Years ago, I would have had a hard time imagining I would one day play a video game that was a heartbreaking metaphor for child abuse by a parent.
I was too busy being a bad-enough dude to rescue the president's daughter to give much thought to games as canvases for human emotion and experiences.
Yet, Papo & Yo for PlayStation 3 shows exactly how far video games have progressed. In an age where most games still cater shamelessly to people's desire to kill enemies while listening to throbbing techno soundtracks, Papo & Yo chooses a more intimate route with a more personal message.
Papo & Yo answers loudly and definitively the question of whether games can be art. (Protip: Yes.)
Papo & Yo is the canvas on which creator Vander Caballero, founder of independent developer Minority, tells the story of his relationship with an alcoholic and abusive father, a relationship that took years of therapy to overcome. (This is no secret message to be interpreted by the player; Caballero has talked repeatedly in media interviews about his reason for creating the game.)
The game opens with a young boy cowering in a closet, hiding from his father's menacing shadow. As his father, the "monster," draws nearer, the boy retreats into his imagination.
From then on, you take on the role of the boy, Quico, as he explores his surroundings in a Brazilian favela. The shantytown is a surreal backdrop when viewed through Quico's mind's eye.
When you were young, did you ever draw spaceship controls on the inside of a refrigerator box? Best toy ever, right? That's the world Quico inhabits through the course of the game, an everyday setting altered by the power of his imagination.
Your task is usually pretty simple: venture through slums, sewers and abandoned buildings looking for chalk drawings to help you progress.
When Quico interacts with the drawings, the world around him magically warps and changes. For example, he might trigger a switch that causes a section of the ground to rise high into the air, allowing him to reach an area of the level he couldn't before.
The drawings take the form of gears, wind-up keys and levers, and each one you interact with has a different effect — you rarely know what a switch is going to do before you pull it.
If the core gameplay sounds overly simple, that's because it is. However, the beauty of the game is not in how it's played but the story that's told about the relationship between Quico and Monster.
Quico meets Monster, a giant pink lump of muscle who resembles a bipedal rhinoceros, early in the game. The representation of Quico's father is sometimes loving and playful but mostly apathetic to Quico.
Many switches can be activated only with Monster's help. As Quico lures him along, the reason for the team-up becomes clear; Quico wants to help his companion overcome his addiction to poisonous frogs.
Whenever Monster gets his hands on one of the frogs — which appear periodically throughout the slums — he eats it and goes into a fiery rage. Monster will ignore everything else if it means getting a taste of a frog, and Quico is always the target of his ensuing wrath.
It's these sudden and unprovoked transformations — from companion to enemy, from helper to abuser — that are the core of Quico's relationship with Monster. As you play the game, it becomes clear just how helpless Quico's situation is.
Papo & Yo does a lot of things wrong as a game, such as being a little too short, sometimes boring and way too easy.
However, the game does everything right as art, which seeks to stir emotion in people.
The message hit me hardest when I was playing a portion of the game that placed Quico in front of three switches. I flipped the middle switch and watched as a half-dozen frogs appeared out of thin air.
Monster ran to them and ate one, then turned on me. As he attacked me again and again, I was unable to find a way to escape. I wondered if I had flipped the switches out of order — if his attack, essentially, was my own fault.
That mental query — "Is this my fault?" — did more to put me in the shoes of an abused child than any song, movie, story or painting I'd experienced.
From its heartbreaking opening to its equally heartbreaking conclusion, Papo & Yo seeks to nurture understanding and honest introspection. Though the execution is sometimes flawed, Papo & Yo succeeds as art and blazes a path other developers should seek to follow.
Josh Kegley: (859) 231-3197. Twitter: @HLpublicsafety.