So Papo & Yo (Minority Media, 2012) is a game that I have been interested in playing for a while. When the indie title appeared on PS3 about a year ago I did a bit of research to see what other folks were saying about the title. I was simultaneously intrigued and disturbed.
If you don’t know this game on the surface it is about a little boy, Quico, who escapes his real world life with an abusive father for a puzzle based imaginary one where he is aided in his puzzle solving adventures by a a robot backpack who helps him jump farther and a monster friend who serves to trigger pressure plates and as a trampoline of sorts to jump onto/into/through otherwise unreachable places. Quinco feeds the monster coconuts to lure him from place to place and to lull him to sleep, but we soon learn that our friend the monster truly does have some monstrous tendencies. He has a jones for little red footed frogs. Now these frogs are kind of cute. They remind me a lot of little cartoon red-eyed tree frogs, but in Papo & Yo these little buggers are poisonous. And Monster wants them bad. Unfortunately, when Monster eats the frogs he he becomes a fiery fiend, goes berserk, and no one is safe…not even Quico.
See the connection? Despite his nasty frog habit and his violent rages, Quico seems to love Monster and sets out on a puzzle based quest to save Monster by finding a cure for his addiction to the poisonous frogs.
Now back to the reason that this game has been sitting on my hard drive untouched for almost a year. Apparently my interest was piqued or I never would have downloaded the game, but I really wasn’t sure that I wanted to play a game about child abuse. Child abuse is something that I have no patience or stomach for, but I saw the possibilities in this game. I saw how this might be an opportunity to survivors of abuse (children and adults) to work through some of their own issues. Especially since the developer’s (Vander Caballero) own history with abuse seems to have been the catalyst for Papo & Yo as he opens the game with an dedication to his mother, brothers, and sisters with whom he survived the monster in his own father.
So why play this game now? Well, it’s been needling at me. It was released on Steam last month and I’ve been seeing it there and then earlier this week Gizmodo published an article about a Spanish organization that, using a lenticular top layer, has made ads that show different messages based on the height of the person viewing the ad. So if you are adult height this is what you see:
An ad featuring the face of a child and a message that reads, “sometimes, child abuse is only visible to the child suffering it.” And if you are the height of an average 10 year old child (or shorter) you see this:
An ad featuring the bruised face of a child message that reads “if somebody hurts you, phone us and we’ll help you”. Both ads also feature the organization’s telephone number so that people of varying heights may call if they need assistance.
Seeing this ad immediately made me think of Papo & Yo. While I had initially been most concerned about whether or not the issue of abuse would be handled (or received) well I then began to think about children (or abusers) playing it. I began to wonder if seeing their own situations (as scared little boy escaping harsh reality or poisonous frog eating monster) could cause someone to seek help in an abusive situation. Maybe seeing that abuse happens to other people would be enough to quell the shame that abused children sometimes feel enough to allow them to seek assistance. Maybe seeing themselves portrayed as monsters by the children that they beat, molest, neglect, or verbally abuse could help an abuser see that the fact that their children still love them (as most abused children do) does not mean that their behavior is any less monstrous or any more acceptable.
So I played the game. And tears come to my eyes just thinking about it. While I mostly found the puzzles a little linear for my tastes (which is probably a good thing for a broader/younger/less experienced audience), the game’s art style is beautiful and the soundtrack is fabulous. But I can’t escape the story. I can’t escape the rages of the monster or the constant reminders by Quico’s guide on his journey to heal his monster/father that he is “cursed”. I see a child desperately trying to deal with something that no child should have to deal with. Something that no child has ever asked for. And most importantly something that no person should ever do.
I won’t give spoilers about the game, but the space based puzzles did a good job of making you think in multiple dimensions in order to solve them (even if they did get a little repetitive). The game was only 3-4 hours long, but the story made it more than worth it. I should also add that the story is so well told between the puzzles in the fantasy world and the flashbacks into reality that I found myself hoping that the Monster would just eat one poison frog too many and…let’s just say his quest would end. While Papo & Yo is much more an interactive puzzler experience than a game it is one that should definitely be experienced all the way to the end.
I would love to have Pea play this game when she is older and can even begin to fathom the notion of abuse, but for now this is something that I am sure that I want to shield her from for as long as possible.
[edited to add trailer for Papo & Yo]