(This game synopsis accompanies Rick’s in depth analysis of the game & the future of game design.)
Papo & Yo (which has been stated as roughly translating to “Father and I”), begins with a boy named Quico cowering in the shadows of a closet, clutching his faithful robot toy, Lula. Outside the closet, something large and monstrous calls for him, its steps shaking the entire world. Quico discovers a portal of shining white light that takes him to another world. In this world, he meets a mysterious and aggressive girl (referred to in the credits as Alejandra) and learns that Lula can speak, loves him dearly, and wants nothing more than to protect him.
This world is better, brighter, and more inviting reflection of the one that Quico left behind. It’s a funhouse version of the shantytown he calls home, done up in bright colors, crisscrossed with rooftop pathways and narrow alleys, where the city itself is helpful, watches out for him, and bends to his will. And while there are times when memories of reality invade his new world – taking him most often to the back seat of his father’s car on a terrifying, rainy night – Quico is able to shut them out and play.
Quico meets Monster, a huge, pink creature, who’s lazy and a little bit dim. He chases after coconuts, his favorite fruit, and lumbers along fairly aimlessly otherwise. On occasion, he plays ball with Quico, or plucks him out of a dangerous situation. The creature’s mood changes when Quico comes across and releases a small pack of frogs. Suddenly, the sleepy, oafish monster moves with speed and purpose. The frogs always get Monster’s attention – he pursues them with a single-minded obsession.
Quico realizes that the frogs can be used as a lure, not unlike the coconuts. He innocently uses the frogs to manipulate Monster’s movements, until the surprising moment when a flood of frogs is unleashed. When Monster finally gets what it most wants and eats a frog, it becomes a flaming, rampaging beast, intent on running Quico down, grabbing him in its jaws, and tossing him like a ragdoll. This betrayal doesn’t kill him, it hurts him, it frightens him, but he always gets up to be chased, caught and hurt again. All Quico can do is hide, until Monster finds and eats a special rotten fruit that calms him down and puts out the flames.
After the first rampage, Alejandra appears again to tell Quico that he’s cursed and admonishes him against approaching Monster again. Quicko is taken back to the car on the rainy street. His father stands in the glare of the headlights, and the shadow he casts on the wall behind him is that of Monster. When Quico returns he learns something from Alejandra: “It is Monster’s burden to kill; he can’t help it but there is a cure.” She says that only Quico can cure monster, and promises to guide him to the Shaman. But this action puts the burden of helping Monster, a dangerous frightening creature, completely on Quico’s shoulders, even as Lula warns him that there’s nothing he can do, that Monster’s anger is not Quico’s fault.
Lula, in fact, becomes something of a mother figure for Quico: explaining the world to him, encouraging him, and pushing him forward, both through dialogue and (in a literal sense) by opening doors he can’t reach, or helping him fly across divides that are too wide. Lula is Quico’s constant companion, unlike Alejandra, who’s mercurial and often downright mean, or Monster, who takes only an occasional interest in Quico and is very much the ticking time-bomb. Lula is always there for him, always watching, always soothing him with words after Monster attacks.
Always, that is, until Monster, in the midst of one of its rampages, kills Lula.
In order to bring Lula back to life, Quico must reverse the cycle of betrayal, and lure Monster into a series of traps meant to, according to Alejandra, “squeeze the anger out of him”, and harness that energy to revive the little robot. It’s a dangerous gambit for both of them, because while what Quico is doing actively injures Monster, it also causes Monster to fly into an uncontrollable rage, with not a rotten fruit in sight. Even with Alejandra using the extracted rage to resurrect the robot, there is no way to stop Monster’s rampage; the game becomes increasingly harrowing, as Quico struggles to stay out of its reach. Quico, Lula, and Alejandra, must fight to stay one step ahead of the flaming beast.
The stakes grow higher and more dangerous, but culminate in a moment of apparent triumph, as Quico and Alejandra open the final door to the Shaman’s mountain home. But left careless in their moment of joy, the trio takes their eyes off of Monster for just a moment too long, and the creature pounces on and eats Alejandra, living up to her portrayal of it as a mindless killer.
Quico is shunted out into the real world again, for one final visit to that rainy night. Sitting in the back seat of the car, he watches his father in the glare of the headlights as he stands over a body slumped in the street.
Quico returns to find Lula waiting for him, and Monster docile again, but without Alejandra’s guidance, he is rudderless. His only option is to press forward and hope that the Shaman will make everything right. The very world around him loses what’s left of its structure and integrity : gravity becomes mutable, terrain curves in on itself, islands float in the sky, a dense fog blots out the sky. Finally, Quico, Lula and Monster come to the end of their road together, and Lula must stay behind to operate the aerial tramway that will take Quico and Monster to the Shaman.
During the long, slow journey to the summit, Quico stands next to Monster, looking so very small next to the creature’s massive bulk. Is Monster aware of what it’s done? As they pass through a cloud, Monster’s disguise falls away, and it is Quico’s father that sits there, huge, gray and rigid, hanging his head in shame. He loses none of his imposing size in his transformation; he is still an inscrutable, dangerous giant.
Disembarking from of the tram, Quico proceeds alone to the Shaman’s tower at the top of the foggy mountain. Surrounding the Shaman’s tower are images, statues, of all the horrible things Monster has done. Even if the shaman can cure Monster, should Monster be forgiven? Can Monster be forgiven? Running up the Shaman’s tower becomes a metaphor for what Quico’s life is like: no matter how quickly he runs, he stays in place and can’t climb higher. The tower seems to simply spin in place, until the last moment when it is finally revealed to be sinking into the the earth, and the final, horrible truth of the journey is made clear: there is no Shaman.
There are only Quico’s memories, not of Monster, but of his father. Quico is forced to confront the fact that what he believed to be images of Monster’s crimes are in fact his memories of his father’s actions. If he does not uncover the truth, withdrawing further into his imagination, he can never truly escape.
The hard truth is that there is no cure for Monster, for his father, and Quico must let it go. Trapped, with the world falling apart around him, Quico has no choice but to feed Monster bottle after bottle of liquor, throwing them down a drainpipe, only to have them emerge as frogs on the other side of a far chasm where Monster awaits. Monster gorges himself on frogs until its anger literally burns down the world around it. Quico then is forced into an even worse situation, using effigies of Alejandra as bait for the raging Monster. Again and again Alejandra screams as Monster consumes her, until finally, mercifully, Monster is sated and falls asleep. In the end, Quico pushes the sleeping Monster over a cliff into a swirling abyss. Only then is he able to return to the real world, back to the closet he’d been hiding in.