Papo & Yo

Papo & Yo makes sure you know exactly what it’s about from the get-go: the game is a not-really-at-all-veiled metaphor for an alcohol-abusing father, and how a child might view and cope with it.

It’s pretty heavy subject matter, but the game presents it through a playful, imaginative world with dark undertones – a world that a victim of abuse might invent to try to escape from reality.

As we guide Quico, a boy of maybe ten, through a ramshackle village, it quickly becomes obvious that something’s not right. The world looks real – we can see in detail the cracks in the concrete, the stone streets, sheets of tin, tyres and soccer balls littered around. But it doesn’t feel real. The streets are empty, the houses are stacked up like cardboard boxes, and strange chalk drawings glow white.

Quico’s uneasy relationship with his father manifests itself as his best friend, Monster.

These chalk outlines attract attention, guiding the player to points of interest and highlighting objects that can be interacted with. Pretending chalk drawings of switches and doors are useable is delightfully childlike, as is imagining the effects that they have on the environment. Stairs and platforms will slide out of nowhere, bending reality to form new paths. Houses will sprout glowing white legs or wings and move to where they’re called.

Just under the surface of what we can see is a glowing white world where things behave differently and using them to manipulate the “real” world forms the crux of most puzzles in the game. They’re generally well-designed but never particularly challenging, amounting to a fairly basic block and switch-based puzzle platformer. That’s not a bad thing, when it’s presented so well.

It kind of feels like a Rugrats episode: we’re playing in a world imagined by a child, who gives fantastical properties to real-life elements. Chalk drawings work like magic. Lula, the toy robot, comes to life and helps Quico by hitting out-of-reach buttons and extending his jump distance. And of course, Quico’s uneasy relationship with his father manifests itself as his best friend, Monster.

We first meet Monster as a huge scary shadow and ground-shaking footsteps. He’s intimidating, but despite his size, he’s a big softy. Soon, we see him asleep on a pile of boxes, and he lets Quico jump on his belly. Then we guide Monster through an area using coconuts, his favourite food. He’s gentle and a little dopey, and a sense of mutual protection develops; we know these two look after each other.

But Monster has a darker side, which comes out when he eats brightly coloured frogs. Monster’s body and temper will flare up, and he’ll attack Quico on sight. Running and hiding are your only options, and as far as that, it’s an effective analogy for an alcoholic parent.

Certain puzzles conjure troubling images if viewed through that metaphor. One has Quico frantically destroying frogs before Monster can get to them – is hiding or destroying a parent’s alcohol supply a precaution that some kids have had to use?

The game can be a little heavy-handed in its message at times, and I actually wish it didn’t flatly tell me what it was about at the beginning. The analogy is clear enough to stand on its own, while still allowing a bit of room for speculation. And a bit of guesswork would have made the ending stronger, too.

Papo & Yo feels very personal. Endearing, but unsettling. It deals with themes that many games (and players) may be uncomfortable with, and while it isn’t always subtle about it, the developers have kept it relatively light, surrounding it with an imaginative world that’s a pleasure to explore.

Although rarely challenging, the puzzles are solid and clever, but it’s over a little too soon, clocking in under five hours. Perhaps it’s good that the game doesn’t overstay its welcome, but it felt like more could be done within the framework it sets up.

Papo & Yo isn’t for everyone, but the journey is refreshing, for those who want a little more emotion in their games.