Papo & Yo (ho ho)

Hey there! This is the second part of a series on Papo & Yo. If you haven’t read the first post, you can read it here: 

So last time we talked about how Monster is a pretty obvious metaphor for the protagonist’s father – and the whole situation is modelled on the designer’s own relationship with his father. One of the interesting things about this game is that it uses metaphor – it shows you a physical thing which represents something else. I mentioned last time that it’s very heavy-handed – in the opening scene, the boy is hiding in a closet with his father storming past down the corridor, and the opening epigraph dedicates the game to the developer’s mother and siblings, “with whom I survived the monster of my father”. It’s a bit over-insistent.

Furthermore, there’s a long scene at the end of the game where the metaphor is essentially wiped out of existence. Instead of throwing around frogs, you pick up whisky bottles or something and start pouring those down a drain. Monster, who’s sitting across the way, has his head in his hands, and is eventually replaced by the boy’s father, who looks similarly downcast. Metaphors are about pretending one thing is something else – the sun is a golden coin, Juliet is the sun. Papo & Yo threatens the stability of the metaphor insofar as it labours the point that yes, the monster is his father.

I’m not entirely sure why such heavy-handedness is necessary. It’s possible that developers don’t want people misunderstanding their games, but if that’s the case, the players probably aren’t being given enough credit. Even if the epigraph was removed and the final scene cut, I imagine players would still spot the metaphor. The way I see it, if films and books and every other kind of media expects audiences to understand metaphor, video games may as well give their players the same sort of trust. I forget exactly where I saw this line (maybe a Spiderman comic?): “Don’t write down to your audience; if they’re stupider than you, they can’t read”. It seems to apply here though.

So what’s the point in using a metaphor? Why not just have the kid’s dad running around through the levels? Well, on a purely stylistic level, it would seem inconsistent to have a kid jumping on his dad’s belly and flying through a massive high window. The fantasy/imagination setting allows for a bit of leeway in terms of what’s realistic – ah, but I’m getting ahead of myself. Because metaphors say one thing is another, they allow you to present the attributes of the first item in terms of the second. When Romeo describes Juliet as the sun, all of the connotations of the sun get applied to Juliet: so she’s beautiful, but it’s the beauty of the sun, and her coming to the window is like daybreak for Romeo, suggesting that his world was dark before he saw her – she brightens up his day (hurr). We get a sense that he’s consumed by love for her – to say that his life was entirely dark before he met her (when he was just pining after some other girl not two acts ago) shows just how much he cares about her. So by applying the sun metaphor to Juliet, this thing that the sun does (daybreak) is used to describe what Juliet means to Romeo. It’s a new angle on the same sentiment – well, not so new now, but you know.

The monster, then. It’s big and pink – from a child’s perspective, parents are much bigger. Its size lends it a threatening aspect, but also the potential for protection and safety. Think Falkor from The Never-ending Story – big things are comforting. There’s a sense of the alien, the mysterious, the foreign – the monster’s a monster, obviously, and it’s got a big horn on its head. When you’re a kid, there’s often something mysterious about your parents – there’s a point where everybody realises that parents are just normal people, right, which suggests that before that realisation parents occupy this mythical position in a child’s mind. They aren’t just parents – they’re MUM and DAD. When Monster gets angry, he turns into a massive red flaming ball of fury. When he smells coconuts, he sniffs around and seeks them out like a dog. All of these things are attributes which we transfer through to the father – and, to my mind, it’s the process of transferral that really makes the magic happen. It’s not just showing literally what’s going on – it’s evoking the ideas of threat and anger and comfort through the metaphor of Monster, and allowing your imagination to engage as an intermediary.

We’ve all heard stories of domestic abuse before, because we’re human beings and this is the world we live in. Whether it’s in movies or in real life, it’s a story we’ve heard before. So what makes us care (if we do) about Papo & Yo? My contention is that it’s the metaphor. If a friend tells you about how they were abused at home, you might care because you care about that person, because you’re already invested in them. In Papo & Yo, we get this metaphor, and it’s interesting – we transfer the attributes that we’re being shown over to the father, and it works our brain in a way it might not have been worked before. It forces us to interpret and translate in a new way – and I believe we as human beings find that interesting. It makes sense when you think about cliches, for instance: they’re metaphors that, culturally, have been used so many times that they no longer have any interest. They aren’t new pathways, new ways of thinking – they’re just part of the wallpaper now. The same with substandard stories – you all know when you see a crappy movie that it’s bad. There’s nothing new, nothing interesting. It’s all stuff you’ve seen before. 

With Papo & Yo, I would contend that the metaphor is at least one thing that helps us get invested. We find metaphors stimulating, and so we invest, and get interested, and focus more on this metaphor, this stimulation. It makes the story richer and more interesting, as we dig deeper into it and explore the resonances and echoes and pathways, interconnections between different aspects that create meaning in a new and exciting way. The final point, which I cannot emphasise enough, is that metaphor is a really powerful and important tool for storytellers – and I’m looking specifically at video game designers here, because they don’t freaking use it often enough.

Next week, we’ll talk a bit more about metaphor, focusing on the fantasy environment and how designers are frustratingly literal-minded.

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