Epic Life: Immersion and Metaphor in Papo & Yo

In this post I read the ruleset of Papo & Yo as an example of the same kind of creative manipulation of immersion I located in the Odyssey in my last post. My argument for better living through epic springs from a model of immersion that at its simplest level finds in the experience of having one’s immediate reality replaced with the imagined reality of fictive performance (playing a game, watching a film, reading a book) an act of identification with the ruleset of that performance such that the player/viewer/reader becomes him or herself an exponent of the ruleset, and reproduces it both within the imaginary confines of the self and outside the self, in the intersubjective space of the “real” world.

From one perspective, that formulation may seem like a needlessly complicated way to say “Jane Austen fans look for a boyfriend like Mr. Darcy or a girlfriend like Elizabeth Bennet” or “Star Wars fans play starfighter-pilot.” When we consider, though, the relation of the player of a game, whose position vis-à-vis the ruleset of the game is crucially different from the position of a reader with respect to a book or a viewer with respect to a film, to this model of immersion, its usefulness quickly becomes clear: the fundamental activity of performance for the player of a game, like the fundamental activity of performance for the homeric bard, is reproducing the ruleset: the phenomenon of immersion, when described in terms of identification, gives us a way to describe how the player can be changed by the experience of playing.

To be sure, that sort of change (or the attempt to effect it) is a fundamental part of some games while having a vanishingly small role in others, just as the corresponding manipulation of immersion has a large scope in the Odyssey, where playing bard is a huge part of how Odysseus manipulates his identity and breaking immersion is part of how the epic works, and a very small one in the Iliad, where there are a couple of cool meta-fictional references, but nothing immersion-breaking. Games like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 can also often have sections like the famous “No Russian” level that do revolve around manipulating identifcation through immersion, but then fail entirely to work that manipulation up thematically so that in the end it matters to the cultural effect of the game.

And then there are games like Papo & Yo, where the manipulation of immersion is thematized from the mechanics that comprise the game’s basic metaphors, through the narrative mechanics that elaborate those metaphors as story, into the cultural and personal resonances that give the player the ability to reflect upon his or her own immersion, and how that immersion may or may not have changed him or her. I’ll begin to try to describe that manipulation in this post and, I hope, finish the description in my next.

In Papo & Yo, the player controls the movements and certain of the actions of a boy named Quico, whom the player first meets in a small closet, hiding from his abusive alcoholic father. Quico’s skin is of a shade that indicates that his heritage is mixed European/South American, especially as compared to his father’s skin color, which would appear clearly European. The player controls Quico’s movements, and can by pushing and pulling also manipulate the environment in a magical way, as prompted by glowing white lines in forms evocative of South American tribal art. By having Quico manipulate the environment this way, the player makes it possible for Quico to escape from the closet and, as the game-performance proceeds, to travel to places that would realistically be impossible to reach and to do non-realistic, magical things with respect to the rest of the game’s ruleset, like trapping the metaphorical representation of Quico’s father, Monster, and squeezing the rage out of him.

Monster, by turns somnolent, hungry for bananas, and, when intoxicated on poison frogs, intractably enraged and violent until Quico gives him a rotten coconut, lies at the center of the game’s ruleset, whether we consider that “ruleset” as only involving the things we traditionally think of as game-mechanics (for example, when I have Quico open the pipe, a poison frog jumps out, which Monster will eventually eat, meaning that I have only a few seconds to throw said frog against a wall before it becomes impossible to do anything but give Monster a rotten coconut and start the cycle again) or as including the thematic elements of the narrative performance in which the player is engaged (for the most important example, I move Quico through the gameworld towards the objective, stated by my companion, a young girl, of finding a shaman who can remove the curse from Monster).

The name of the game, too, means “Dad and I.”

The essence of my reading is the importance of seeing the player’s identification not only with Quico but with the game’s ruleset as a whole as crucial to understanding the game’s cultural effect–what it does to us and for us, in our lives in culture–the game’s meaning, if you will.

The way immersion works in Papo & Yo is through the metaphoricity of the game’s mechanics: the player’s reality is replaced with the magical reality of the game’s ruleset because that magical reality represents the freedom that seems to the player to spring from the basic interactivity of the game: I can manipulate the controller in such a way as to move the favela around so that Quico can continue his quest for escape from the curse that represents his father’s terrible abusiveness.

Manipulating the landscape isn’t simply a way to move Quico around the screen; it’s a representation of the manipulation we are at the same time effecting in our own psyches by opening new paths for Quico towards the hypothetical expiation. Quico stands for the player, but so do the buildings he moves around, for it is Quico’s inner landscape that the player is actually moving.

This aspect of the game’s ruleset becomes fully apparent at the end, when it is revealed that each of the main sections of the game has been a representation of a real moment in the life of Quico with his father: the game’s power to offer an immersive substitute-reality to the player has stemmed from its metaphorical transformation of a psychic life with which every player is inivted to identify, since these iconic moments are powerful precisely through their capacity to be grasped by the player as the kind of terrible childhood we know from the world around us, even if we are lucky enough to avoid such moments in our own life.

The texture of those moments, representing Quico’s and our psychic realities, however, is what makes Papo & Yo into the kind of practomimetic ruleset I’m interested in reading here as an example of how seeing immersion as arising in identification can help us live more epically. The texture is ritualistic, and in my next post I describe how the game itself embodies an expiatory ritual, and turns its manipulation of immersion into an expiation for the player, in which, through that very manipulation, the player can expiate his or her own curses in an ineluctable partnership with Papo & Yo‘s designer, Vander Caballero.

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