Papo & Yo

Earnest Rides Again

Papo & Yo demonstrates the limits of good intentions.

By John Teti • August 21, 2012

The artistic power of earnestness has its limits. Papo & Yo comes up hard against them. The game bursts with good intentions: It’s the quest of a boy, Quico, who pursues salvation in a fantasy version of the Colombian favela—a colorful, tall, crannied shantytown—that he calls home. It’s also an allegory of creator Vander Caballero’s childhood struggle to live with his father, an abusive alcoholic. The premise possesses all the heartfelt spirit and personal perspective that’s so rare and coveted in mass-produced art. Yet as it proceeds, Papo & Yo becomes so bereft of nuance, insight, or authentic emotional development, it’s like the game sets out to test the hypothesis that good intentions are enough to sustain a work—and proves that they’re not.

The first glimpses of the favela promise that this will be a haven for a child’s wonder. The streets glow with the hues of a perpetual late-afternoon sun, and the buildings themselves can be playful, rearranging themselves according to Quico’s whim. To advance in your journey, playing as Quico, you use the favela as a massive playpen. Moving a box might, say, move an entire building by proxy, so that you can hop across the building’s roof and advance deeper into the fantasy world. Or if you switch a series of levers, perhaps multiple buildings will move, and you can hop across their roofs. Moving things around and then hopping across the tops of those things is pretty much the extent of the adventures here.

Papo & Yo

And hey, that’s charming for a little while, but surely the imagination of even the dullest kid accommodates more elaborate fantasies than the box-pulling, switch-toggling drudgery of Papo & Yo. This land is supposed to embody Quico’s retreat from reality—a place of relative happiness where he can work through his fear of his “monstrous father”—but after a while, his dream world just seems like a different kind of hell. The game’s sun-dappled cheer ultimately comes off as something more cynical—a dissonant, joyous veneer for a dystopia where children must complete a series of joyless sliding-block tasks.

You could also call them sliding-block “puzzles,” but that would suggest an element of subterfuge or surprise that the game usually lacks. The vast physical scale of the world isn’t matched by its cleverness, so while it might take 30 seconds to figure out what you need to do on a given task, it can easily take 10 minutes of running, hopping, and carrying to actually do it. Solving a task is less “Eureka!” than “Eu…re…[interminable busywork]…ka.”

This is not to say that Papo & Yo is incapable of awe-inspiring moments. There are morsels floating amid the gruel, like one scene in which you peel half a town from its foundations and a modest slum overtakes the sky. It evokes that youthful perspective in which even the smallest neighborhood seems like a vast world, because it’s all you know. But it’s more common for Papo & Yo to settle into a more stupefying routine, like a stage that marches you around a city block to collect a dozen gas tanks. Each tank sprouts cartoony wings when you touch it, as if a rusted metal cylinder suddenly becomes magical if Papo & Yo makes it sort of flutter.

Papo & Yo

The action occasionally breaks away from the thin fantasy of the favela world to place you in scenes that depict, in a dream-like mode, Quico’s traumatic memories of his father. These interstitials have an effect like those old “save the children” TV ads with Sally Struthers—momentarily moving, but without enough depth to leave a lasting mark. Any distinctive rough edges have been sanded away, leaving the trauma ugly but not too ugly for commercial consumption. In Papo & Yo, the image of a child clutching his favorite toy, imagining that the toy will protect him, is oddly pat and easy for a work that’s supposed to be personal and challenging. Allegories often are broad, but that doesn’t mean they have to be generic.

Near the end of the game’s first act, Quico is joined by the lumbering orange Monster, the fantasy world’s stand-in for Dad. In some ways, the beast is the most compelling part of this fable. The character design is inspired, especially in Monster’s clay face, which conveys a mix of friendliness, anger, and aloofness—a mix that shifts depending on the angle. Although it’s your job to bring Monster along on much of the journey through the favela, and thus he acts as a companion, he’s not quite a friend. It’s hard to tell what sort of relationship you ought to have with this creature, and that’s a poignant evocation of Quico’s uncertainty toward his volatile father. It’s telling that Monster seems friendliest when he’s asleep—when he’s up and about, there’s always some danger roiling beneath the surface.

Papo & Yo

When Papo & Yo pushes beyond these subtleties, it falters. Monster has a love for frogs, which symbolize booze, and when Monster eats a frog, he starts symbolizing alcoholism. He symbolizes alcoholism all over the place, breathing fire, chasing after you, and tossing you around. This has less impact than the game seems to intend. Monster’s frog/booze-fueled rage is more of a loud irritant than a trauma. In the context of Papo & Yo’s boring puzzles, the takeaway is that child abuse is awfully annoying, given that it deepens the already-stultifying tedium of childhood fantasy.

Papo & Yo’s lack of imagination increasingly stifles its potential as the game lurches to an end. One late quest posits that we must beat the bejesus out of Monster in order to free his anger and revive the symbol of Quico’s childhood innocence. The metaphors get a bit muddled here, but let’s grant that Papo & Yo’s fable is rooted in the anguish of a confused child, so not everything needs to make sense. The real problem is that this moment of catharsis plays out by having Quico engage in more lever-pulling and errand-running. Any supposed depth of emotion is neutered by the sterile reality on the screen and in the player’s hands.

At least the daddy-beating bit has some thematic complexity to it, though. The ending is a final insult, a pageant of simplistic morality that betrays the game’s earlier nods toward nuance. Quico’s final reckoning with his father is a mess of unearned, trite heartstring-pulling. At one point, Papo & Yo explains what everything in the fable symbolized (as if it weren’t already crushingly obvious). It reminds me of those videos on The Onion where an editorial cartoonist informs us that the woman labeled “NAIVE PARENT” is meant to signify a naïve parent. Oh, and how do you discover all this deeper meaning? No joke: by pulling a series of levers.

The heart in Papo & Yo is so pure that it’s tempting to give the game credit for effort—for trying to express the humanity that so many mainstream games ignore. And in that respect, I do commend it. But Papo & Yo’s clumsy dissonance ends up trivializing the very addiction and abuse it hopes to dramatize. It’s one thing to be earnest, another to be profound.

Papo & Yo
Developer: Minority
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Platform: Playstation 3
Price: $15
Rating: E10+

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586 Responses to “Earnest Rides Again”

  1. Spacemonkey Mafia says:

    Hmn.  That’s a bummer.  This is a game that, while I can’t say I would get it for myself, I wanted to do well simply by virtue of what it’s attempting.
       I guess it’s a good reminder that just because the problem is ‘Transformers 2’, that doesn’t mean the answer is ‘Garden State’.

    • John Teti says:

      This is only going to make sense to you when Out This Week is published in an hour, but this comment is the weirdest coincidence I think I’ve ever encountered in my writing/editing career.

      • Electric Dragon says:

        Out this week: Garden State:The Game! You play as the MPDG, and the aim is to bring meaning to the life of a sad sack loser via eccentric, narcissistic yet ultimately life-affirming means. Points are awarded for casual drug use, barefoot dancing (with bonuses if fountains are involved), and every time you “do something completely unique”!

        Beware though. There are ways of failing the game: such as if you accidentally end up in a long term relationship with the sad sack loser rather than flitting out of his life at the end of the game having enabled him to embrace his inner whimsy.

      • George_Liquor says:

        Once in a millennium, the stars and galaxies align, the veil is lifted and Heaven’s truths are laid bare to one chosen individual. Today, this lucky soul is @Spacemonkey_Mafia:disqus, who has gained the precious gift of… Gameological Article Precognition!

        Use your new-found strength wisely, my friend.

      • Spacemonkey Mafia says:

        Wow.  I’ll be damned.  That is weird.

  2. Girard says:

    That’s a shame. If I every get access to a PS3, I may still give it a shot simply because of what it was trying to do. But it’s unfortunate that it mishandles its own subject matter.  I wonder if earnestness not ‘achieving intended profundity’ is something more common in games than in other media (though it is obviously prevalent in film, TV, literature, etc.), and if this is another growing pain the medium has to go through (much like problematic sexual politics, and over-reliance on violence, it seems like embarrassing over-earnestness is another bit of evidence that video games are for the most part still locked in a perpetual adolescence).

    I might be being hard on the medium as a whole, though. It’s also very probable that there’s not a higher proportion of kitsch in games than there is in music, movies, etc.

    • Destroy Him My Robots says:

      Would we be better off without awkwardness or failure to achieve intended profundity? Sure, I wouldn’t argue against that. But I’m not convinced earnestness has much to do with that. Detached ambiguity is often just a cheap, cowardly defense, like when teenager tells their love that they should hook up, but in a “it’s just a joke, uhm, unless you’re into it” way. Sassoferrato’s The Virgin in Prayer works because of its unbounded sincerity. So does Schubert’s Serenade. Both couldn’t possibly be any more earnest. I think we shouldn’t tell developers to get better at masking their convictions or feelings, we should encourage them to get better at expressing them instead. (Not that I think you really advocate the former)

      • Girard says:

         Oh, definitely, the earnestness itself isn’t the problem. I was talking about expressing earnestness in a way that fails, and turns into kitsch or becomes embarrassing, which is an artistic danger indie games face as they hightail it away from the macho world of AAAdolescent action games.

  3. HobbesMkii says:

    Guys, guys! There’s an Ernest reference in the headline!

  4. Marijn Lems says:

    I quite disagree. For me, the repetitive mechanics were no problem, because I was fully immersed in the world. The imagination of the developers is so completely evident in the visual payoff of the puzzles (the gas tanks with wings that John mentions form an enormous tower that you can then bend over the city to make a bridge, as if it was made from rubber) that the lack of imagination in the actual mechanics doesn’t matter. It’s helpful to look at Papo Y Yo as related to Dear Esther and Journey, much less dependent on traditional game mechanics than on a holistic atmosphere that transports you into a lived experience.While it is true that the game stupidly literalises its metaphors toward the end, the scene right before this misstep possesses more visual profundity than the entirety of most other releases, and the actual ending is genuinely heartbreaking and a far cry from the pat, uplifting ending that a less sincere, Americanised treatment of the subject would have received.
    The flashbacks that John mentions are far more well-judged than he gives them credit for; before the clumsy visual explanations at the end, these are sufficiently ambiguous glimpses of the actual horrors that Quico endures.
    I’m saying all this not to attack John – his review is fair, and as usual, excellently written. I’m just saying it depends on your artistic and emotional sensibilities whether you’ll be more inclined to feel that Papo Y Yo is obvious and clumsy, or that it’s moving and profound, and I’d hate for anyone who might admire the game to miss out because they only read John’s perspective. So make sure to read Simon Parkin’s excellent review as a counterbalance:

    • John Teti says:

      Thanks for that comment, Marijn. I’d also encourage people to check out Evan Narcisse’s review over at Kotaku if they’d like a different view.

      I agree with you that Papo & Yo is supposed to be a “holistic” kind of game, but that’s also why it’s such a bummer, because it doesn’t follow through on that holistic approach. Its ideas tend to inform the aesthetic first and foremost and only rarely permeate the entire experience. I think the comparison to Journey is apt, but from my point of view Papo & Yo only suffers by the comparison — Journey is harmonious (staggeringly so) while Papo & Yo is disjointed and dissonant.

      The ending may not be uplifting, but I found it as manipulative and unearned as the rest of the game’s drama. If I wasn’t convinced by that point, though, it’s not like Papo & Yo was going to win me over in the last five minutes. The ending depends on a foundation of sympathy that the game failed to build with me. If you do find yourself won over by the earlier stages of Papo & Yo, I can see where the ending would be much more powerful.

      • Marijn Lems says:

        This is exactly why I am very optimistic about the gaming industry in general: the cases in which a game is vilified AND championed for the way in which it brings its message across are often the most interesting artistic experiences, and this year has a LOT of them (Dear Esther, Spec Ops: The Line, Journey, the ending of Mass Effect 3). 

        • Girard says:

           I just want to comment that this kind of thoughtful dissent is as much a reason I come here as the excellent writing and analysis. It’s great that this kind of disagreement and discussion can happen in such a productive and thoughtful way.

  5. Raging Bear says:

    Dead on. I enjoyed the first hour for the potential it presented, but by the end (after, what, 3 hours max?) it really never expanded on that potential. I liked the fact of the…twist?…as far as the actual resolution, if not the triple-underlined “DO YOU GET IT YET HE’S AN ABUSIVE DRUNK DO YOU EVEN UNDERSTAND THIS” theme of the ending events surrounding it, which wasn’t actually subtle even before that.

    If there was any depth to the symbolism, or in fact any nuance to the connection (or, really, if there was any connection) between Quico and Monster, this could’ve been extraordinarily powerful. Instead, it’s more of a slightly fanciful after school special.

  6. Marijn Lems says:

    I guess it might also be instructive to judge the game as you would judge children’s literature. Its metaphors are quite direct, yes, but this very simplicity speaks to the way a child might view the world. Great children’s literature contrasts this childish whimsy with our adult understanding of the world, to often moving effect. Papo Y Yo has much in common with Little King’s Story or the film adaptation of Where The Wild Things Are i this respect.

    • blue vodka lemonade says:

      On Kotaku there was an article with input by Magadly Caballero, the sister of Vander Caballero who made Papo y Yo. She found it incredibly moving, and reflective of their shared experience with an alcoholic father. Her hope is that the game will help others in a similar situation.

      I haven’t played the game, but it reminds me a little of (cue groans) the Community episode “Introduction to Film” where Abed makes a bizarre, hokey movie about his relationship with his parents. Everyone watches it and has confused expressions on their faces, except for his father who starts crying and asks Abed if that’s how he really felt about his parents breaking up. It was poorly shot and edited and too pat and too direct, but for the people it impacted it was just as profound as it needed to be.

      Some art is personal in a way that makes it nearly inaccessible to others, but I think that if it has a positive effect on even a few people it was worth the effort.

  7. RidleyFGJ says:

    I mentioned on another forum that I gave this game a full recommendation with the caveat that it’s a pretty terrible game. It’s filled with so many good intentions, and yet virtually every aspect of the game is done in such a shoddy way that slingshots back and forth between “wow, this is neat” and “wow, this may have been made by first-year DigiPen students.”

    Honestly, I’d be hard-pressed to find a more unintentionally comic moment in a game in the past 10 years than the games final set of puzzles, which take whatever was left of any subtext and stabs them directly into your brain, and it’s even more shocking when it’s supposed to be the emotional climax.

  8. George_Liquor says:

    Anyone else see that first screen shot & think “Hey look, a M.U.S.C.L.E figure”?