Papo & Yo is a 2012 game that came out for the PS3 (and PC in 2013). It opens with a Brazilian kid hiding in a closet as an angry, male presence storms through the corridor. A portal opens up behind the kid, and he escapes into an imaginary world, where he finds a companion: Monster. Now, before the cutscene takes place, the game provides an epigraph: “To my mother, brothers, and sister, with whom I survived the monster of my father”. At this stage, it’s pretty obvious that there’s a metaphor going on: the monster in the dream-world represents the kid’s father (and, indeed, the lead developer’s father). This only becomes more obvious when you learn that the title translates to “Father & I”.
So the metaphor’s not subtle, but let’s not be picky – games are only just starting to grow up. This is a process that takes refining over a very long time. What’s interesting here, for me, is how this game simulates the monster/parent situation. It’s storytelling through simulation – and that’s pretty cool stuff. Some critics have complained that the gameplay is lacking, which is probably fair, but let’s look at what the game does do.
The big mechanic that everybody talks about is the Monster, the frogs, and the fruit. It’s pretty simple: if the Monster sees a frog, it’ll eat it and turn into a giant flaming monster that kicks the crap out of you. The only way to calm it down is by finding a fruit and throwing it towards Monster, who’ll then eat it and calm down. Again, the metaphors are pretty obvious – the frogs are alcohol, right. I don’t know what the fruit is meant to represent, but let’s just roll with it. So without using the literal items, the game simulates having an alcoholic father. There’s a system that’s set up to roughly mirror the experience of an alcoholic parent, and when you play the game, you enter into that system, and ideally come to an understanding of what that experience must be like. In theory it’s no different to flying simulators they train pilots on, except here they’re being a bit more metaphorical.
The best part of this model is that you’re playing a game, which means that you’ve got a competitive motivation behind your actions. You’re trying to win, so you want to play well, and that’s a form of investment in the scenario. If you see a frog, and Monster notices it too, you start running for it like “Nope nope nope nope”. You grab the frog, take it away, and throw it against a wall. Oh – you can pick the frogs up and throw them against a wall, and they go Splat! and disappear. No extra points for guessing how that metaphor works. Anyway – as a player, your instant ludic reaction is to go after that frog and get rid of it, because otherwise Monster’s gonna go bananas. That’s also the impulse of the kid who’s spotted alcohol when his asshole father is an alcoholic – you take that booze and you get rid of it, and hope you don’t get caught. Your ludic motivation mirrors the fear-based motivation of that kid – and it’s a powerful thing when you click!
So that’s what people talk about most – the frogs and the fruit. However, I’d like to look at something which happens quite a bit earlier, which I think gives a lot of emotional power to these later scenes with the frogs etc. Near the start of your time with Monster, he spends a lot of time lazing about. In order to get him moving, you have to find like coconuts or something and throw them at him. He’ll smell the coconut, and move to pick it up and eat it. That’s the basis for a certain amount of puzzle solving: you need Monster to stand on a button, so you throw a coconut and he walks over to get it.
This is interesting to me, because it’s still part of the simulation of an alcoholic parent. One of the things that any survivor of abuse will tell you is that they learnt (to some extent) how to manage their abuser. You get to know what sets the abuser off, and you learn how to tread lightly around those things – how to manage and direct their behaviour. It’s not a foolproof process, of course, but it is something that many longer-term victims learn how to do. It’s just part of surviving. That’s interesting, of course, because it’s exactly what’s happening here. Monster is useless and just lazes around, and you have to direct him to get what you want. Part of the horror of abuse, I’d suggest, is this tension between having to manage and chaperone the abuser while also being afraid of them.
There is, however, one aspect where I think the game doesn’t quite hit home. This story’s about a kid with an abusive parent, rather than an adult with an abusive partner. They’re very different situations, and it’s kinda tough to replicate certain aspects of the kid/parent environment. The key aspect which I suspect is missing from Papo & Yo is the sense of dependency. Now, obviously you get adults who develop an emotional dependency on the abuse cycle, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about the emotional dependency of a young child on their parent, which is quite a different thing to any dependency which exists between partners.
For children, particularly younger children, parents have this almost mythical position of power. There’s a day in every kid’s life, as they grow up, when they realise that their parents are just people, but before that parents occupy a role of protector, nurturer, guardian, etc. For kids who have abusive parents, that trust is actually ripped away pretty savagely – the kids suddenly realise that, contrary to their belief, their parents aren’t safe places. If a child isn’t emotionally and mentally capable of handling that degree of vulnerability, it can be crippling. You can’t really replicate that feeling: the child’s complete dependence and trust being shattered by abuse. Papo & Yo doesn’t necessarily simulate that for the player. There is a practical dependency, in that you travel with Monster throughout the game – children, of course, can rarely choose to not live with their parents – but that emotional vulnerability to the parent is harder to simulate. It’s harder to get the player to extend that level of trust and dependency to Monster. I think the game does enough to summon up past history for abuse survivors, but I suspect the effect may not be as great on folk who’ve never experienced that before.
That’s all for this week, I think. Next week I want to keep exploring Papo & Yo, and look at metaphor and realism in video games.