Empathy seems to be in short supply lately.
Though it’s now easier than ever to interact with others, between the endless deluge of vitriolic comments, coordinated harassment, seemingly spontaneous violence and the general lack of decency so often show to other human beings, it feels as if we’ve only become more disconnected as our methods of communication advance.
Papo & Yo is the rare game that asks for us to find the ability for greater understanding. Its design is subtle and meaningful, created in an attempt to tell nuanced human story but without the intention of forcing its meaning upon you. It’s an exploration of our capacity to love someone trapped and tormented by their inner demons, and how sometimes the ability to help them is beyond our ability.
Much of Papo & Yo is surreal and impossible, with walking houses and magic chalk lines allowing its themes to come across less overtly. Playing as the young Brazillian, Quico, the world takes on a sort of childlike wonder, delightfully playful and unconcerned with any greater troubles that might exist within it. Running around picking up frogs and reading the crayon drawn insides of cardboard boxes, I was struck by how humbly the game presents itself. It doesn’t attempt more than it knows it’s capable of, but at the same time has something important to say and wants to make sure it says it right.
One of the ways developer Minority Media achieves this, is how it presents its other main character, Monster. It’s a giant horned creature, but what’s important about it is it’s never framed as the antagonist. When you first meet Monster he’s just a big sleepy companion, who runs around with its tongue hanging out as you lead it around with the help of a melon. These early moments help to develop the bond between Quico and Monster, as they help each other through levels and Quico shows a very clear fondness for his hulking friend.
Monster’s love of poisonous frogs however, turns him into something to fear. As he ravishly gobbles them up, his actions become violent and his appearance demonic. What was once your friend becomes an unstable brute, and in this feeling of helpless terror Papo & Yo strives to give you a glimpse at the horror of being a child surrounded by abuse. I wanted to help Monster, but any attempt to do so only lead to him taking out his aggression on me. It made me feel small and powerless to do anything but flee, and distressed that there seemed no solution to Monster’s addiction.
Papo & Yo might not be the most polished game, and its puzzle design is rife with unnecessary backtracking and tedious solutions, but it’s overshadowed by what the game represents and is trying to convey to the player. With much of the narrative being autobiographical, it makes it all the more raw and haunting to watch Quico and Monster be torn apart from each other.
It’s a complicated story told with uncomplicated methods, deriving empathy through gameplay more than dialogue. From the start of the game, Minority Media seem prepared to not overly simplify the story they want to tell or to take the reassuring route with a clean-cut happy ending. I’m finding it hard to completely reconcile my feelings over how everything wrapped up, but if nothing else I feel I comprehend at least a little more what those going through the sort of experiences displayed here are feeling. And that’s something we could all stand to do more often.