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Ben Hornsby Ben Hornsby
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Papo & Yo'

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The fifth-best game of all time that features getting inside cardboard boxes

'Papo & Yo,' the latest in the Mainstream Art Game canon, stars a boy who works his way through a surreal city along with a monster. There are puzzles, but they only serve to maintain a certain rhythm in the flow of the graphics. Challenges are limited to some simple switch-hitting and some simpler platform-jumping, and are simple enough that the inclusion of hint boxes in every other room borders on insulting.

And yes, the monster. He's only mechanically interesting at first glance. He follows along, led by the odors of coconuts and the sounds of frogs, both of which he constantly wants to eat. Never mind any ideas you might already have: All you ever have to do is get him to sit on a switch or fall asleep on some cardboard so you can bounce off him. He's the key to most of the game's locks - you just have to hop around and rearrange the rooms to get him to the door.

If it doesn't sound like an art game yet, then here you go: The monster represents the boy's father, an abusive alcoholic. When the monster catches and eats one of the frogs that pops out of the world's sewers he becomes enraged, suddenly obsessed with attacking the boy.

On the sliding scale from compelling to eye-rolly, this is mostly eye-rolly. If the game was less eager to spell things out, it might be pretty good. As it is, the metaphor hangs over your head from the second minute, when the boy is shown cowering in a closet while his father stomps around outside. The game's finale spells everything out even more clearly, having you flip some switches that turn images of the monster eating a frog into images of the boy's father clutching a bottle. Groan.

One moment in the middle of the game is fantastic. There's a puzzle that has you jump into a hole where a wall will squish you if you don't solve it in time. If you mess up, though, you don't get killed - the monster comes out of nowhere and reaches in to pull you out. This is the only moment in the game like this, it comes and goes without being shoved down your throat, and if you solve the (simple) puzzle on your first try you never see it anyway. It adds layers to the narrative so gracefully - suddenly the game becomes a metaphor for life with an alcoholic father rather than for a night hiding from one. This is it; this is interesting game design. Yet the game's designers don't even seem to realize they've included it - they're too busy scribbling the words 'metaphor' and 'symbolism' all over my brain.

There are graceful moments near the end of the game, too, that offer hints to the game's underlying themes, and I wonder if this game might have been pretty great if they were the only hints you got. But no, that would never happen: 'Papo & Yo' is ham-fists through and through. A monster's silhouette turning into a man's loses a lot of its punch when there was a god darn text box in the middle of the screen saying 'he can't control himself' 20 minutes earlier.

Here's a game from a smallish studio getting a commercial release that deals directly with issues that exist in the lives of real human beings - that's a kind of holy grail for some people. It's a shame that it has to carry all the baggage of commercial game design with it. The camera sweeps around to spell out every puzzle for you when you enter a room; dialogue bubbles not only exist, they sit on the screen for several whole seconds too long. Man, why is there dialogue?

'Papo & Yo's' major game design touchstone is 'Ico,' but it looks to me like they could have learned a few more lessons from it. One day games like these will start hitting that know the value of a little subtlety; that day is not today.

two stars (out of four)

'Super Mario Bros.' doesn't give out half-stars; neither does Ben Hornsby.

Last modified on Friday, 31 August 2012 09:30


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