Papo & Yo

[GDC 2012] Papo & Yo Hands On

Switch puzzles and pathos.
Author: Vincent Ingenito
Published: March 14, 2012
Papo & Yo is a curious beast indeed. Even before learning that the game is ostensibly about the creator's trials and tribulations while growing up with an alcoholic father, I could tell that the game was shooting for something more emotive, more elemental than your run of the mill 3D adventure game. Even the simple premise of the demo – traversing abandoned city streets whilst chasing a mysterious girl who constantly remains just beyond your grasp – conveys an indescribable sense of weight that I am sure will only deepen in the final product.

The most striking feature of Papo & Yo is the way in which it juxtaposes the earthly and the ethereal. Stark white chalk lines adorn plain looking building facades, waiting to burst forth into alabaster stepping stones. Oversized wind-up keys sit atop unremarkable looking homes, beckoning with a faint pulsing energy. When turned, the house sprouts legs and moves about, helping to build a path to the next area where the elusive girl hopefully awaits. Papo & Yo exhibits a great deal of imagination, and places it in a context that makes it more believable and fantastical all at once.

Disappointingly, the game is not as visually impressive as it is imaginative. While it succeeds in creating a look all its own, I can't say it was a terribly attractive look. The shanty town in which my demo took place was rather uninspired looking, and not just by design. There was a flat uniformity to the architecture that came off more as a budget limitation than a creative choice. While some downloadable games manage to present themselves in a way surprisingly close to a full retail release, Papo & Yo clearly seems like a game that would have benefited from a bigger budget to more fully realize its artistic ambitions. It certainly isn't ugly by any standards, but one can't help but wonder how arresting it might have been with more money and manpower behind it.

The gameplay was also fairly average by 3D adventure standards. While the visual motif of fantastical apparatus being used to manipulate realistic surroundings gives it a distinct look and feel, it doesn't change the fact that it's still the same old block and switch puzzles we've been doing since Tomb Raider. Perhaps for some people, the novelty of the implementation will make it seem fresh, but for me it came off as more of the same simply presented in a different way.

To be fair though, it seems that there are quite a few gameplay mechanics that were not featured in the demo which may go a long way towards differentiating it from its genre contemporaries. The control summary in the options alluded to a robot companion of some sort that can be summoned, and the official summary of the game at describes a monster companion that seems to represent the creator, Vander Caballero's father. This snippet from the description says it best:

“Papo & Yo is the story of a young boy, Quico, and his best friend, Monster. Monster is a huge beast with razor-sharp teeth, but that doesn't scare Quico away from playing with him. That said, Monster does have a very dangerous problem: an addiction to poisonous frogs. The minute he sees one hop by, he'll scarf it down and fly into a violent, frog-induced rage where no one, including Quico, is safe. And yet, Quico loves his Monster and wants to save him.”

Especially knowing the very personal inspiration Mr. Caballero is drawing from, it's tough to avoid being emotionally drawn in by the possibilities the Monster mechanic might open the player to experiencing. While I never encountered Monster myself, I did interact with the poisonous frogs, whom I was able to pick up and carry. I can only imagine that keeping them away from Monster will become as important as giving them to him and I hope the decision to do so carries as much pathos as I imagine it could. Honestly, just thinking about it chokes me up a bit and I can only imagine that anyone who has loved someone with an alcohol or substance abuse problem will find Papo & Yo heart wrenching and cathartic.

It's because of that emotional potential, not its gameplay or graphics, that it's become a title to watch for me. While its visuals and mechanics are by no means poor, they aren't enough on their own to warrant my attention. But there have been more than a few games in recent history to distinguish themselves by using allegory to elicit a substantial emotional investment from the player. Few would argue that ICO, or the indie game Passage were gameplay tour deforces, but even fewer could claim to have forgotten them. Hell, I can't remember three quarters of the games I played in the waning months of 2011. Something tells me that despite my niggling issues with it, Papo & Yo will prove to be a memorable experience when it hits the PSN later this year.