Papo & Yo is, I suspect, an important game. But it is also a game that my history doesn’t equip me particularly well to talk about. This, given its subject matter, is extremely fortunate for me personally; it does handicap me as a blogger in this instance, however.
But still: I have to say something about the game. Both because, well, that’s what I do when I’m finished with a game; but also because maybe Papo & Yo can teach me something about linking game mechanics and meaning?
Ever since it appeared last September, my brain has been in a constant dialogue with that Puzzle Box article. And Papo & Yo approaches that question from a different direction. It sets Monster up as a puzzle to be solved, where if you do the right sort of thing you’ll unlock the relationship that you desire. A different sort of relationship from almost any other game out there, but still: the pattern is there.
Except that it isn’t: at the end of the game, you have to accept that you can’t save Monster, you can’t get the relationship that you wanted. (Or, of course, you don’t have to accept that, but not accepting that won’t do you any good.) Which has real power, power that is amplified both by the real-world context and by the past history of this game trope (and related game tropes, in particular the protagonist as hero/savior) that this game consciously sets against you.
One more common trope that Papo & Yo sadly works with, rather than against is Women in Refrigerators. For most of the game, I suppose Alejandra has more of a feel of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl; but when she moves from the fringes and starts taking a more direct role, you just know that she’s not going to last very long; and, five minutes later, there she goes. I’m sure there’s something interesting to be said here about the gendered nature of violence, but it felt to me like a misstep on Papo & Yo‘s part, and Alejandra’s reappearance on the floating island, rather than giving more context to her character, just made that worse for me.
Narrowing my scope: the combat with Monster. You try to avoid Monster; most of the time, you succeed, but that’s hard enough that you’ll fail more than once. You’ll get knocked down, you’ll try to run away, you’ll get knocked down a couple more times before you escape or achieve what you were trying to do.
This sort of persistent, non-fatal attack is, I think, rather unusual in games. And I was surprised by how powerful I felt it to be: the lack of a health bar meant that my brain couldn’t simply slip into a game-playing mode when thinking about it, the lack of a fail state meant that I couldn’t simply give up and refuse to acknowledge the reality of the situation. This abuse is happening; there’s no easy out, there’s not even an out of giving up, I’m going to have to both confront its reality right now and the reality that I’ll experience it again in the future. I’ll think about what I could have done differently to avoid it this time, to avoid it next time; but even if I avoid it next time, I’ll slip up again at some point.
And even that way of phrasing things says something: I’m blaming myself for slipping up, but of course it’s Monster who is attacking me. I’m in a world of wonders; much of the time, he’s irrelevant to that, he’s pleasant or even helpful just enough to show how much I love him, but he always comes back to hitting me, burning me, knocking me to the ground. In almost any other game, behavior like that would just be part of the challenge, part of the environmental hazards that the game places in front of me and that I take pleasure in overcoming; in Papo & Yo, it’s certainly part of the environmental hazard, but the way in which it persists brings Monster noticeably outside of the scope of a standard challenge.
Where the game actually came together for me was right before the end, in the segment where a section of town has gotten tilted on its side and you have to find a way to climb up to get to Monster. On the one hand, this is where Papo & Yo really embraced its nature as a platformer; but, on the other hand, that change of orientation was, in its own way, one of the most perceptually disorienting sequences I’ve ever gone through in a game.
And this mirrors what Quico is going through at this time. He’s coming to terms with the fact that he can’t save Monster, and that at Monster’s hands he’s lost other people who are dear to him. He still cares about Monster, he still wishes the best for Monster, but he has to find a way to rebuild his life without Monster. His world has been turned on its side; disorienting indeed.
This post has not been revised since publication.