Vander Caballero’s Papo & Yo is a semi-autobiographical game about boyhood wish fulfillment – the hope that a favourite toy might spring to life to become a constant companion, the dream that houses could be picked up, moved and rearranged with a flick of the wrist, the prayer that the violence could be squeezed from an abusive father.
It’s a deeply personal game, a creation explicitly designed as a therapeutic revisiting of the feelings of loneliness, confusion and desperation Caballero experienced as a child, a story into which we players are invited.
It’s barely an allegory. Your companion throughout the game, a lumbering ugly giant, docile when eating coconuts, enraged when licking frogs – is gently framed as your father figure early in the game while, for those who make it through the distress to the tragic, affecting ending, the comparison is made explicit. It’s a game about journey – a child trying to navigate a cruel and unyielding environment, all the while trying to save his father from the monster inside, a partnership that, by the end of the game, reveals itself to be inseparable.
It’s also far from a perfect game. The puzzles are often arbitrary to the meaning in all but the most general sense, but there is a unique type of empathy engendered through the examination of this kind of topic through game rather than film. When the monster swipes at you in a rage, knocking you into the air and keeping you from your immediate task you share the frustration of the young child at some base level. You learn to fear the monster’s rages in the game – their violence appears so unnecessary, unprovoked. Likewise, you grow mildly affectionate towards the monster in his docile state – an emotion that only serves to make your fear and sadness at his drinking tempers all the more fervent.
At times the message is clunky, heavy-handed; caught in a strange place between allegory and documentary. And yet Papo & Yo remains one of the most affecting games I’ve played this year –standing almost alone in a class of commercial video game that is about something other than raw puzzle, or a quest for dominance and supremacy.
Earlier this year I had the opportunity to speak to Jade Raymond, head of Ubisoft Toronto. She said: “It’s time for our industry to grow up. Why is it that so many topics that are dealt with in other media are off limits or taboo in video games? Why can’t we deal with the things that matter? I can think of so many examples of topics that could be interesting, issues that could be addressed in games or that could be integrated into existing big IP if we don’t want to make them the centre of the experience. It’s our responsibility; doubly so for people like me who can make a difference, or push for something getting funded.”
“We tend to think young people just want explosions. But I don’t think it’s true. Perhaps even less so than when we were children. I believe we are underestimating our audience by creating he same experience over and over again. We think that this is what they like but I think we are deeply mistaken. More and more people come to me at Ubisoft and say: ‘I love games. I came into this industry with so many ideas. But I can’t continue to make shooters over and over again. I’m not even in line with the messages.’ I have that meeting a lot these days.”
Empty words? It’s interesting to note that, prior to creating Papo & Yo, Caballero’s greatest gift to the medium to date was the fit bump mechanic in Army of Two. He left EA to found Minority Media in order to make games without guns, games with meaning.
We are a long way from a tipping point toward the kind of meaningful blockbuster games Raymond’s staff yearn for. A cursory glance at the E3 slate from this year makes that only too clear. Likewise, other than Fez, I struggle to think of a single game on PSN or XBLA featuring a human protagonist that doesn’t also feature combat in some guise or another.
But as the men and women working in games – and those of us who buy them – grow older, start families, assume new responsibilities and different worldviews, there’s a growing hunger for games that explore new themes, ideas and messages. I cannot be the only one tired of looking at the world down the barrel of a virtual gun.
If you’re interested, you can read my more in-depth view of Papo & Yo over at Eurogamer here.