The art of empathy in Papo & Yo

When I was in seminary, I never went to the movies merely to be entertained - it was an intellectual exercise. My friends and I would diagnose the problems of film characters. We would watch tragedies and talk about how characters were consumed with self and thus unable to escape their demons. When it came to romance, we would discuss how little the characters understood self-sacrificial love. Now that I have been in pastoral ministry for a few years, I don’t know that these conversations helped me all that much. Counseling real people isn’t quite so simple. It requires patience, compassion, persistence and empathy - virtues that my academic approach to art did not encourage.

Very early in the process of creating Papo & Yo, Vander Caballero, the game’s creative director, was forthcoming in what the game was about: his real-life experience growing up with an abusive, alcoholic father. The game opens with a dedication from Caballero: “To my mother, brother and sisters with whom I survived the monster of my father.”

Papo & Yo has been accused of being a little too heavy-handed with its metaphors. The game features a young boy named Quico who must guide a large beastly creature named Monster past various puzzles en route to a shaman. The hope of Quico and his sister is that the shaman will be able to heal Monster, who becomes dangerously enraged when he eats frogs (alcohol) and can only be assuaged by calming fruits.

I had read about Cabellero’s experience and, consequently, when I started playing, was very tentative in approaching Monster. However, the first hour of the game is spent guiding Quico and Monster through a magical South American cityscape. By flipping switches marked by chalk on the sides of buildings, Quico can miraculously stack houses on top of each other. Quico then uses a switch to bend them into bridges that he can traverse. It is a fantastic world, but one that Quico can control.

Quico uses Monster’s belly as a trampoline to jump to previously unreachable heights and convinces Monster to follow by tempting him with fruit. In these moments, I found myself growing comfortable with Monster. Bouncing off his belly reminded me of tossing my daughter in the air and watching her giggle in delight.

Then I witnessed Monster catch his first frog.

From that moment on the puzzles in Papo & Yo immediately become more distressing. At times Quico must entice Monster to follow him by using frogs and must quickly provide a calming fruit when Monster happens to catch one. Other times Quico must simply run from Monster’s fiery rages or utilize the environment in fruitless attempts to force the anger out of Monster. The most memorable puzzles require Quico to do something about the frogs before Monster can eat them.

Unlike most puzzle games, solving these puzzles didn’t instill a sense of accomplishment. In these moments, I am a little boy hiding his father’s liquor and pouring whiskey down the drain.

A little over a year ago, the United States’ National Endowment for the Arts changed its criteria for what is considered art to include video games. This came after years of debate between game critics, game developers, movie critics and connoisseurs of more elegant artistic mediums as to whether video games qualify. As a critic, I really don’t care whether video games fit within any culturally defined definition of what constitutes art. What I do know is that I am 29 years old and I have never seen either of my parents drunk. I have no idea what it must be like to witness your father unraveling under his own addiction. What I do know is that Papo & Yo taught me what I was unable to learn from the films I watched in seminary: empathy.

As the reality of what Quico’s actions represent came to light, I was reminded that I have a savior who is intimately acquainted with such brokenness. And there are Quicos all around us who need help bearing their burdens.

What Do You Think?

  • When has art – be it a movie or a video game – taught you empathy?
  • Do you consider a game such as Papo & Yo to be art? What about video games in general?

Comments (3)

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I think watching a movie or playing a video game, basically any medium that tells a story has a great capacity to create empathy.
I think of Clint Eastwood’s two films, Letters from Iwo Jima and Flags of our Fathers, and how both tell the same story but from two different sides. I empathize with whoever’s story I am following, because you see the circumstances that has led them to where they are. When you understand what shaped the character into what they’ve become, you can’t help but feel empathy.

Hey Steven,

I actually TOTALLY AGREE with you here. I didn’t mean to insinuate that videogames are better at teaching empathy than movies (though I do think sometimes games have some advantages here by asking us to control another person/character). The reason I didn’t learn empathy from the movies I watched in Seminary was because of the WAY I was watching them not because of the nature of the movies themselves. I was thinking too highly of myself and was unwilling to put myself in the shoes of others.

Anyway, thanks for your comment Steven. I definitely agree.

Yeah, I see what you mean, it’s one thing to callously diagnose someone’s personal weaknesses (which seems to breed contempt rather than empathy, but another to understand why they stumble in certain areas. And i can’t think of any way to move from uncaring diagnosis to empathy than story. And i do think video games have incredible potential, (maybe even more than movies?) While i can watch a movie about living with an alcoholic parent, actually running from a symbolic monster like in Papo and Yo puts you in the situation and you can’t close your eyes.

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