Why Magical Realism Works in ‘Papo & Yo’

Papo & Yo is game designer Vander Caballero’s cathartic allegory for growing up with an abusive alcoholic father. The father is represented by a monster that is sometimes docile and sometimes lives up to his name. When Monster eats frogs, he becomes a raging beast and lashes out at the young male protagonist, Quico. The symbolism isn’t subtle, but it needn’t be. Caballero has been very open about his intent with the project in his developer diary. The end result is an emotional journey in which the player comes to experience the world through Quico’s eyes. This isn’t surprising. What is surprising is how well magical realism, a movement more commonly associated with literature, is adapted to game design. Magical realism has a long literary tradition in Latin America. Ever since Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude was indelibly imprinted on our collective literary conscious, we’ve been fascinated with this literary tradition. While he wasn’t the first to work in the genre, he may have perfected it.

Magical realism is an ambiguous term to pin down and is often debated by literary scholars, but like Justice Stewart said, “I know it when I see it.” Even though magical realism has a long literary lineage, it has struggled to define itself as a film genre. Direct adaptations of works in the genre such as Like Water for Chocolate (1992) and Love in the Time of Cholera (2007) simply fall flat. Some more recent works have been more successful than others. Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) is likely the most successful translation of magical realism to film. Last year’s Life of Pi (2012) is another good example. However, overall, film and magical realism often don’t mix. Some films borrow magical realist elements, such as The Fall (2006). But, even The Fall lands more on a spectrum that tends toward surrealism. It is interesting then, that the medium of games, which has often learned much of its storytelling technique from film, might be a much more viable inheritor of the magical realist tradition.

Papo & Yo is successful in its representation of magical realism for a number of reasons. A big one is setting. Papo & Yo takes place in the favelas of Brazil. In keeping with a Latin American setting, Papo & Yo solidifies its subject matter within its roots. While magical realism isn’t limited to Latin America, it did proliferate there and the culture of the region suggests a unique perspective that informs the genre. The mixing of western, indigenous, and afro-latin cultures has created a long colorful history throughout the region, informing all aspects of culture and art. This amalgamation of culture is also reflected in Papo & Yo. Though there are very few characters in Papo & Yo, the in-game world is a colorful mélange of culture. Quico, the protagonist, is dark-skinned while is father is fair, presumably of European descent. This intercultural blend is directly integrated into the family unit of the story. Interestingly, Quico begins the game in western dress, a school boy’s uniform. His father is also shown wearing a western business suit. As the story progresses Quico loses more and more of his clothing. While this alone is not an indication of anything, Quico also begins to decorate himself with tribal paint, representing his move toward the magical. The only other human protagonist is Alejandra, a young girl Quico’s age. Alejandra is representative of the mystical. She can walk through walls, find secret portals, and while at first is an antagonist to Quico, eventually becomes a guide. She also is painted with tribal markings from the beginning. No explanation is given for Alejandra’s powers, understanding of the mystical, or even the two characters’ relationship with one another. Typical of magical realism, that relationship is simply accepted by Quico, and the player must follow suit.

We are also seeing the world through the eyes of a child. The favelas are not seen as dirty, impoverished, or dangerous. They are vibrant, colorful, full of life and full of wonder. Murals decorate city walls. Buildings stand out in brilliant hues. They are inviting, friendly. It is only when Quico must return home in recurring flashbacks that color begins to fade from the world. Time starts running in slow motion, and everything turns to shades of gray and black. The outside world is full of adventure for Quico. It is also his refuge from an abusive home. So it is no wonder that when chalk outlines begin to open doors and invisible keys reveal hidden stairways, Quico is unfazed. We, as the player, are taken aback by every progressive reveal of the fantastic. If you pick up a box, a house may move with it, or better yet, sprout wings and fly away. The player — assuming they are an adult — is placed back into the shoes of a child again. We must remember how to see the world with the wonderment that a child does. This shift in perception also forces us to accept the unacceptable within the laws of magical realism.

However, this transition isn’t too difficult for gamers. We are used to accepting the unthinkable in games. Suspension of disbelief is common to many mediums but comes as second nature to gamers. While, film has had its limitations in accomplishing a suspension of disbelief (non-synced sound, black and white, and the fact that film is a projected 2-D moving image), games allow for a much more generous allowance of the unusual. Digital games are a very young medium. Only 30 years ago, gamers were simply looking at heavily pixelated sprites. These were abstracted forms with a fraction of a semblance of what they were meant to represent. We had to more than meet the game half way to suspend our disbelief. Still, even as the industry gets closer and closer to photorealistic graphics our eye can detect that this is not real. There is a push back against photorealistic graphics, though that is a discussion for another time. Games feature avatars, and art design will dictate how stylistic, and thus how far removed from realism a game’s graphics can get. Our brains are still filling in the blanks, no matter how far technology advances. This negotiation with the game makes gamers much more willing to accept the fantastical.

Another difference between film and games is tonal. Films, for the most part, are tonally realistic. Even in fantasy and science fiction films, we demand realism. If a film has bad special effects, our suspension of disbelief is broken easily. As film audiences, we only believe what our eye tells us is real. Games, on the other hand, until very recently, dealt largely in the realm of fantasy. Space pirates, wizards and warriors, and anthropomorphized animals were the norm. We expect games to be fantastic, and tonally they can be comic, absurd, tongue-in-cheek, and might be the better for it. Generally speaking, we want films to reflect our realities and games to reflect our fantasies. These foundational differences may leave games better suited for dealing with magical realist material.

Papo & Yo is a puzzle game at its core. It was criticized across the board for its overall easiness and its play length. I would question whether Papo & Yo was aiming for intellectual brainteasers, though. Papo & Yo is an emotional story. The puzzles may be simple, but the player is greeted with one awe-inspiring scenario after another. The payoff comes from witnessing that rainbow over that waterfall in the distance when moving a row of shacks, not from scratching your head for minutes or hours on end. Papo & Yo values the experiential over the analytical. These puzzles can also be seen as games invented by a child to deal with the powerful emotions that he is experiencing living with an abusive father. The puzzles are a coping mechanism for Quico. Overcoming the puzzle provides a sense of empowerment for Quico, no matter how big or small. The simplicity of the puzzles also keeps the momentum of the game going. If they were indefinitely long, it would disrupt the emotional impact of the story.

Papo & Yo‘s emotional end game comes when Alejandra tells Quico that a shaman can cure Monster of his rage. The game becomes a journey to gently guide Monster through a series of obstacles to get him to the shaman. On the final stretch to the shaman, Quico becomes trapped in what we can believe is his front yard. His father is separated from him, present instead in another yard. For minutes the world glides by as the house is carried through space and presumably time. Quico can do nothing but jump. He can’t reach his father. He is metaphorically powerless, as a child is powerless in an abusive relationship with a parent. It is a very powerful scene in which the player can do nothing, a condition that we take very much to heart. When Quico finally makes it to the shaman he tells him, “There is no cure for Monster. You must let him go.” From here on, Quico must face his demons. The magical and the real coincide as Quico picks up bottles of alcohol on one platform, pushes them through a tube, in which they come out as frogs on another platform for Monster to consume and become drunk with rage. This is the only time an actual alcohol bottle is shown in the game, signaling Quico’s acknowledgment of his father’s alcoholism.

This visual allegorical storytelling wouldn’t work as well in film or literature for that matter. It speaks in the language of games. Platforms, puzzles, put this object in this object and something will happen. These are expressions gamers understand. Puzzle games have told engaging stories before. Papo & Yo is appealing for telling such an emotionally raw story in an interactive format. Papo & Yo successfully combines magical realism and standard puzzle platformer elements to tell a deeply personal story that will haunt you, even days after you’ve put it down.