There’s a lot of chatter online about how games merely reinforce stereotypes and play it safe with narrative. This game – albeit a very short one – takes bold steps with narrative but is let down by the actual game experience.
The story – an exploration of how a child hides from an abusive parent and how they must learn to let go to proceed – is a strong one. It’s also rooted in the childhood experiences of game designer Vander Cabellero. It’s a serious topic, and one not really covered in the gaming world, except when it’s providing an excuse for arse-kickery. Here, it colours the game world with a childish, escapist hue: everything is bright and colourful, a kind of (mostly) sanitised favela. full of talking toys, magical chalk lines and a big, often-friendly monster.
You spend the game playing co-op with the monster/your father, aiming to complete some puzzles to pass through areas. That’s about the limit to the story behind where you are and what you’re doing: this is the monster, he likes fruit (but catches on fire if he eats frogs) and you have to figure how to reach that ledge in order to pull the switch to get into the next area. The abuse narrative is the background rather than the foreground – we can assume Dad’s busted your awesome toy robot at one point, but it’s all a bit ho-hum.
The problem with the platform design here is that it’s not polished enough to necessarily provide a sense of flow, or a clear indicator (at times) of where you have to be. The Prince of Persia PS2 reboot series is a masterful example (well, apart from the emo hair moments in the second instalment) of puzzle-platforming done well: rarely did you feel you were lost, or did stuff not make sense. Papo & Yo has a lot of stuff that feels either unplanned or, worse, broken. Which is a shame, as the artwork is great – sort of surreal, though I am aware there’s probably more than a touch of cultural tourism going on.
At a mere four-five hours per playthrough, Papo & Yo isn’t really going to win over people looking for a wealth of content. As a platformer it’s a bit of a kludged-together failure which contains a raft of mechanics looking for a unifying concept. The story’s important, but it’s let down by the game itself; for every interesting moment, there’s a mechanical glitch which makes playing irritating. If anything, this feels like some kind of tech demo or proof of concept work. It lacks the buffing required to make this as enjoyable as it could be – and I suspect some players’ appreciation of the story might be derailed by the problems of playing the game.
I wanted to like this game a lot more than I did. The story is worth telling and exploring, but it feels as if the game were more therapeutic for the designer than it was fun for an audience.