PaPo & Yo was one of the better surprises of E3 2011. The game's puzzle/platforming mechanics, which involved escorting a monster through a grimy favela, were well and good, but more interesting was the context behind the gameplay. The boy, Quico, and his frog addicted best friend, Monster were all a metaphor for the relationship Vander Caballero had with an alcoholic father, and their interaction was the desperate struggle for collaboration and affection. Games have always taken us to fantastic and strange places, and it was captivating to see a game world realized from that particular background.
What was on display last year was no slouch in the visual department. Even for a PlayStation Network game, in which looks typically aren't assessed with the same critical eye given to console releases, PaPo & Yo's unique interpretation of impoverished favellas and worn playgrounds managed to stand out. A major difference from last year was redesign of Monster. Caballero explained how he felt the old design felt more like his dog than what he actually wanted, and worked with a new artist to reinterpret Monster into his present skin. That sort of detail might seem irrelevant to a casual observer, but it speaks to the painstaking dedication of PaPo & Yo feeling true to its artist’s intentions.
It's also taken significant strides in player interaction. The area in the demo was a boxed in playground/back yard loaded with objects translucent white objects to interact with. I wasn't necessarily given a goal, but rather presented with a series of options and simply left to figure out what to do. Minority trusts the player with their design and the player emerges free of the frustration or overwrought with pointless trial and error (further exemplified by Stephanie Landry’s (an Environment Artist at Minority who stood by for my demo) deliberate position to let me play and figure the world out without any hints).
Interaction also takes a turn for the surreal at every occasion. It's one thing to use fruit to draw the monster to where you want him to be, but it's another to use his belly as a catapult to reach higher locations. From there I discovered that all the square-ish houses were actually little puzzles, and solving them resulted in the houses moving and collecting to form a giant tower. Eventually the tower would get so big that Quico was able to twist and turn it to reach higher and higher locations.
PaPo & Yo's penchant for the fantastic didn't quite end there. Some areas of the levels were literally ripped open, exposing all-white rooms complete with other small puzzles. On one hand these bright white areas were simply another layer on top of an already dream-like experience, but they also function as creative license for Minority to place a puzzle at virtually any point in the game. These ideas exist in harmony, one feeding back into the other, and build to a subdued and occasionally whimsical atmosphere entirely in service of Minority's mission.
To be fair there were a few bumps in the road. I never seemed to be able to time my jumps properly, and the tiny jetpack mechanic (basically a boost to jump) was unwieldy at best. Quico’s running animation, unlike the wonderful art, felt a few steps behind as well. None of these are game breakers, and PaPo & Yo is still months away from completion, so it's entirely possible these issues will be refined for a final release.
In any case PaPo & Yo feels special. Its narrative influence is a real heart-on-its-sleeve type of story, and I applaud Sony for including PaPo & Yo in their Pub Fund program for independent games. While it could have survived on entirely on the strength and execution of its concept, how wonderful is it for there to be a pretty neat little game packed in there too? PaPo & Yo is slated to come out before the end of the year, check back with us then for a full review.