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Friday, 5 December 2014

Papo & Yo.

Papo & Yo.

I'd say 'this game made me cry', but that's not really an achievement of any particular note. Lots of things make me cry. I cry at sad endings, and at happy endings, and at any endings, and quite often at beginnings and middles, too. My tear ducts are more productive than Willy Wonka's factory after he's viciously crushed the Oompa Loompa workers' strike.

Still, indie game Papo & Yo. A somewhat autobiographical game by Brazilian game designer Vandar Caballero, the game follows Quico, who while hiding from his father escapes into a strange, dreamlike world. In the dreamlike favela, Quico meets with several allies, including Monster, a gentle, calm, but stupid creature who is addicted to poisonous frogs that drive him into a rage. 

Spoiler alert for the rest of this review, I adore this game. I adore it in the same way that I adore Lord of the Flies: I've experienced it once, and while it holds a pre-eminent place in my heart, I have absolutely zero desire to ever experience it again. Some things are like that. Not everything that is good - and especially not everything that is excellent - is necessarily enjoyable. 

Pictured: Something that isn't enjoyable.

It is a very high quality game, though, especially for an indie game. It's short - the whole thing weighs in at barely six hours, maybe a shade longer, but short has never been bad (if there was any lesson we learned from Portal, a three or four hour game with two characters that took the gaming world by storm, it's that), especially for certain kinds of stories. It's also beautiful, with the dream favela being rendered gloriously, being both run-down and grandiose, dreamlike and grounded. 

For European and US audiences, favelas, vast Brazilian slum towns that do not quite resemble anything anywhere else, will be a new location. I've yet to see any video game utilise them at all, let alone in as much detail and as beautifully done as in Papo & Yo. In the dream favela, the colourful, blocky buildings of the favela become moveable platforms and the children's chalk drawings become legs, ropes, and gears with which to move the malleable landscape about.


While the gameplay has shades of awkwardness at times, mostly due to that particular awkward over-sensitivity that seems inherent to all PC games, where brushing your computer causes your character to fling themselves into the infinite void, but it's simple enough that it doesn't take long to grasp it well enough to counter any issues. The difficulty pacing is good too, with  puzzles increase in complexity at a well thought out pace and new gameplay elements (like Monster's ever more frequent rages) being thrown in every so often (and occasionally taken away - towards the very end of the game, you start having your tools and allies taken away from you) to mix things up and keep things interesting. There was only one puzzle that I felt was unfairly difficult, a puzzle which combined awkward platforming with an enraged  Monster who had very few qualms about perching near your body and practically juggling you - Quinco can't die, but he also can't move if the Monster is in the middle of throwing him about, and the Monster is almost always fast enough to reach him before he can get up. 

The soundtrack is also very good, and the voice-acting is expert and emotive, even though I couldn't understand what was being said (not that I needed to: There were English subtitles). 

Where the game really shines, though, is its storyline. This isn't a game of plot twists: Anyone who's experienced a metaphor before (which is everyone) will clock on to what's going on the moment Monster appears - or at worst, the first time he eats a frog and goes berserk. But it is a very emotional story, in no small part because Quinco and his father are, obviously, Vandar Caballero and his own father. 

A mural.

So part of why it's emotional is that it's based on a real story about a subject which is, obviously, emotionally very heavy: Alcoholism and child abuse are, and as someone who was raised by someone with a severe drinking problem, who was (luckily) rarely violent but whose behaviour was often erratic and manipulative, it hit me kind of hard.

Another part of why it's emotional, though, is that Caballero strays off the beaten path of hollow assurances that 'people can change' and 'you have to support family, because they're family' and delivers a much harsher truth: That there comes a point where you have to accept that their actions are vile, that nothing can excuse them, and then leave them behind forever. 

(Alarmingly, there's no shortage of people offering 'alternate explanations' about how it's all really about how Quinco is just accepting his drunken, violent father, and letting go of his resentment. As if shared blood is more important than actions. I'm feeling a shade nauseous now.)

If you play any indie game, play - I mean, don't just play one indie game, actually, there are a bunch of great ones and we should be supporting indie titles as a viable alternative to triple A games, but just - just play Papo & Yo, guys. You can find it on Steam.

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