Addiction is always a sensitive subject. There are many poisons in the world to be addicted to, just as there are as many poisoners. I have seen many friends that have battled dependencies to chemical drugs and alcohol since I was in grade school, and watching the process is always painful. Not only that, but I’ve seen a lot of people addicted or dependent on a number of different things: sex, fame, work, food, sugar, pain. And with any addiction, many questions arise: what is the reason for falling back on your drug of choice? How do you live your daily life battling the addiction? And what of the loved ones that deal with those affected by the addiction?
Minority Media’s PaPo & Yo, released back in 2012, tackles the last question in one of the more emotionally painful gaming experiences that I’ve ever played.
In PaPo & Yo, you play as Quico, a young elementary-age boy that explores an imaginary world based on the favelas in Brazil. He runs through clotheslines, jumps high across roofs and ladders, and manipulates buildings with a simple crank of a lever or simple use of white chalk. Along the way he runs into Lula, a robotic toy capable of allowing Quico to fly that also helps Quico with solving puzzles, and Alejandra, a mysterious young girl with the same manipulation powers as Quico that warns him about the evil that comes later.
The imagination in this world is evident immediately, as chalk-outlined handles lead to pulling hidden staircases and transforming houses into floating blocks for bridges to new adventures. After a romp across rooftops and building archways, you come across Monster, a large sleeping creature with a rhino-like horn and big belly for bouncing into the sky. The warnings from Alejandra are lost as you play with Monster, tossing coconuts to lure Monster near designated squares that help you find new and special areas for exploring. The tone is whimsical, but Alejandra will have no part in the adventure, doing everything she can to warn Quico before disappearing into the ether. Still, the Monster shows is no real threat to Quico and shows no annoyance at Quico’s presence, lazily eating an endless supply of coconuts and falling asleep in comfortable and convenient locations around the world.
Then the colorful frogs came.
The world is later inhabited by these beautifully-colored green frogs, mindlessly hopping around on large, gooey red feet attached to bright blue legs. The frogs are about the size our hero, making the need to carry the frogs around somewhat endearing as he tries to bear hug them. He plays with them for a while until Alejandra returns to reiterate her warnings about Monster, as she draws an exit door on a wall with chalk and disappears. Eventually, Quico is reconnected with Alejandra as he and Lula weave through the shanties, taking in the beautiful murals draped across neighborhood walls. Eventually you leave her again and descend into a downward spiraling area, where Monster sleeps at the bottom, where Alejandra tricks you into trapping Monster. Seeing no sense of danger and a strong affection for Monster, Quico releases Monster to go play and eat coconuts. You gain your final warning about the dangers of Monster before Alejandra takes off.
And we should have listened to her.
As I keep sending coconuts to Monster, the frogs are released, and Monster loses his mind. There is no coconut sweet enough to keep him away from the frogs. Once he gets access, he grabs a frog and proceeds to swallow the poor creature hole. In addition to this being gross, the Monster enters a blinding rage, pursuing and attacking Quico until he can eat a special fruit that can calm him. Even after giving the Monster the calming fruit, the frogs can reappear at any time, enticing Monster to feast and rage yet again. From here, Quico is given his official quest: get Monster to the Shaman so that he may be healed and freed from his addiction to frogs.
So much of the game revolves and reinforces Quico’s vivid imagination. Hints can be located in cardboard boxes, the same way any kid would want to escape reality. Cranks and levers throughout the game are designated from chalk outlines. Because Quico is not known for having chalk, we can assume that any chalk outlines were created by Alejandra; however, Alejandra is also part of his mind, implying that she is acting as his mental guide, the Virgil to his Dante through his many trials. Lula’s ability to help Quico fly through and above his environment mimics Quico’s later memory of playing with Lula. His ability to bend to stack pieces of buildings like blocks and then bend them to run from place to place reminded me of my own childhood, playing with small blocks and stacking them off-center, trying to build an endless staircase until the entire structure came tumbling down in a satisfying crash. Quico’s transformation in his mind adds to the aspirations he feels throughout his journey. As he has painful flashbacks of how Monster came to be, he begins to shed his clothing – first, his school jacket, then, his shirt. He then begins to don white body paint, replacing his youthful face with the symbols of spirits. He takes a supernatural form, imbued with the ability to leap and fall from the tallest heights without sustaining injury, or resurrecting the broken body of Lula later in the game.
In playing the game, you realize that this game is a hero’s journey from the innocence of childhood to the depressing reality that awaits him outside of the mind. The entire impetus of this game is the saving of Monster, the hope that the shaman will remove the evil that comes of his addiction to the frogs, and even after he rejected Alejandra’s previous notion to leave Monster alone. During the game, Lula has been depowered and destroyed, and Quico has been tasked to resurrect him. He gains this ability through his hardship and trials and finds himself physically transforming in the process. Even though Quico doesn’t die in the game, the agonizing pain that you hear when Quico screams as he is beaten by Monster grated on my ears, and after it continued in one particularly difficult part of the game, began to take a toll on my spirit. The cries of a child being smacked around are hard to bear.
Only towards the end of the game do we realize that despite all of Quico’s sacrifices, all was lost only to realize that Quico could not save Monster. When all hope was found, and all of the pieces were put in place, Quico began to feel each and every lost. He opens the gate towards the shaman with the help of Alejandra, only to watch her be consumed by Monster. Later when they travel to the mountaintop where the shaman resides, they can reach the top only if someone stays behind to operate the vehicle, which forces Lula to stay behind. All that is left is a long, slow journey, where you can see Monster as he truly is, a sad and broken man trapped in his own self-pity and misery. With the single sliver of hope, Quico rotates the platforms that hold his made-up memories, uncovering the dark visions of his real life, avoiding the violence of his household and listening to the screams of his family. The fire inside of him breaks the news that Monster simply cannot be saved and will be left to this life forever.
With this new information, Quico resolves to end the story, end the awful memories of Monster, and in doing so, must break his childlike imagination. He presses a button to find liquor bottles (similar to Jack Daniels whiskey) and shoves them through a large pipe, releasing the bottles as the brightly colored frogs. Monster cannot consume the frogs fast enough, entering his blind rage and destroying the environment in order to move ahead to his penultimate platform. Quico then releases dolls that look like Alejandra to a still-raging Monster. The Monster then consumes each Alejandra as she builds platforms to lure Monster away from the pipe and closer to the edge. Finally satiated, Monster falls to the final platform and ends his journey as he began, soundly sleeping on planks and not caring for the world around him. Quico reaches out to Monster’s platform, and with one final push sends Monster into the abyss, into the forgotten recesses of his own mind. During this final moment, I could not help but feel a level of guilt within our hero. He chooses to fill Monster with booze and chooses to throw his family in front of Monster to save himself and move forward.
You also realize how little sympathy and compassion Monster had the entire time. Monster spent most of his time as a rage-filled substance abuser that only sought to consume “frogs” and beat Quico; however, when he wasn’t filled with blinding anger, he only played with Quico when he brought fruit for him to eat, and when Quico came empty-handed, Monster just found the nearest platform on which to sleep. At his worst, Monster was a drunk and physically violent, but at his best, he was lazy, greedy with food, and neglectful of his family. Monster was never adorable, and he was never good for Quico, but it was the only character that existed in most of his story, so it was the only thing that could help Quico go on his own journey.
Quico climbs the final stairs of ascension out of his mind and back into the real world. He has left everything behind –his childhood toy, his sister, and his father. He leaves alone, reentering the place he began, with no ability to run or jump, only to slowly walk back, his body drained of all energy, and his imagination drained of all color. He returns back to a black-and-white world, painted face and nearly naked, both stronger and weaker for what he went through. For many who go on a hero’s quest, success is the ultimate goal, but for Quico, his goal was only to survive the story and endure the hardship that came for him. For many who live this way in our world, survival is the best measure of a successful life, and being able to conquer the struggle, even if it brings you back to the same place, can be its own reward, its own victory. There are many Quico’s in the world that need support, and there will continue to be more Quico’s so long as there are more Monsters.