Mythic Storytelling in Games: Contemporary/Urban Fantasy

For my second Once Upon a Time IX game review, I wanted to play on the phrase “urban myth” and call the game in question an example of Urban Mythology… but to be honest, it’d be a bit of a stretch to call this anything other than a straight-up fantasy. And, in fact, to claim it is “contemporary” feels wrong to me too, since I can’t help but feel it is set in the recent past, the 80s or 90s maybe — but that’s close enough to work with!

 CONTEMPORARY/URBAN FANTASY

Papo & Yo

by Vander Caballero / Minority Media

A boy hides in his darkened bedroom, still in his school uniform, clutching a favourite action figure for courage as the thundering of an aggressive presence shakes the room from outside. The light coming through slats in the doorway is obscured by a lumbering, inhuman silhouette, but then a brighter light blinds him: a spiralling icon draws itself on the wall, washing out the world as he tentatively approaches…

…and then the boy, Quico, is spat out of the glowing graffiti onto cobbled stones — he’s outside in a dead-end alley, surrounded by weathered brick-and-concrete walls under a dazzling clear blue sky. He runs down the alley, which opens up to reveal a stunning vista stretched out before him: a fantastical shanty town of pastel-painted dwellings, stacked into precipitous towers or forming steep-walled urban canyons. 

He jumps from one corrugated steel roof to the next, descending to a plaza at the bottom like they are the steps of an amphitheatre, where he finds a strange girl scrawling the same magical graffiti that brought him here. At the sight of him she vanishes into a radiant doorway that instantly fades into mere charcoal lines on the wall, leaving him alone — but with a clue as to how to turn the other graffiti around to his advantage.

Rough drawings of levers, ropes, even cogs and gears decorate the slum, waiting for someone with imagination to bring them to life and reshape the world around them — and there are also less elusive denizens than the girl, who seems to be always one alley ahead, never quite waiting for Quico to catch up before she flees again. He finds his toy, Lula, a pose-able plastic robot out of some Manga cartoon. Yet here Lula has come to life, clinging to Quico’s back as he runs, flying through the air to activate distant graffiti triggers and open new pathways, even boosting Quico across gaps too wide for a normal boy to jump.

It seems an adventure like no other — but the fun surface overlays darkness to come. The winding streets and run-down squares are occupied by more than just these three, but the out-sized frogs that scatter as Quico chases them are the least of his concerns. There is also Monster, the huge figure that so frightened him as he cowered in his room… yet here Monster seems far from threatening, more of a clumsy hound, always quick to take a nap in the sun or greedy for a sweet snack, like the coconuts growing all around.

Quico is quick to help his giant friend, who gallops after him in hope of another treat, and whose bulbous belly makes an ideal trampoline once he’s sleeping them off. But then, Monster gets his hands on one of those cute, colourful frogs hopping around…

…and everything starts to go very, very wrong.

-o-

It’s hard to say whether Papo & Yo is an arcade game first and emotional purging second, or the other way around. For its key creator that order is probably reversed, but for the sake of this review I’ll take the other path.

On the brightly coloured surface this is a 3D platformer, in which we direct Quico in his exploration of the game world, jumping and climbing in search of the graffiti-triggers that allow us to progress further into the story (and, on a second play-through of the game, to seek out a variety of novelty hats secreted in the city’s less obvious nooks and crannies). The result of activating these graffiti provides the game’s great visual centrepiece: the shanty town is discovered to be startlingly manipulable, with first buildings and later the entire city being reshaped and reordered in a way viewers of the movie Inception will find very familiar.

There is nice variety in how this concept is employed. What begins as tearing away barriers or raising stepping stones expands into slotting together puzzle pieces hidden in — or comprised of — the environment, sometimes to spectacular effect. We begin to see around the edge of the reality presented, with the interlocking layers of the shanty town prised apart to show naked whiteness sparkling beneath, exposing the raw material of Quico’s imagination perhaps.

However, the more profound exposure within Papo & Yo is symbolic. From the opening moments — in the dedication of the game to his mother and siblings by the writer and creative director, Vander Caballero — the game begins laying the foundations for what it really is: a metaphor for a destructive and abusive parental relationship, that which Caballero endured in his own childhood at the hands of his father.

Through much of the game’s narrative, this is played out in how Quico struggles against the sudden and overwhelming rages of Monster. Unlike the typically combative solutions games offer us when faced with an adversary, here we are compelled to use tricks or appeasement — or to simply flee — in order to avoid brutal mistreatment at the hands of a bigger, faster and more dangerous foe. Failure to do so is harshly, distressingly punished.

As the game continues, though, the metaphor is shrugged off and what lies behind is made more explicit. This is extremely powerful material, and the approach of the storytelling is to show how the trappings of childhood are stripped away from Quico as he, and we, are gradually forced to confront the truth within the adventure. His friends and allies are taken from him and his school uniform is degraded, until he is eventually made over into a little death-figure, his skin daubed with a skeleton of white paint — a form of protection, but a revealing one.

The gameplay may have a few rough edges to it, but there is very little to criticise and I have no real inclination to do so. In addition to its universally relatable message, the game is also a window onto Latin American cultural fantasy, and it further stands out from the crowd as one of a minority of titles featuring a non-white hero. The soundtrack is as upbeat as the moments of peril are down, and the fact that it is not in English (the dialogue is in Portuguese, with various sub-titles available) is no impediment to either the fun presentation or the sombre core.

In the final analysis, Papo & Yo tells a coming-of-age story every bit as moving as the best of YA fiction. There is a richness to it that proves truly rewarding, and if that is achieved at the expense of absolutely perfect polish, well, I’m just fine with that.


I’ve tried not to concentrate on the mechanics of Papo y Yo here, and I’m not going to do so for any of the games I review this week – my focus is on storytelling, and I think each of these games are uncommonly inventive in this regard. All I’ll say is that I did find foibles to the gameplay with all four — and yet three of them I’ve played through multiple times, a rare thing for me, and the other I’ve never “completed” as I still can’t find all its little secrets. Story counts for a lot, in my opinion.

Check back tomorrow for the third gaming review, in which we move forward and investigate the unusual future of fairytales…

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