Epic Life: Ritual Immersion in Papo & Yo

Our immersion in rulesets creates metaphors for our selves that have the power to transform us. I’ve been talking in my last few posts about how that works–about how we identify not only with characters like Odysseus (in the Odyssey) and Quico (in Papo & Yo) but also with other parts of the rulesets according to which practomimetic performance takes place. In performing, we assume the mechanics of those rulesets (the best definition of “mechanic” I’ve ever seen is Simon Ferrari‘s: “bundle of rules that controls the relationship between player input and game-state”) as part of us. Immersion results–the state all performers know well, of feeling “reality” fall away, replaced by the fiction within which we play.

Identification and metaphor are the same thing, described from two perspectives, psychological and literary. When I identify with Quico’s transformation of the space of the favela in Papo & Yo, the imaginary “space” of my psyche (itself a metaphor, of course, since it’s all happening in my nervous system) becomes a metaphor for that transformation. To perform within a practomimetic ruleset is to allow the metaphors that make up your self to be progressively reshaped by those rules.

The connection between 1) immersion as identification, 2) mechanics as metaphor, and 3) epic life through an awareness of the rulesets we are playing lies in the way we can see the metaphoricity of well-designed mechanics as a guide to aesthetic operations like catharsis. Catharsis actually means “purification,” and Aristotle in fact invokes it as a metaphor himself, in his Poetics, when he writes of tragedy producing a purification of pity and fear.

With catharsis as an embedded part of the ruleset of a fictive peformance, as Vander Caballero has embedded it in the ruleset of Papo & Yo, playing a ruleset is a ritual of performance that gives our actions meaning in “real life” as metaphorical mechanics do in practomimes, and especially in games. “Especially in games,” in that in games we have the chance both to choose and to be deprived of choice by the game’s ruleset’s constraints, as embodied in its mechanics.

The easiest way to grasp the special way game-rulesets (as opposed to, say, novel-rulesets or tragedy rulesets, but not as opposed to the oral-epic-rulesets within which the Iliad and the Odyssey came into being, where the position of the bard is equivalent to that of the game-player) accomplish catharsis is to consider the matter contrafactually–why does Papo & Yo have to be a game? Papo & Yo has to be a game because it’s specifically about being forced to make choices that are complicit in terrible actions (which I’ll discuss in a moment, below the spoiler-warning). The alternative of, say, a textual narration in which we see a character forced to similar action would not implicate the reader, because the reader’s identification with the character, no matter how strong, would not include having to make that character take action, the most basic aspect of game-mechanics.

SPOILER-WARNING: the next paragraphs discuss the end of Papo & Yo.

The terrible actions referred to above follow the revelation that the shamanistic ritual is the game itself, rather than the meeting with the shaman that the game has promised: Quico reaches a mountain-peak, where the meanings of certain moments in the game are revealed, as referring metaphorically to Quico’s real life. The section that follows–the final section of the game–is crucially important for the understanding of the game’s cultural effect. The player, to finish the game, must repeatedly feed Monster alcohol, and dolls that represent the young girl who accompanied Quico through much of the game (only to be killed by Monster): the player, that is, must ritually acknowledge Caballero’s own complicity in his father’s terrible acts, as well as the player’s own inescapable complicity in the similar acts that occur around us every day, and which we do nothing, or too little, to prevent.

The player’s immersion–his or her identification with the game’s ruleset and so its transformation of the autobiographical material Caballero has metaphorized in it–here becomes an assumption of what might be called a ritual identity–the same sort of identity assumed by members of a community who participate in a ritual like a wedding or a graduation. The repetitive nature of the mechanic, together with the symbolic significance indicated just before on the mountaintop, and the game’s exegetic references to ritual purification, transform the player into a participant in the game’s ritual, within which Caballero enacts a version of his passage out of his father’s influence. The ritual genius of Papo & Yo is that that passage is at the same time deeply implicated in the guilt we all share for the unending brokenness of our world.

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