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Reflections on ‘Papo & Yo’

Posted by Bart

  This weekend both my daughter and I finished Minority‘s ‘Papo and Yo’ (PS3 download). Well she finished it first and came upstairs to tell me how sad it was but wouldn’t tell me why (she knows about spoilers).  That spurred me to take the time to go right to the end.  Its not a long game by any means but its just more and more difficult to find time to play everything through in a small space of time.

Papo is one of those games though that should be played through in just a few sittings.  It has a story arc with emotional resonances from level to level that are best sustained through a steady progression (especially as the game nears the climax). So, its enough to say that since I had the privilege of seeing some of the early prototypes and visions for the game I am extremely intrigued and impressed with how it turned out.  Should I score it?  9/10 on the game studies “must play” charts and very recommended for any games and narrative syllabus.

What follows are some notes for an extended review I may have time to write but would be happy enough to share a beer to discuss.

Other reviews of this game have praised the strong authorial and artistic vision of the game as a kind of autobiographical expression of Vander Caballero’s childhood experiences/memories of an alcoholic father. A few reviews have been critical of the gameplay and the quality of the puzzles as well as some of the technical glitchiness and clipping issues.  Reading these reviews has made me wonder about game reviewing in general and how to reconcile praise for a game which might otherwise be seen as a film (or interactive film at best) and criticism for a game that might otherwise be reduced to a platform puzzler.

I’ll venture that the missing unity for making interesting sense of Papo are the direct and indirect references to interactive fictional elements of magic realism drawn in part (I am sure) from traditions in South American fiction (we are talking Isabelle Allende and Gabriel Garcia Marquez here) . If we can understand a characteristic of magic realism to be the magical activation of aspects of mundane and everyday life then we have a way of combining an interpretation of a father’s monstrous alcoholism on the one hand, flying bits of corrugated metal and walking houses on another hand, and the simple if/then logics of puzzle solving on the third hand.

Lets work on puzzle-solving for a second.  The activity in Papo is puzzle-solving… like Portal and like so many others. It is the mode of our engagement with the gameworld. Gamers especially are trained to look for cleverness and surprise in puzzle design and most of our concern has to do with the level of challenge especially since most puzzles are only really gripping the first time you solve them. Each level in Papo offers the player an environmental puzzle that becomes both the medium and the excuse for exploring the world… I would argue that since puzzle solving is the form of the mundane in the gameworld and because of this the struggle to do the puzzle should not be much more difficult than getting dressed in the morning, or choosing what to cook for dinner, or going to work etc…    If the puzzle is too hard or too extraordinary then the baseline mundaneness that can be activated is not present – the player would have a harder time wrestling with the magic.  I would actually argue something similar for Portal 2.

In magic realism — key elements of everyday activity are transformed.  Your toothbrush suddenly speaks to you as you brush your teeth at night, a ghost sits beside you at your desk at work… stuff like that.  The effect should be uncanny more than jarring I think.  Similarly, in Papo – it is the activity of puzzle solving (like the activity of brushing teeth) that gets transformed and made fantastic.

This is accomplished in the art style that endows the material environment with spirits (walking and flying houses, tubes with gaping mouths, etc…) and by the off-kilter geometries of movement that emphasize differences in scale in an ICO like fashion. There are odd shifts in camera perspective from close range to wide angle, odd “psychedelic’ orientations and a general Marquez meets William Burroughs sort of feeling.  The effect is present also in the small boy and big monster relation/juxtaposition which can totally effect game-play so that sometimes, because of how the camera is situated, the monster obscures the player’s vision of the boy as he runs and thereby frustrates the players control of the character trying to escape.  Is this a glitch or a design effect?  The fun is in the interpretation in fact.

Finally there is the issue of alcoholism.  I am less taken with the more or less transparent metaphors of fiery monsters,innocent frog/bottles, etc… but now I wonder, and this requires further reading on my part, whether alcoholism is a near perfect exemplar of a magic realist disease.  The alcoholic is at times so normal, so mundane and so unextraordinary that their conversion into something so completely alien (and monstrous?) is akin to houses that sprout wings and fly.  At least this is an interpretation I would pursue in seeking to make sense of the ending of the game rather than viewing it as a puzzle that could not be solved.

Hmm… that’s a nice finish if I get around to writing the review. I guess I’ll stop here.