Kids, Monsters, and Metaphors

Papo & Yo demonstrates that a kid's story in a video game doesn't need to be childish.

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.

So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.