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An Inability to Empathize: Fumbling to Grok 'Papo & Yo'

Papo & Yo is a personal story of alcoholism and abuse. Yet despite the personal nature of tragedy and drama I could not connect to the game on an emotional level like so many others did.

Eric Swain, Blogger

January 18, 2013

6 Min Read

Papo & Yo

Papo & Yo was a critical darling that got a lot of attention in the past couple of months. It is the autobiographical story of the lead designer and how he survived the monster that lived inside his father. All of it is told through the allegorical lens of a child’s fantasy as he hides from his alcoholic father, which is here represented by a larger orange behemoth.

In addition to the more artistic aspirations of the game, there is a pretty solid game beneath these ideas. The mechanics and dynamics of the interactions work to foster a sort of paradoxically needy, yet toxic relationship between the boy and the monster. Everything works well together to create the artist’s singular vision of this very personal story. And it is because of all of that I feel like a complete ass when I say the game made me feel nothing at all.
Even worse is that my guilt is compounded by the fact that this game connected very deeply to other writers I know and respect. Abuse is a horrific thing in this world, a crime especially horrific when perpetuated on those that don’t have the skills or experience to understand the world and by those who are entrusted to teach and protect. Because of this alone, any rational being can understand the need to protect the young and feel like something is wrong when they are not. And yet Papo & Yo just does not reach me on this emotional level.

I respect the game. I respect what it is doing in terms of the message it wants to send and in the crafting of its mechanics. Intellectually I can see how the artistic elements of the game fit together and how this well crafted machine is built to affect me, and yet I remain unmoved. Outside a few clipping issues (the type that video games as a whole have taught me to ignore), I can see nothing wrong with the game as a textual object to satisfy my lack of understanding of the disconnect that I feel from it. I continue to ask myself what am I missing.

Again, of all the people that seem to connect to Papo & Yo, the strongest are those that came from similar backgrounds—people who have dealt with abusive or alcoholic parents in particular. They have an instant connection to Quico based on his situation and their own experiences. I instantly reject that I need to have some tragedy in my own history in order to empathize with the plight of others, even fictional people. The basic fundamentals of dramatizing pain, hardship, and betrayal are universally recognizable. Even if I cannot grasp the specific injuries to Quico’s body and psyche, I should be able to grasp the broad strokes.

I said I can appreciate Papo & Yo on an intellectual level. I can appreciate the craft and artistry that went into making it and how it works. But Papo & Yo isn’t a game that can or should be appreciated intellectually. This isn’t the type of work that targets those centers of the brain to create meaning while minimizing drama. Papo & Yo is a personal story about the visceral emotions of a fear and confusion made palatable through constant exposure to things that provoke those emotion, even in times of relative peace. It’s also about the hope that has to be let go of in order to grow as a person and escape the torment of the situation. It is something that needs to be connected with on those terms.

I feel somewhat dirty for even coldly analyzing my own inability to connect with the work, like I’m somehow trivializing it, by not being able to “get it” as it were. I can’t trivialize the personal histories of the artist and all those people who do connect to it on such a fundamental, if not primal, level of their being. On the other hand, the game does not seem to reach its broadest audience by instilling emotional resonance, so that they, too, can experience things outside their purview even for a short amount of time and in a muffled dosage as great art often does. Is it a failure of the artist if the work cannot connect or is it a failure of the work or of the audience? Or is it a little of all of them?

Perhaps it’s not that we do not understand each other. Both the artist and myself as audience are reaching out towards one another as desperately as we can, but the distance is simply too great and our arms cannot reach one another. The nearest conclusion that I can reach for the existence of the barrier to emotional comprehension is that ultimately the allegory of Papo & Yo is too thick.

I understand what everything stands for; the game is quite explicit in it. Frogs are the bottles of alcohol and the beast is Quico’s father. The actions and behaviors of the player in reaction to the situation mirror a child desperately trying to keep his parent subdued and sober. But the game doesn’t set a whole lot of the specific situation up. It’s meant to be a universal fairy tale of an abusive household. The connection to Quico is almost that of a blank slate as details are sparse of which to build on the character. The benefit is that it makes the character more universal, but if the universality is based upon a specific situation than those outside of that situation are left by the wayside. While those with the personal history can immediately sympathize with the boy and connect emotionally.

On this front it is a failure on the game’s part to be more specific so a portion of the audience can connect. It’s too much fairy tale and not enough harsh reality from which to escape. But there is also a failure on my part to expect the game to cater to me. To some extent yes, a work caters to its audience, but not to the extent it is dictated by it. Either I did not try hard enough or were not capable to reaching far enough into the game. Had I focused harder on the implications of what was there and overlaid it in my own life, could I connected?

Maybe that is the answer for a piece of art that works in every way, but the most necessary and fundamental to art. Or maybe I just am a heartless cretin trying to justify himself.

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