid putting yourself in harm’s way. Doubt and fear creep into every jump and threaten to cripple you. Rightly or wrongly, you blame the frogs for transforming Monster. You blame Monster for not being able to control himself. You blame yourself for not being good enough or smart enough to get out of the situation. You come to know these things not because the game explicitly tells you “these are the consequences of addiction;” you know them because you experience them through the game’s rules.
Papo & Yo is unflinching in its portrayal of nightmarish issues like alcoholism and child abuse. As you make your way towards the game’s end (an ending that is both fittingly tragic and beautiful), it never loses sight of its central metaphor. It insists that you experience Quico and Monster’s sad relationship through the game’s mechanics. Just as Warren Spector describes, Papo & Yo’s story provides the game’s systems a meaningful context. In turn, we are able to understand how a platformer, one of the oldest and most basic video game genres, can represent something as complex as Caballero’s relationship with his father. Blank pixels become symbols, abstract interactions become a story, and the resulting system lets us do more than receive a narrative; we participate it in it. This makes Papo & Yo an outstanding example of the best the medium has to offer.