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Comforts of violence in Papo & Yo


Writer Colette Bennett examines the tragic, emotional violence of addiction explored in the PSN-exclusive Papo & Yo, reconciling it with her personal experience with alcoholism. There are some spoilers for the ending of the game included in this article.

My mother is an alcoholic. Growing up with her meant living in a flurry of contradictions. She was overwhelmingly sweet, beautiful, gregarious, and fun to be around, sometimes willing to be just as much of a child as I was. She was also absentminded, stubborn, and selfish. I learned at an early age that if something captured her fancy, she'd chase after it with all the tenacity of a cat pursuing a fluttering bird. I used to be the central object of her attention. Eventually, she ran after something else, leaving me behind to watch her silhouette fading away in the distance.

Papo & Yo (or Papo y Yo, loosely translated to Dad and Me) is about a different type of alcoholic relationship than the one I had growing up, but all the same, I recognize my ten year old self in it.

Gallery: Papo and Yo (GDC 2012) | 21 Photos

In Papo & Yo, you play as Quico, a young boy who explores a whimsical world that you can manipulate to your liking. With a few swipes of your hands, you can make buildings fly through the air, stack them like blocks, and climb up them to get closer to the sparkling sky above.

Quico has a friend in the game named Monster – if "friend" is the right word. Quico and Monster have a tumultuous relationship. When Monster eats frogs, he flies into a burning rage, transforming from a docile hulk into something altogether more frightening. He can change on the turn of a dime, leaving Quico to find a way to protect himself from Monster's fits of violence.

In dream sequences, we see a peek of the real world that Quico inhabits. Locked in a car, he peers outside at his father's silhouette, casting the shadow of a monster on the wall behind him. It's a frightening image that cuts directly to the core of something most human beings can relate to: the fear of being terrified of a person that you have given your absolute trust to.

In Papo & Yo, you play a unique role that presents challenges games have very rarely walked the line on. The world you inhabit in the game makes perfect sense. It's the place you get to create yourself, tell your own story, and leave the real world behind. My own childhood version was similar. I spent hours in my bedroom with paints and canvas, pulling the places I dreamt of into existence in a spilled mess of oils and acrylic. I called for my mother every time I completed a painting. I wanted to show her.

As the child of an alcoholic, you quickly learn that the need to somehow save your parent from what they're doing to themselves is a dangerous one. Life becomes a series of survival tactics as you learn to adapt to their behavioral shifts. As Quico, we learn the most functional way to deal with Monster's anger: to use the world around us to clear the way forward, leading him ever further towards the source of a cure. While Papo & Yo explores brave territory with these themes, it also promises a dangerous fantasy – the idea that abusive parents can be fixed.

When Monster burns with fire, it surprises me how quickly I learn to adapt. There's a cure, which is a blue coconut I can feed him. There's no time to hesitate in the face of his violence. I simply go into action mode: running in search of the thing I can use to calm him down, finding that thin relief when he collapses into a heap with an expression of confusion on his face. He doesn't remember what happens. But I do.

In the vulnerable curve of Quico's bare back, I recognize my own need to save my mother. I remember a night that she came home drunk, weak, laughing, but obviously lost in time, watching the world swirl, not sure of who she was or why. In the bathroom, I held her head up over the toilet as she vomited out the poison she had so readily consumed. I feared her ability to hurt me. And yet, every time she needed me, I still tried to be there. My tiny hands always reached for her.

At the game's conclusion, we learn the truth that I learned as I stumbled towards adulthood wondering what I did wrong. Monster cannot be saved – at least not by Quico. Just as I had to let go of my own mother and my need for her to be present for me, Quico must understand that there is no shaman and no perfect ending. However, there is acceptance. When you relinquish the need to make things how you want them to be, the battle is over. And so Monster falls far into the clouds, and in a moment of total recognition, I watch him tumble further away into the distance.

New Orleans-based writer Colette Bennett ends her freelance career this week – and thus, her time with us at Joystiq – taking a full-time position within the industry. In the past, she has written for outlets such as CNN, Kotaku, Gamasutra, GamesRadar, and GameRanx. You can follow her work on Twitter @ColetteBennett or at her website.

For more on Papo & Yo, make sure to read the Joystiq review.

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