Game Review: Papo and Yo (PS3)

Rated E10+ for Everyone 10 years and older, Reviewed on PS3, Papo and Yo at playstation.com

Games can definitely be art, something I’ve discussed before.  Art, as anything, has a value range.  It can be beautiful but vacuous, ugly but meaningful and any other combination that you can imagine.  Any screen shot of the game will tell you instantly that Papo and Yo is far from a beautiful game, but is it meaningful?

The game begins with Quico, a young boy, hiding from his violently abusive father.  Quico escapes into a fantasy world where the ramshackle shacks of the slums near his home become playthings, his toy robot protector Lula comes to life and a mysterious girl appears to help guide him.

His father is also represented as a giant, pink monster.  Monster is docile enough normally, but apathetic.  He can be led with food, and when sated will fall asleep allowing his stomach to be used as a trampoline.  He does have a dark side however: he’s addicted to colorful frogs.  When they appear he thinks of nothing else.  When he finally reaches one he turns into a fiery demon that attacks and hurts everybody around him with wild abandon.  The girl claims that there is a Shaman who will know how to cure Monster if only they can reach him.

Monster’s rage, unchecked and directed meaninglessly at Quico, makes these sequences emotionally draining to play through.  We empathize deeply with Quico as we see him flung mercilessly around by the brute.  Quico’s appearance mirrors the progress of the story.   He begins the game fully dressed in a school uniform but soon loses his shoes and shirt and eventually adopts the native body art of his guide.  This regression to the primal is significant for the character but not realized as well as it might have been.  We also experience several dreamlike sequences of Quico reliving a time when his father ran down a pedestrian with his car.  These are powerful but lack a clear connection to the story.

The metaphor of the frogs as alcohol is obvious but the end game makes it absurdly (almost insultingly) clear.  The messages of the game are honest and important but far (far) from subtle.  It’s almost as if the developers were so worried that the meaning of the game would be lost that they decided to simply beat the player over the head with it.  This mentality extends to some of the mechanics as well.  For example, monster’s current state (chasing a frog, going after a coconut or getting sleepy) is clearly understandable from the character’s actions – however the game augments them with extremely large, unsightly “word balloons” to drive the message aggressively home.

The game itself, apart from the message, is rather unremarkable.  The sound and visuals are, for the most part, middling.  The environments tend to the drab and dull.  A unique art style to match the source material would have made the game stand out even more.  Many of the animations are weak or, in some cases, missing.  Controls are serviceable, but middling as well.  You will have some minor frustration with some of the jumping sequences and some bounding glitches but overall the game is notably easy.  Only the most novice of players should experience any real problems and even they should finish in five to six hours or so.

There are absolutely flashes of genius that deserve to be recognized.  My absolute favorite is the hint boxes that litter the levels.  Quico places these cardboard boxes on his head allowing him to read the hints chalked on the inside four panels of the box.  When he’s done he’ll continue to wear the box until you specifically take it off.  It’s a beautifully simplistic and elegantly childlike mechanic that I instantly fell in love with.  Many of the architectural transformations are also elegantly simple as when the shacks grow animated chalk-line legs or wings to move around the world.

Returning to the question of art, however, it’s clear to me that Papo and Yo is a deeply personal, deeply meaningful piece of art.  The fact that’s rather unattractive is regrettable but oddly not really relevant.  The game is important.  It’s important to demonstrate that games can be a conduit for personal catharsis and it’s important to widen the topical and emotional breadth of what constitutes “a game”.  It’s far from a perfect game, but it’s an important game that you should play.

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