The general critical consensus about Papo & Yo is that you should probably play it. Creative Director Vander Cabellero has called it the one game he wants to make before he dies—it is a reflection of his experience growing up with an abusive alcoholic father. And yet, an alarming number of critics seem to think that it isn’t a very good “game.” It lacked adequately challenging puzzles and its platforming elements were simplistic at best, and far too easy at worst. Despite these criticisms, Papo & Yo might be the most important game I have played all year. I honestly do not care that it wasn’t all that challenging or “fun.” If it had been I am not sure anyone would still be talking about it.
Here are some examples:
Josh Harmon, writing at Electronic Gaming Monthly said:
Unfortunately, Papo & Yo stumbles somewhat when it tries its hand at being, well, a game. . . . The puzzles do get longer and more complex as you progress, but they don’t really demand all that much in the way of lateral thinking.
Mike Schramm of Joystiq said,
Unfortunately, the gameplay of Papo & Yo isn’t quite as strong as the relationship the game creates. . . . all too often going forward through the relatively short and easy game just means finding the next switch, rather than trying to master some interesting mechanic.
Dave Tach of Polygon said,
Papo & Yo’s narrative ultimately succeeds thanks in large part to the finale’s pitch-perfect crescendo. But the voyage fails in its most fundamental aspect – gameplay – and it is impossible to divorce the metaphor from the medium used to deliver it.
Chris Kohler, editor of Wired’s Game Life said,
After I finished [Papo & Yo], I saw that other critics who had weighed in all generally agreed that its lack of challenge had hurt it; without challenge you never get that exhilarating feeling of triumph.
Each of these reviews proceed to praise Papo & Yo as a step in the right direction both in terms of telling a story with emotional weight and pushing video games forward as a medium. But the overall consensus seems to be that in the traditional sense of the word, Papo & Yo isn’t a great “game.” It’s puzzles are too simple, it’s platforming is too easy, and it doesn’t present the player with steep enough consequences to make their victories memorable.
I understand why these criticisms were made. Papo & Yo is, after all, a game. It has systems and rules and challenges that the player must interact with and overcome. These criticisms reflect elements that we have come to expect from puzzle platformers and these elements were certainly not Papo’s strong points. And yet, while making such criticisms in his review, Chris Kohler also pointed out that most gamers do not finish the game’s they start. The likelihood that less than half the people who play a particular game will finish it, makes video games a daunting space for storytellers. And yet it is clear that Caballero wanted to tell a story, a very dark and very personal story. Consequently, Minority made a game that tells a cohesive narrative that encourages playing to completion.
I wasn’t disappointed with Papo & Yo’s puzzles. I never assumed that their goal was to challenge me. Their purpose was to give me a small window into the world of child abuse. Quico stacks shanties on top of each other to make bridges and moves water heaters to create pedestals onto which he can hop. It is a surreal world that presents challenges that Quico can manage. A boy whose reality is always on the brink of unraveling needs a place he can control no matter how fantastic.
At times Quico must hide frogs (alcohol) from Monster to keep him from becoming enraged. Other times Quico must destroy frogs before Monster can get to them. Such puzzles do not demand much “lateral thinking” but that’s not the point. These puzzles challenge players in a different way—they challenge us to exercise empathy. When we hide frogs from monster we see a boy attempting to put whiskey outside his father’s reach. When we smash frogs, we see a child pouring liquor down the drain in a naïve attempt to save his father.
Papo’s puzzles are not complex and most players are unlikely to get that “exhilarating feeling of triumph” from completing them. I doubt Caballero wanted them to.
It seems like game critics have been claiming for a long time now that games are not the best medium to tell stories and yet developers keep telling stories in their games and game critics keep pointing out when game narratives contradict their mechanics. And now with Papo & Yo, we have a game whose systems coincide with and add depth to its narrative structure and we can’t stop complaining about how it’s too easy.
More ludonarrative dissonance please!?!
I understand why most people reviewed Papo & Yo the way they did—most puzzle platformers want to be judged on the cleverness of their puzzles rather than their overall narrative impact. However, I think its time that let go of our rubrics for grading video games by our culturally defined genre expectations and by how challenging they are. Games like Journey, Dear Esther, and Papo & Yo transcend easy genre labels. They ask us to judge them not by how good a “game” they are, but on what they mean—what they say about us and the world we inhabit.
Maybe Papo & Yo isn’t a great “game”. Maybe its something better altogether. We can’t expect video games mature if we continue judging them by rubrics they have already transcended.
About the Author:
Drew Dixon is editor-in-chief of Game Church. He also edits for Christ and Pop Culture and writes about video games for Paste Magazine and Think Christian.