It's always fun to watch people like Roger Ebert claim that videogames cannot be art; it's almost like they forget what art or artistic expression is and that the medium they champion is no more artistic. While yes, many videogames are purely commercial affairs, the result of a company looking for your hard earned dollars more than caring about personal expression, sometimes a game comes along that proves without a doubt that an interactive medium can be one of the best ways to get a message across. Papo & Yo is conclusive proof that videogames can be art when the proper motivation for its creation are present.
The game's story sounds innocent enough. Quico is a young boy roaming through favelas that look stunningly like they were ripped right out of South America. Quico has two friends: Lula and Monster; Lula is his little robot friend who doesn't trust Monster because Monster is addicted to frogs. When Monster eats these frogs, he gets angry and becomes Quico's worst enemy. On its own it's a rather innocent sounding game, until you realize that Quico represents Vander (Papo & Yo's creative director) as a child, his robot pal Lula represents his imaginative side that loves technology and the escapist nature of videogames, Monster represents his father, Frogs represent alcohol, and the very world the game takes place in could represent many things such as his own fantasy where his problems can be solved through puzzles. Suddenly the lighthearted game turns into a painful recollection of a past I'm sure Vander would rather forget but has instead channelled into a creative outlet that he's sharing with us all. That, my friends, is the very definition of art.
Papo & Yo is all about messages and puzzles, with everything in the game representing something in Vander's own childhood; even the title is a riddle that in some way relates to Vander's own need to solve certain puzzles in life. While the symbolism of the game and what all the elements represent is what really hit home for me (my relationship with my own father still is kinda rocky but for reasons not involving alcohol), as a gamer I was impressed to see that the gameplay elements were solid as well. The demo I played was much simpler than the one that minority studios showed off at last year's E3 and was missing all the Monster and Lula-focused puzzles; instead it focused on the whimsical nature of Quico's imagination and how it effects the puzzles that you are to solve.
You really need to see Quico's world to understand how it works. Drawn lines on walls can be pulled out to make platforms, picking up and moving boxes moves entire buildings to shape the land so you can hop to your next destination, and activating some switches actually coaxes a snakelike building to burst from the ground and allow you to crawl across its side to get where you need to go. It's all very weird, but weird in a good way that, when coupled with your knowledge of the game's symbolism, makes you think about what each and every event/locale means.
There are some minor changes in the game's presentation since we last saw Papo & Yo; most notably a complete overhaul of Monster from an almost cute rhino-looking creature to a more monstrous, angry beast with horns and a much more hulking feel. Vander informed me that he changed the design because old Monster reminded Vander more of his dog than his father, and that lessened the impact of him so he changed it to be more like what we see now.
I'm a little disappointed that I didn't get the opportunity to interact with Monster in the demo I played, since Monster is the primary antagonist of the game and responsible for some of the more interesting puzzles later on, but the experience as a whole was quite positive. The demo also ended with something that really fired my neurons, but I'm not going to ruin it for you because I think it's an important part of the story and I get the impression that the story may be more important than the gameplay in this case, so I'll keep my mouth shut on this one. Trust me, keep your eyes on this one.
Papo & Yo is planned to be released sometime this year exclusively on PSN.