When Roland texted to ask if I wanted to come work with him, it usually meant a night of chain-smoking over the heated vent in his house. But one night, my senior year of college, when I arrived, Roland was stumbling between his living room and kitchen, mumbling that didn’t want to go into his bedroom because of the the dark. He was still lucid enough to tell me he had taken too many sleeping pills, which were offset by all the uppers in his system.
Just stay with me while I try to sleep, he asked. Then he put a rug over his head and lay on the ground.
When his roommate returned, finally, Roland was knocking chairs and books over whenever he stood up to try and walk.
I looked at him and asked if everything was ok, if I could go. I asked, but I would have left anyways. I told myself I was too busy, and that he could wait.
You can’t really tell if someone’s an addict until you graduate, the joke went.
Papo y Yo is a game about alcoholism. Its developer, Vander Caballero received the hagiographic press we reserve for auteurs—games, people exclaimed (myself included), were finally going to tell personal stories. Players weren’t just going to shoot things in favelas, they were going to learn to actually interact with them.
Yet even in my excitement, I knew that it wasn't easy to gamify something this intimate; when gamers talk about moral conflict, we’re usually talking about the glib ethics of some “subversive” first-person shooter. Even after speaking with Vander himself, I was unsure what playing Papo y Yo would actually feel like.
To put it as simply as possible, Papo y Yo is a series of puzzles. I’m terrible at puzzle games, which explains why I quickly encountered a part I couldn’t seem to solve. This thing, Monster, kept getting in the way and I couldn't do anything about it.
I am Quico now, determined in my innocence. I want to love Monster because he’s so damn cute. He snuffs and paws stupidly at his face, chasing me along the winding streets of what could be our neighborhood.
We play together sometimes. Our relationship is more fumbling motions than intimate gestures. He catches a ball I kick, then stands staring. I try to guide him with all the dexterity a directional pad grants me, but walking feels stiff and awkward, and we both move much slower than I imagined.
Monster is more tired than anything, eating and eating until he collapses in a heavy hangover. When he passes out, he lets me sit on his belly and I perch there as if he’s as harmless and good-natured as Totoro. I rise and fall with his massive, heaving breath.
Then there’s this other monster, all red and scaly. This bigger and angrier Monster erupts every time he gets his hands on a green frog and stays that way until I can coax him into vomiting. He flushes a deep red and bursts into flames when he swallows the frogs and races around the level trying to find me, suddenly hungry for my blood. The game accentuates every heavy thud my father’s footsteps make. Time itself slows down once he gets his hands on a green frog, miming the fearful gasp I make when I realizing I’m in danger. He grabs me in his glistening mouth and shakes me vigorously. He tosses me through the air. Every time I try to escape, he lunges.
And what else can I do—can Quico do—except stand back up and try again? There’s no button to attack Monster, no power-up to stretch my biceps.. There’s no “charisma” bonus or “charm” skill to explain to Monster please just put the bottle down for a minute and listen to me and everything will be ok.
And, even more suspiciously, there’s no death, no kill screen to rub my face in the reality of my failure.
When I spoke to Vander about his game, he told me that he wanted to make sure players were scared by Monster. And there is something disturbing about this sensation, but it’s not the fear of bodily harm or death, the one that videogames have taught me to expect. It’s the frustrating reality of non-recognition every time I try to move past Monster and am once again batted away with terrifying ease.
Even stuck in this loop of powerless invincibility, Quico keeps the spirit of the game oddly joyful. He leaps and scrambles through the colorful favela. Houses sprout legs and wings, scurrying about at my every command. I can turn the neighborhood inside-out just by lifting cardboard boxes. I can feel the strain of Quico’s concentration as I build myself a temporary reality.
It’s a power I wish I had when I’m facing Monster, being beaten back again and again until I start mashing buttons in frustration—hoping there’s some secret answer and growing angry at the design that gives me only motions—running and jumping.
And I realize it’s the power I should have had when I walked out of Roland’s apartment. Instead, like Quico, I go and hide in a box (friends actually called my small, beige and windowless thesis carrel “the box”) and look for hints, waiting for the puzzle to be solved.
In both cases, I walk away, hoping that the next time, everything will be clear.
Roland got help with the campus guidance counselor, who gave him more drugs. Eventually a dean called him into the office and asked whether or not Roland felt like he would hurt himself or anyone else on campus.
He dropped his thesis, his final semester course-load. I would still see him sometimes, huddled against the wall of a nearby dorm with his laptop and a pile of books. He could smoke there. Sometimes, the people who lived inside would come out to ask if he could move; they could smell him. Whenever I came over he’d grunt and swipe at me. Go away.
Papo y Yo is a game about reaching and failing, about the weakness of gestures. No matter how many times I pressed towards Monster, he kept swatting me away, again and again, until he made me realize just how small and weak I truly was, and that there is another demon, bigger and scarier, a drink away, the only real gesture.