"I love that little friend on your back," said my fiancé as she watched me play Papo & Yo. It was a casual observance, but one particular word, "friend" really struck a chord with me. Friends aren't something you have in games, or at least not in the traditional sense. Rather, they're devices whose sole purpose is predicated on predetermined game instances. Videogame friends are easy to see through and rarely feel like friends.
Papo & Yo's Lula, the friend in reference, doesn't completely escape this label, but Lula's endearing presence speaks in part for the game's mission. Papo & Yo is a game founded on fathers and friends and the struggle to co-exist with an abominable example of the former. As an experience Papo & Yo takes strides with its narrative that I have literally never encountered in a game before. As a game it employs pedestrian challenges and mechanics that I've endured dozens of times, and often more competently elsewhere. As a result the player is left in an uncomfortable position, and not necessarily one the folks at Minority intended.
You play as Quico, a youth bound to the impoverished yet colorful favelas of Brazil. Early on Quico retreats to a dream-life interpretation of the favelas featuring surreal shifting houses and a pink monster named Monster. Monster likes three things; coconuts, sleeping, and frogs. When Monster eats frogs, he becomes red, catches on fire, and turns into a violent asshole. Much has been written about lead designer Vander Caballero's relationship with an alcoholic father and how Caballero and Minority worked to transform that painful experience into a videogame. Thus, the metaphor about an otherwise friendly monster’s frog fueled transformation into a rage filled harbinger of hate isn’t hard place.
Papo & Yo quickly employs a few friends to help Quico cure Monster of his addiction. One is the adorable toy robot, Lula, and the other is a nameless and occasionally antagonistic female youth. Over the course of three or four hours Quico works with these two to purge the anger out of Monster’s body. Papo & Yo doesn't intimately focus on the narrative at hand until its final act. That particular instance contains a progression of events building to an eventual reveal that frankly left me astonished, hurt, and a little misty eyed. What takes place between Quico and Monster is incredibly powerful and brutal in its implications. Braid is the only other game I can think of that packed a similar punch to the gut (albeit for completely unrelated reasons). It's through Papo & Yo's final act that it will be remembered, treasured, and exemplified years down the line.
It's a shame that playing Papo & Yo won't generate the fondest of memories. In concept its mechanics and challenges seem appropriate. Chalk will outline gears, keys, pull strings, or other objects Quico can use to literally manipulate his environment. The E3 2012 segment where I moved and stacked houses to form a giant bending tower turned out to be a signature piece, and it's parts like that I wish defined the entire game. Instead Papo & Yo often defaults to hunting around for white chalk outlined objects to interact with and tedious instances of poorly executed platforming. It's a shame because the instances of bending towers or rotating the entire environment in a manner that looks vaguely like Inception could have been so cool, but mechanically nothing of interest is usually in store (and I don't know whether it's a problem with Unreal Engine 3, as Alice: Madness Returns was similarly plagued, or merely the consequences of a small development team, but the jump mechanic in Papo & Yo is clumsy at best).
The rest of your time is spent shuffling Monster into positions intended for progression. Coconuts are in good supply and come in handy when needing to lead monster around. Frogs, as I've mentioned, make your life a living hell. Much time is spent using either of those two devices to push monster into a particular action. Monster can't kill or really hurt Quico, but rather thrash about and toss him a few feet in some random direction. When this happens Quico belts out a rather blood curdling scream and looks to be in agonizing pain for a few seconds. This is acceptable (necessarily, even) as a means to create sympathy for the character, but mechanically Papo & Yo can't quite pull it off. There were several instances where I got pinned against a wall or couldn't make it to my destination in time and had no choice but to hope Monster would eventually throw Quico somewhere more advantageous.
I think that part of the problem is that Papo & Yo looks like it should perform better than it does. I've actually been thinking about this topic a lot, as it's afflicted other games like Hydrophobia and AMY. Papo & Yo is leagues above those two atrocities but for whatever reason I think gamers as a whole have different expectations from third person, three dimensional games or are more forgiving for their 2D counterparts. We're used to games that look like this having better animation, more complex mechanics, and loftier ambitions. Games from smaller development teams with limited budgets can't compete with that and I believe it creates this weird cognitive dissonance where most gamers expect a certain impossible baseline. That's not an excuse for Papo & Yo's middling gameplay, but rather a declaration that its narrative is ultimately in service to it.
For example, Papo & Yo is neither mechanically interesting nor especially pretty, but the tone surrounding these tools does its best to cover lost ground. Noticing that Quico spends a portion of the game only wearing one shoe, the adorable manner in which he carries frogs, or that drawings of coconuts all have little smiley faces attached to them speaks to player in ways dialogue cannot. Likewise, offering hints through drawings inside the cardboard boxes that Quico can put on his head generates a notion of empathy between Quico and the player. In short Papo & Yo understands what's necessary to get its point across but closes its eyes and hopes for the best everywhere else.
(Before we get to the summery it’s worth mentioning that Papo & Yo is currently $11.99 for PlayStation Plus members)