Papo & Yo (ko)

Hey there! This is the third part in a series on Papo & Yo. If you haven’t read the first two, they can be found here:

and here:

In the first part, we talked about narrative through simulation, and in the second part we talked about the function of metaphor. In this part, we’re going to talk a bit more about metaphor, but mostly focus on the fantasy/imagination setting of the game.

Throughout the game it’s made pretty obvious that you’re in the main character’s imagination, or something very like it. As we’ve mentioned a couple times, in the opening scene the kid leaps through a portal into this imaginary world where he comes across Monster. This world of imagination looks more or less like a favela, albeit one constructed by an over-enthusiastic child.

Many of the puzzles in the game revolve around doing imaginative little things to the physical environment – there’s little white levers and ropes and so on, and you might pull on a rope and the face of a building might come with it, stretching out into a set of stairs that you can walk up. I’ve heard people criticise the game for not really presenting much in terms of gameplay – which is true, at least in this example, but I found these moments so enchanting (for the most part) that I didn’t really care. If you can see the dial in the bottom right hand of the picture above – you twist that dial, and the house hops up on little legs (something reminiscent of a Schnauzer) and bounds across to a different location.

What’s evident here is that the setting, while perhaps based in some form of the child’s real-life experience, is largely a fantasy realm of imagination. That’s useful in this situation, because it’s the foundation for the whole ‘Monster is your father’ metaphor – the metaphor makes sense because the environment is already mixing reality and imagination, so as players we feel well within the tone set by the environment. The only pity is that other games don’t take as much advantage of the possibilities offered by these imaginative environments. We talked last time about how metaphor is great, because it’s portraying a thing from a different angle; the obvious extension of this idea is that fantastic or imaginative settings are settings almost gift-wrapped for the purpose of metaphor.

Let’s take Tolkien, for example. He’s the grand-daddy of mainstream fantasy – you can’t swing a magical sword in the fantasy realm without running into elves, goblins, dwarves, orcs – all these things that get traced back to Tolkien’s ur-text. What I think most people miss is that Tolkien’s setting up all these creatures as metaphors. All the different races in Middle Earth, to some degree, are a commentary on society at the time. You’ve got the elves, for example, who’re elegant and graceful and cultured and knowledgeable – and basically representative of the aristocracy. That’s why they’re all leaving in The Lord of the Rings – it’s a comment on what Tolkien saw as the fading role of the aristocracy in contemporary British life. Obviously we can’t entirely reduce the elves in Middle Earth to ‘basically a metaphor for the aristocracy’, because there’s other aspects to consider, but that is an important part of it. Similarly, the dark forces represent what Tolkien saw as the ominous power of industrialisation – think of Saruman and the devastation of Isengard’s forests. Even though there’s an epic mythmaking going on in Tolkien, there’s also a very important element of social commentary to his fantasy.

Now, the point here is not that all fantasy ought to be social commentary. That would be unhelpful. The point is simply that fantasy provides an excellent opportunity for social commentary, because it’s a way to explore society from a new and interesting perspective. It’s what we see in Papo & Yo  – even though that’s not, strictly speaking, fantasy. There’s still this magical imaginative ‘this isn’t real’ element common to High Fantasy and Papo & Yo that allows for a different perspective on a familiar everyday aspect of life.

It’s this very same point that often frustrates me when I approach typical fantasy games, because very few of them seem to understand the transformative power they hold in their hands. For such an imaginative genre, fantasy games seem to have this doggedly insistent policy of literalism. You can imagine the conversation:

Me: What’s that?
Fantasy Game: It’s an elf!
Me: Cool! What does it mean?
Fantasy Game: *blank look*
Me: What does it represent?
Fantasy Game: It… it’s an elf.
Me: Cool, yeah! But why?
Fantasy Game: Because elves are cool!
ad infinitum…

And sure, look, elves are cool. I like elves. I love fantasy, I love the trappings, I love the wistful romanticism of the whole genre. What I don’t love are dull stories and bad storytellers. There are definitely some outstanding games that exist in the fantasy video game genre, but there’s also a lot of poor storytelling and missed potential. What I like about Papo & Yo is that even though the central metaphor is a bit hamfisted, it’s a step in the right direction. It uses the setting of imagination and fantasy to involve the player in the fantasy of a child abused by his father. It asks players to look at the father in an imaginative way, a metaphorical way – and I reckon that’s great. It’s a way of liberating yourself from the immediate ‘reality’ of what’s on the screen in front of you and engaging the imagination – which, for my money, is what fantasy should be about.

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