Papo & Yo – Review
All video games give life to childhood fantasy. They send us soaring into space; they mine us deep underground. They propel us far into the future; they return us to the distant past. They take us backstage at the concert; they take us front line in the war. They turn the bullied into the aggressor, the wimp into the champion footballer, and they guarantee we get the girl/ boy.
So it is with Papo & Yo, a PlayStation Store game bursting at the seams with innocent wish-fulfillment. What child hasn’t dreamed their favourite toy would spring to life then fly them across gaps and chasms, or carry out those tasks that are just out of reach? What child never fantasised about plucking buildings from their roots and, with nudge of the hand, rearranging them in whatever order they wish – a god of town planning, a king with the power to widen those boundaries adults impose?
What child hasn’t longed to spear the heart of the monster that was their father’s substance addiction?
Papo & Yo then, is a game like the others, and yet somehow nothing like them at all. For one, it wears its allegory on its sleeve. ‘To my mother, brothers and sister, with whom I survived the monster in my father,’ reads the game’s opening dedication, setting a muted tone that no amount of sun-bronzed South American vistas can lift.
Some might accuse creative director Vander Caballero of heavy-handedness here. Why not allow the game to speak for itself? Why flag up the autobiographical connotation before we’ve had the opportunity to find it for ourselves? But in a medium that rarely touches upon themes beyond the pursuit of power, the quest for dominance and the relentless search for strength, where allegory – even within the indie movement – is something of a stranger, who can blame the developer for drawing attention to its novel ambition up front?
Besides, Papo & Yo does speak for itself: loud, clear, personal, affecting. It begins with a rooftop chase, your schoolboy character pursuing a girl through streets filled with the mundane – wilting plants in terracotta pots, discarded footballs – but underpinned by heavy magic. Arcane symbols chalked on walls conjure staircases where there were none at the touch of a button, while concrete peels back to reveal bright, ethereal nooks and cellars.
Move a discarded box two feet to the left and the building in front of you might just move in kind. It’s the kind of awesome power that only a child would apply in such a modest manner – creating pathways through the city where there were none in order to win a game of chase. It’s innocent, beguiling and itself acts as a metaphor for the greater message: a boy trying his best to navigate and change the landscape of an indifferent, harsh environment.
Soon enough you meet the monster that represents Caballero’s father’s alcoholism, a lumbering ugly giant, docile when eating coconuts – which are used to lure him about the world in order to step on switches or act as a trampoline to reach higher platforms – but enraged when licking frogs.
Papo & Yo joins Fez in that rare class of video game in which there is no combat. Your character has few tools at his disposal: his toy robot allows him to hover for a few seconds after a jump and he has the ability to pick up and place objects. He is otherwise powerless, Caballero and his team realising what so many game makers miss, that true impact comes from disempowerment, not dominance.
You read read the rest of this review at Eurogamer.