/ Minority Media

Papo & Yo

So, Papo & Yo. If you don't already know: it's a PSN game, a few hours long, puzzle oriented, and it's about a boy's relationship with his abusive, alcoholic father. If you're considering playing it, definitely do -- it's not perfect, but it's definitely worth your time and money, if you're remotely interested in this sort of thing.

I just finished playing it, so here are some (rather rambly, sorry) thoughts:

The reviews I've read basically split the game between the story, which people all seem to agree is great, and the gameplay, which people all seem to agree is moderately to severely busted. The differences between the reviews mostly seem to stem from how much weight people give to the one factor or the other.

Some folks also seem to be bothered that the puzzles aren't harder -- I think this is a pretty bogus complaint, unless they also felt that Journey needed way harder platforming. Gameplay challenge is not always relevant to the quality of the experience one has playing a game.

But it's certainly true that there are gameplay and design problems, which I'll just sum up as "seems like it wasn't really done yet." If it were a piece of writing, I'd say it needed another 1-2 drafts. But that in itself isn't a reason not to play the game, and it didn't stop me from enjoying it.

What's a bit trickier to pin down is how the actual puzzles and traversal relate to the story the game is telling. The story is about experience, memory, and imagination. The game at first appears to be about an escape from reality into an imagined landscape, but it gradually becomes apparent (and eventually is overtly stated) that it's actually about using this imagined landscape to work through memories and emotions and ultimately to let go of the alternately friendly and terrifying "Monster" that represents the protagonist's father.

So, with that in mind, there are big chunks of the game that serve that story, but there are also big chunks of the game that really don't. The sections where you're just operating switches to move buildings or platforms around are semi-filler, and they both interrupt the main thrust of the narrative and dilute the emotional weight of the story.

Interactions with the other characters are something of a mixed bag. You encounter Monster as both a friendly creature who can be sort of helpful if you manage him correctly, or terrifying if you accidentally let him get ahold of the frogs he's addicted to, and which turn him into a fiery berserker. In principle, this should build in the player a sense of what the child's experience of trying to cope with an addictive, abusive parent is like -- in practice, it's often just a transparent exercise in dealing with dumb videogame AI. I understand the symbolism, and it doesn't not work, but I don't really feel it as much as I ought to or in the way that I ought to.

Where the game design works best are the sections where you're dramatically altering the landscape, and interacting with traps and structures and bigass mechansims made from a mix of favela architecture and unmarked white dreamstuff. These sections are thematically integral to the story, in addition to being totally awesome-looking -- sort of Inception-like. These don't work because they're necessarily super-clever puzzles; they work because they establish in the player's mind what this world really is, and what it means to manipulate it and move through it.

The end of the game is really, really great. I won't go into details, since they would be quite spoilery, but it's very interesting and, for a little while, quite unnerving, in the way it works with the interface between the imaginary and the "real." There are some quite haunting images there, and they aren't at all what I would have expected if you told me there would be haunting images in this game.

Papo & Yo is like Psychonauts -- its greatness is proportional to how much you feel like you're operating on dream logic and not game logic. Because of this, I think the game would have been much stronger if it had been cut down substantially in length, and the trippier aspects had been expanded and elaborated. But I'm certainly still glad to see it as is, and I hope that we see more games like this available to console audiences from now on.