Those of us who really play video games — who actually consider it a hobby rather than a diversion, who take it personally when someone like Roger Ebert, who we think should know better, declares that games are not, in fact, “art” — we like to talk about potential. We like to talk about the possibilities inherent in an art form that forces its consumer to inhabit some part of it. We like to talk about what separates games from other art forms using words like “emergent. We have discussions around topics like “ludonarrative dissonance.” We have arguments over whether games should be classified as “adventures” or “interactive fiction.” We love that the necessary interactivity of gaming gives everyone a different experience, despite the set of rules that every player shares. There is tremendous opportunity for delivering a message in games, for allowing an audience to experience something in a way that no other medium could even hope to.
And yet, when most people think of video games, they think of shooting. They think of war-centered shooters. They think of Mario. They think of passive entertainment. They think of the glazed eyes of children. People haven’t been conditioned to expect art in their video games because the most popular video games simply don’t offer it — at least not in any obvious way. Sure, someone tuned to the medium can find art in the sublime level design of a Mario game or the perfectly balanced multiplayer experience of a Halo game, but art is not what those games are about. Those games are about consumer entertainment, about putting together a polished product designed to move units. This is not to detract from any of them — these games are popular for a reason, as the saying goes — we just can’t go into them looking for deep experiences any more than we can go into a Michael Bay film looking for deep experiences.
Papo & Yo is the first entry from Minority games, an outfit whose very name indicates a studio looking to say something. The first something that it says is very clearly is derived from the vision of one man, Vander Caballero, whose terrible experiences with his father as a child very clearly informed the game reviewed here.
There is some peril involved when translating such a deeply personal experience to a videogame, illustrated quite clearly by two previous PopMatters articles: Scott Juster found Papo & Yo to be a deeply moving, difficult (in subject matter if not in gameplay), and a satisfying experience, while Eric Swain struggled to feel anything at all beyond a superficial sense of appreciation for what Caballero was trying to do. To be sure, games are meant to be played by audiences beyond those who developed them, and there is never a guarantee that anyone who plays the game isn’t going to see it at all the same way as the creative team who designed and programmed it did.
Darius Kazemi, in a short talk-turned-slide presentation called “Fuck Videogames”, addresses this peril from the point of view of the creator. The general gist of the talk is that games are but a single medium, and the question of whether a game is the best way to address a given thought or idea is anything but moot. Interactivity does not grant games some magical power to touch people more or allow for more expression or articulate ideas better. Video Games are merely another medium. If the entire point of your game can be articulated in a one-paragraph blog post, maybe you should have written a blog.
Should Caballero have written a blog?
Well, no, and here’s why: it works on multiple levels. On one hand, it offers an engrossing series of puzzles that build subtly and beautifully as it goes along. The game’s mechanics always feel just out of reach for the player. While these puzzles aren’t difficult, the malleability of the game’s world ensures that no two puzzles feel exactly alike. The player never has a chance to get in the groove, as the process of learning the rules of the puzzles is constant. Even without a narrative, Papo & Yo is a solid example of a game that stays one step ahead of the player. On the other hand, it is a successful allegory, partly because of how obvious it is in its metaphor. Even if the prologue didn’t make it clear that Caballero had created this game to tell a story about a childhood in which he was abused at the hands of his father, the game makes it pretty darn clear what’s going on, particularly in its final stretch.
Perhaps more important than both of these things, however, is what Papo & Yo appears to do for its creator. This is an exorcism of sorts, a way for Caballero to deal with his demons. As we see the game’s protagonist Quico slowly learn more about his surroundings, it’s as if his creator is slowly acknowledging more about his childhood. While we see Quico react violently following a particularly harrowing turn of events, we hear Caballero’s tears. By the end, it’s clear that Caballero has said what he needed to say, and can now move on.
In a way, it doesn’t matter what we think of what Caballero has created. This is a game as therapy, and it’s clear that for him that it says what it needs to say.
Eric Swain is right. There’s no guarantee that a tale of a broken home will resonate in a personal way with you. I grew up in a happy home. There’s no way that I’m going to feel anything playing this game anywhere near what Caballero felt creating it. What I can appreciate, however — what I can love about playing through this game — is the opportunity to watch someone tell his story in exactly the way he felt it needed to be told.
Epilogue: We’re reviewing this great little game one more time because it came out on Steam last month. It’s essentially the same game as the PS3 version, except with superior visuals (if you have the hardware to handle them) and also with a few Steam achievements mixed in. If you have the PS3 version, there’s nothing new for you here. It does, however, give a PS3-less audience the chance to experience it.