Though wholly allegorical in nature, there isn’t actually much to divine in Papo & Yo (the ampersand pronounced as a Spanish “y”). Right from the get-go, creative director and Minority Media founder Vander Caballero lays his cards out on the table: “To my mother, brothers and sister, with whom I survived the monster in my father.”
And there is literally a monster in the game. His name is Monster, and he has a problem.
Monster loves coconuts. In fact, he’ll often wake from his barbarous slumber atop a pile of cardboard and refuse to chase after coconuts. This single-track type of thinking is easily manipulated; given enough coconuts, you can lure Monster just about anywhere. Put enough of them in him, and he’ll actually just go to sleep again. Such a simple existence, and it’s one that you’ll need to progress.
But as much as he’s willing to do for the hard-shelled tropical fruit, Monster absolutely loves frogs. The problem is that they turn him into a flaming, rage-filled beast that blindly and haphazardly attacks anything and everything around him. He loves to eat frogs, but they’re so bad for both him and those around him, thrashing you about in his toothy maw. It’s unfortunate, then, that Monster’s vices become necessities.
As you can see, the parabolic layer is fairly thin, but that seems to be the point. This is not meant to be an abstract, nigh inscrutable apophasis of Caballero’s childhood; this is Caballero’s childhood. Of course he didn’t interact with a 20-foot tall monster or push glowing, ethereal gears into walls; rather what I mean to say is Papo & Yo is what happened in his childhood as viewed by a child.
Childhood fantasies and fears become real to our protagonist Quico in these drab and muted South American favelas. His best friend is a toy robot come to life; entire buildings can be moved on a whim simply by shifting around painted boxes; and keys can be turned to reveal the mystical and the magical beneath the inescapable and interminable desolation of these rundown shantytowns. Push these gears and the side of a building splits and extrudes into a glowing staircase. Pull this lever and this wall will peel back to reveal a world of escape and safety. Step on this switch and you can ride these ambulatory stacks of homes out into the world.
But the fears are very real, too. There a certain anxiety that persists when you begin to chase (play with?) a little girl on the rooftops. She continually evades you by hopping these luminescent portals and will actually begin to aggravate and prohibit you. She’ll take away a needed crate for a puzzle or block your path or any number of things that heighten the feeling of being a powerless child. She may also be just a child, but as anyone growing up knows, all it takes is persistence to make someone resent their lot in life.
You’ll hide by putting upturned cardboard boxes on your head, the insides of which are illustrated with helpful hints. It’s a simple and childlike solution to your problems (as what kid didn’t hide under his covers on those particularly foreboding nights, rationalizing that the creepy crawlies would find your blankets impenetrable), but the reality of this fantasy sets in. Your greatest fear is anthropomorphized in Monster, a simple, seemingly benign and soft creature up until he reunites with the one thing in his life that controls him: frogs.
And that rationalization comes in again, an enviable yet self-destructive ability innate to every human being.
“He cannot control himself,” he says.
“This isn’t his fault,” he thinks.
“I want this to end,” he hopes.
“This is going to hurt,” he knows.
It’s a representation of the stresses and trials that children all over the world unfairly face every single day, how the chance for these kids to be kids is heartlessly ripped from their hands. There is no solace to be found and no retribution to be had. Some grow up playing on playgrounds, swinging on swings. Others grow up sweeping up broken bottles and hiding under the stairs.
Papo & Yo is an extremely personal tale punctuated with elaborate and fantastical puzzles that contrast surreally with its real world settings. The platforming is fun and the mental challenges appropriately yielding after a bit of prodding, but that’s not the point. Caballero is telling his story in a way only video games can tell it. You are not a viewer and you are not a Greek chorus; you are Caballero and you are facing down the monster in your father. The story does not begin and end with Quico. Instead, this game is the prologue and Caballero is the epilogue. The child may have lost but the man has won.
The monster is no more.