Portraying Abuse in Games
A review of Papo & Yo
by Magnus Høgenni
Image courtesy of Minority Media In.
The experience of co-operating with an NPC in a game, as seen in games like The Last of Us, BioShock Infinite, The Walking Dead and so on, is very easy to screw up. Without extreme care, the NPC can seem sluggish, unresponsive, glitchy, stupid and lazy, and this is generally seen as a very bad thing. Conventional game design wisdom wants the relationship between player and NPC to be harmonious, somewhat equal, and not a drag on the player in any case. You want the NPC to pull their weight, and certainly not hurt the player. It can make or break a game in a very literal way, and only a small minority of games do it well.
But while there are some great examples of games that show a harmonious interplay between player gameplay and NPCs, what about a disharmonious relationship? What if you intentionally want to portray an unequal, toxic relationship through gameplay, without it seeming cheap or broken?
So far I've only seen one case of this in action, which is the 2012 game Papo & Yo. How it treats the relationship between the player character and the NPC is quite fascinating, particularly in how it reflects real-life conditions. Based on designer Vander Caballero's own childhood experiences, Papo & Yo centres on the boy Quico, who ends up in an alternate dream world while escaping from his alcoholic father's drunken rage. It is in this world where he encounters the large rotund creature named Monster, who becomes his companion throughout the game. It becomes clear early on that Monster is a metaphor for Quico's father, and the way it gamifies such a fundamentally broken relationship is quite interesting.
In his normal state, Monster is rather slothful and lethargic, and somewhat helpful at times. His bouncy belly can be used to reach high places, and he can be lured with fruit to stand on buttons. Keep in mind: he will run after the fruit, but he'll never try to take it out of your hands directly. If he sees a frog, however, he will immediately sprint after it, and he will yank it from your hands if you attempt to run away with it. After eating one, he goes into a frenzied state, chasing you around in an attempt to hurt you. You can attempt to dispose of the frog via splashing them against the wall, but it's always a race against time and a rapidly approaching Monster, and often results in you getting hurt anyway. He can only come out of his state via eating a rotten fruit, which you have to procure while desperately avoiding him. After being knocked out for a while, he wakes up and continues on as if nothing happened.
The contrast between his normal and intoxicated form creates a state of whiplash for the player, which mirrors the constant state of cognitive dissonance that those with abusive relatives might have. It also creates a sense of dread throughout the game, as you're never quite sure when a frog might appear again and attract Monster.
Beyond this central mechanic, there are many moments throughout the game that build on the abusive dynamic. In the second level, right after you experience and deal with his drunken state for the first time, Monster narrowly saves you from certain death after you fail a puzzle. It's very possible that you might miss this moment, but the fact that the near-miss is of your own doing (rather than through a scripted sequence), makes it feel a lot more substantial and ties it nicely into the gameplay the same way as him being frenzied does. It's not just in the big narrative motions, either: small moments, like throwing a football around with him, or having him chase fruit like a dog playing catch, also shouldn't be disregarded. These moments complicate the picture of Monster in the player's mind; he can do great harm, but you can also have some unbridled fun with him.
This complicates the picture of Monster in the player's mind; he's not entirely good, but not entirely evil either. At times, it seems he does truly care about Quico. The moment portrays Monster as having two sides to him that carry equal weight. The player is unable to reconcile this in their mind, like how victims of abuse may see a "good side" to their abuser, trying but always failing to reconcile it with their "bad side".
This mental turmoil inside the player's mind is enhanced in the second half of the game when Monster, during one of his frog-induced frenzies, almost kills Quico's other companion, a toy robot named Lula. At first, Monster only hurts you, but now he hurts someone else close to you, and you have to simply proceed business as usual as normal gameplay resumes. I remember, when playing through this part, feeling such a seething rage building inside me towards Monster, but also a strong sense of futility. I still had to cooperate with him to solve puzzles and proceed through the game, with full knowledge of what he did constantly on the forefront of my thoughts; we were heading down a path due to something he did. Did Monster even remember the abuse, and if so, did he care? An inability to escape the situation, simply having to continue to interact with your abuser as normal, despite the memory of their abuse ever-present in your mind. It is a specific feeling that is hard to put into words.
When the player finally gets to revive Lula, the game turns the tables on you by requiring you to hurt him. You have to intentionally lure him into traps with fruit, and then spring them on him. It's quite a lengthy process, and you have to do it several times over, and I believe that this was fully intentional. Despite everything, you're still made to feel empathy towards Monster, truly feel the pain you're causing him, and further intensifying the cognitive dissonance in your mind.
The central objective of the game, beyond the side missions you complete on the way, is to find a cure for Monster's condition. Throughout the game, you have to desperately navigate around his frog addiction, attempting to dispose of any frogs that appear if possible. You experience his abuse directly and see it being done to others, but you still trudge on with him in tow, desperate to find the shaman that can heal him. But in the end, you learn the truth: Monster cannot be cured, and the only way to stop the pain he causes is to let him go. The final level is probably one of the most painful ones in the game: you have to intentionally feed him frogs, at this point revealed to be an obvious metaphor for alcohol, and repeat the traumatic moments that he is responsible for (trying not to spoil too much here), before finally dropping him off into a deep abyss below. It is a deeply painful moment, but it's ultimately necessary.
For many of us who may never have been in a toxic/abusive relationship, we tend to not really understand what the dynamics of such a relationship is. It is never as simple as it might seem at first glance, and it's never as easy to leave as you think. Papo & Yo, through its game mechanics, explores the dynamics of such a relationship, as well as the mental effects it has on the player, to great effect.
Through an unorthodox implementation of co-operative gameplay, the game shines a light on a subject matter rarely explored in the gaming medium without it feeling cheap or disrespectful, and it's an experience that I wholeheartedly recommend.