From the outset, Papo & Yo doesn’t seem like a game that’s particularly interested in being flashy. The main menu is simply a black screen with white text; the only gimmick being that a white silhouette of a frog hops onto the screen every time the cursor highlights one of the buttons.
The game starts with a young boy named Quico, hiding in a closet from a large menacing shadow, and then escaping into another world through a glowing, white portal. Quico appears on the other side in a favela—a type of shanty town in Brazil, right down to the characteristically uneven architecture. This architecture largely contributes to the game’s mechanics; namely, those of a 3D platformer.
For the entirety of the game, Quico traverses across the uneven terrain across the favela on a journey to save Monster. Monster is a large hulking creature with pink skin, a round belly, and a horn each on the forehead and chin. Despite some of its intimidating features, it’s rather docile and harmless to Quico. It can even be helpful in helping Quico overcome obstacles, such as stepping on large tiles to reveal paths. At the same time, it mostly marches to its own beat and doesn’t actively help Quico, so manipulating it with its favorite food—coconuts—is another aspect of the environment puzzles.
But why does Monster need to be “saved”? Because there is one critical thing to note about Monster: it has an obsession with green frogs that appear throughout the journey. Once it gets its hands on one and eats it, it goes into a state of uncontrollable rage, its entire body in bright red flames, and the screen darkens to a deep red tint. In this state, it’s harmful to everything in its vicinity, which— considering there are no “enemies” to defeat—mostly just comes down to Quico. The only thing that can snap him out of it is a rotten fruit, which purges the frog inside of him upon consumption.
Also joining Quico on his journey is Lula, his “awesome robot”. Lula serves two purposes: extending Quico’s jumps by latching on to his back and giving a boost akin to a jetpack, as well as handling distant triggers Quico has no way of reaching. There’s also a strange girl that seems to run away from Quico at first but then shows him the way to “the Shaman,” who can apparently cure Monster.
The favela’s streets and rooftops prove to be far more uncanny deep down than they initially let on. Various chalk drawings litter the area in various shapes—handles to be pulled, keys to be spun, gears to be pushed into place, as well as streams akin to power lines that indicate where each trigger can possibly affect. Manipulation of the environment plays a large part in Papo & Yo’s platforming aspect, but the essence is less in discovering how and where to manipulate the surroundings (which is quite obvious most of the time) and more in the curiosity of what sort of uncanny changes will occur upon triggering. For example, pulling a handle might raise a set of stairs out of nowhere, whereas a key may make the object it’s stuck in suddenly sprout legs and start walking. Without giving away too much, it’s at least safe to say that Papo & Yo has no shortage of intrigue when it comes to environmental secrets.
That being said, going further into the game made it clearer that the game’s primary feature isn’t the platforming, but setting up various moods for the player.
In addition to having very little dialogue (presumably to not have it interfere with the mood), background music suits the urgency of the situation it plays in, from easygoing to frantic; the entire world is desolate and lonely for all intents and purposes, and the hot-again-cold-again relationship between Quico and Monster is very much like walking together with someone who’s indifferent to you at best and prone to outbursts in worse situations. This is actually not a farfetched parallel to be drawn, as it was already made clear in the game’s promotional info that it’s inspired by the actual childhood experience of director, Vander Caballero. As for what sort of significance this factoid has in the game, I’d rather not spoil it, partly because it’s an important part of the presentation. It’s not hard to understand either, due to the game eventually making sure near the end that the metaphors aren’t lost on the player.
Papo & Yo is not a “game” in the traditional sense; it’s very straightforward with no mechanical complexity, lasting a handful of hours . It’s closer to a fairy tale or a short story with a personal expression at the core, which just so happens to borrow some 3D platforming mechanics as part of the “scaffolding” to get its point across. Not a moral or a message; just relaying a past experience set in an abstract rendition of a real-world location.
Food for thought:
1. There’s something to be said for or against the metaphors being explicitly spelled out—not the least of which being hinted vividly the first moment the game starts. Considering the intent is to get a specific point across, I can at least understand the need to eliminate potential ambiguity. However, I also feel that the preface hint could have been shifted to right before the end credits, if only to reserve whatever fraction of the mystery it had spoiled in the current state.
2. For those interested in learning the game’s origins and intentions more intimately, it’s perhaps recommendable to read various interviews director Vander Caballero did. But since they extensively discuss spoilers, they’re best read after clearing the game.