WARNING: This entry contains major spoilers for Papo & Yo.
Papo & Yo is a wonderful piece of puzzle-platforming, with a memorable visual and audio style. It is also an emotional tale of growing up with alcoholic father. The snag is, that the gameplay fails to convey this. Vander Caballero, the creator, for whom this is an autobiographical piece, has stated, that he wanted to model the game’s titular Monster after his father, making him "distant and scary but at the same time protective". And I cannot say that the monster how it is in the game does not evoke such a feeling in Caballero, and people who have had similar childhood experiences say how it mirrors their life. And yet, it does not evoke such feelings in people, who can’t relate directly.
“Distant”, “scary” and “protective” are there in the visuals all right, but they’re not there in the gameplay, and to make a player feel something, the surest way is to convey it in the gameplay. And it could’ve been done.
“Distant” – this one is almost there. Monster’s basic states are either asleep or eating, with little regard for Quico, the player character. You need his help to progress, and you manipulate his behavior with placement of fruit and frogs, which he is lured to. You also can use him as a springboard when he’s asleep, and this could’ve been improved, were he visibly annoyed at this, or disruptive, if the player took too long to aim his jump.
“Scary” – well, again almost. When Monster eats a frog, the game’s visual metaphor for liquor, he starts burning and attacking the player, turning him from a helpful gameplay element into an enemy, requiring the player to pacify him using rotten fruit. And this is pretty effective, until he actually grabs you. When he does, all that happens is you get tossed a bit to the side. For the player to feel threatened, there must be punishment for failure, if only an animation of being beaten down and forcing to restart from an earlier point. If all Monster does is set you aside, he’s merely annoying, not scary.
“Protective” – this does not exist in the game at all. That’s because, save falling down chasms, from which you instantly respawn, the only threat to Quico is Monster. If there was any kind of external threat that Monster would shield the player from, it would do a world of good for the game. It would help the player bond with Monster, improving both the “protective” and “scary” aspects.
Interestingly, the game does a good job of bonding the player with the other two characters: the toy robot called Lula, and the Girl, whose name goes unmentioned through the entire story.
Lula doesn’t do much, he can prolong Quico’s jumps and push faraway buttons, but that actually suffices. The player sees him as a constant help, and it actually impacts him, when Monster breaks Lula, and he’s actually invested in the sequence in which Quico works to fix him.
The Girl acts as little more than an objective marker, but despite claiming that Quico is “cursed” and seeming like a nuisance early on, decides to help Quico with brining Monster to the Shaman, so he can be cured. Again, this makes it all the more impactful when Monster kills her late in the game, in what is his scariest scene.
There moments in Monster’s design, when he provokes a more emotional response. For instance, whenever he leaves his enraged state, usually by eating a rotten fruit and regurgitating the frog he ate, he looks weak and sickly, prompting sympathy and pity. The final sequence, in which Quico brings Monster to the Shaman, has him looking resigned and dejected, preparing the player for the final stage, where monster repeats several several acts of destruction, before the player lets him go, and has Quico leave the imaginary world for the real one.
Papo & Yo is a great game, make no mistake, but it ultimately fails to deliver its message to those, who don’t already understand it.