If there’s one thing that binds us all together, it is empathy. We feel when another is in pain, and naturally want to help. It’s rare for a videogame to produce any feelings of empathy from players; sadly most games are not mature or creative enough to do so. They lack the spirit and conviction required to make an interactive experience, one where people are actually involved in, worth feeling about.
Papo and Yo is the complete opposite of that. The story of childhood trauma and loss portrayed in a way that only a child could understand — in dream-like sequences in a highly imaginative world — is the greatest expression of pain that I have ever seen in a game. Forget physical pain; torture scenes in action titles pale in comparison to the psychological hurt inflicted upon Quico, an 8-12 year old kid who has a simple life in South America and plays with a giant monster. But that is hardly what the game is truly about. But I won’t spoil that for you in this review; I suggest you play it yourself and be surprised and in awe of the magnificent way the story unfolds (unless the title gives it away, that is).
The reason Papo and Yo is so gripping is because of the subject matter: broken homes. Just like in real life, everything appears fine from the outside, and often a child won’t even know that something is wrong. They’re too young, too innocent to put two and two together, to understand that something isn’t right. In fact, as players begin the game all seems well. Quico looks healthy, he has a fantastic robot toy that can fly and talk and boost Quico across buildings, and a giant monster that is lazy and loves to eat and sleep.
But each new level — if they can even be called levels — subtly explains that in fact nothing is all right. Objectives are clearly marked by colorful lines that are easily visible and subconsciously point players in the right direction. Developer Minority brilliantly used light and color contrast with blue lines leading the way on dirty brown buildings. And as things turn for the worse, it suddenly comes like a flash of lightning who the monster truly is. And, for many, it will hurt.
It hurts because the monster is actually very likeable. He’s simple: he’ll sleep almost anywhere, he’ll eat and eat and never stop. You can jump on his stomach, and if there’s a soccer ball around you can play catch for as long as you’d like. It’s an actual game mechanic, to kick the soccer ball and wait for the monster to collect/catch it and throw it back. Sometimes he’ll even laugh if you catch it, a friendly ‘good job’ chuckle. And perhaps most importantly, he’s never too far. You’re always nearby, always coming back to him, and as much as he follows you around, you follow him around. Papo and the monster are connected.
So when that bond suddenly becomes extremely visible, you can’t help but feel the pain that Quico must feel. You don’t see it on his face, but it’s clear as day. Even if you don’t or can’t sympathize, our culture today makes it all too easy to empathize with Quico’s plight. And it spirals downhill more and more, becoming more violent, more imaginatively painful.
The real beauty of Papo and Yo is how the game never expresses what it shows directly. The entire premise of the game must be shown. It’s like the film Thank You For Smoking: clearly not a film judging cigarettes one way or another. Papo and Yo does this so well that the pain and loss that it’s easy to imagine the situation for yourself. Developer Minority almost perfectly shares the experience without ever outright saying it. And amid games like Halo 4, Call of Duty: Black Ops 2, and other high-profile games, Papo and Yo makes a real case for art in gaming. No other game this year has shared pain and empathy with players like Papo and Yo.
Papo and Yo is the second PSN title that has really shaken the world of gaming this year. The first, Journey, did so with incredible visuals and a really incredible sense of adventure and wonder with a complete stranger as a helpful companion. Papo and Yo does it through subtle storytelling that shares pain, loss, and unfairness in the world in a manner generally reserved for only the greatest films and novels. Both have relatively short play times and share the four-hour mark for a complete session, albeit without any additional game-specific extras like hidden objects to find. There may be limited replayability for Papo and Yo, but this very untraditional game is exactly what millions of gamers and even more non-gamers have been waiting for from developers that Minority delivers on perfectly: a mature game with mature themes that doesn’t resort to violence, guns, or cheap antics to keep things interesting. Papo and Yo deserves only the highest praise.
Bottom Line: The most emotional and artistic game of the year.
- Simple puzzle-style gameplay
- Subtle expression of emotion, in the way a kid would see things
- Intelligent player-selectable hint system is always nearby but out of sight
- Some framerate issues occasionally
- Few sections require item spawning, which is very slow