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.
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.
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.
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.