Perhaps no game released last year split opinion like Papo Y Yo. The first title from the Montreal indie studio Minority Media, Papo tells the affecting story of a favela boy named Quico, who with the help of a toy robot and the ability to magically transform the architecture of his slum, tries to placate a ravenous but good-natured beast. It's unusually, maybe unprecedentedly personal for a game so polished: It's based, in part, on the relationship between its creator, the Colombian-born Vander Caballero, and his alcoholic father.
Many hailed Papo as a new kind of game: Thematically rich and emotionally mature work from former AAA developers tired of making the same old iterations on three or four blockbusters. Others docked Papo for its repetitive gameplay and some annoying technical hiccups, and were particularly anxious to convey that just because the game is touching and personal and beautiful and mature doesn't mean it's a good game. This attitude seemed to betray a fear that gaming might be entering some kind of weird future in which games were prized for things other than being perfectly-balanced distractions.
Eight months after it first came out on the PlayStation Network, Papo was released today for the PC, and in retrospect, the perspective of the latter group seems particularly silly. How many games, at fifteen dollars, offer a fraction of the originality, the emotional risk, the aesthetic pleasure of Papo? The shelves of GameStop are lined with multimillion shooters that drape themselves in the textures of the favelas, and yet this little game manages a sense of place that puts them to shame. But! it's got "a fog filter out of 1996." Ok. 4/10.
For those of us who play games to be transported, Papo is a particular delight. Running on a good computer, it's hard to imagine that people faulted the game for its looks; here details pop out everywhere, from the leathery hide of the monster, to the kinks in Quico's braids, to the street art festooning pastel slum walls. Brian D'Oliveira's soundtrack, which includes ambient sound captured in the Amazon, suits the setting and the tone of the game beautifully.
The development of Papo y Yo was subsidized by Sony, and while it's gratifying that the dollars of a major corporation are the reason we can experience Minority Media's art in the first place, it's a reality of the exclusive distribution windows that attend these funding deals that a lot of the people who should play and be touched by this game haven't had the chance. (And, as Caballero told Joystiq at GDC, PSN sales alone did not cover the cost of development) Now that it's available on Steam, that should, with any justice, change. If you have any interest in seeing the artistic potential of the medium, and in supporting people who are interested in exploring it, give this game a try.