Here is a strange thought: Video games have never really dealt with alcoholism. Alcohol does show up in video games though. The earliest game I could find that features alcohol is Tapper, the less commonly known original version of Root Beer Tapper. Alcohol was pretty scarce in the pre-2000’s games though as gaming was seen as an activity for children. But now we see cutscenes of grizzled men drinking away their sorrows (Max Payne) or have game mechanics based on alcohol (GTA, Bulletstorm) but rarely do video games address the issue of alcoholism. But last month I played Gaming Pixie’s “She Who Fights Monsters”, a game about living in a household controlled by alcohol abuse. As I played it I noticed thematic similarities between it and Minority’s “Papo y Yo”, which also dealt with alcohol abuse.
*** NOTE: There will be spoilers for both games from this point on. It is highly recommended the reader play both games through as I am going to be making assumptions about knowledge of the games’ stories.
Papo y Yo and She Who Fights Monsters both depict a childhood where children carefully maneuver through the highs and lows of living with an alcoholic father. Children typically partake in imaginary play allowing their imagination to compensate for what they lack in reality. Papo y Yo and She Who Fights Monsters both have this as a core theme. In Papo y Yo, Quico begins his journey hiding in a closet and finds a portal that takes him to bright world ready for exploration. SWFM features Jenny who, throughout the game, will escape to her closet where she has a sanctuary. Flowers, butterflies, and ponds surround the sanctuary and the entire area is entirely relaxing. Both characters use their imagination to hide and play in worlds that are much more fun, vibrant, and safe than the reality they live in. This idea is the very basis of escapism and is a commonly used defense mechanism for people who feel hopeless or powerless to fix issues they deal with. While in his imagination, Quico makes himself feel better by solving puzzles and giving himself a quest to embark on. This allows him to gain some control in his life, even if it is only in his imaginary world. On the other hand, Jenny uses play to gain control. She has tea parties with her animals, reads books, plays dress up, and plays video games. There is a bit of meta in SWFM where the player is given the opportunity to have Jenny play her video game console. A Final Fantasy type game boots up and the player is given control of a hero wandering the grasslands outside of a castle. The only interaction with this game is fighting monsters via random battles. The hero is quite a few levels above the enemies and there is absolutely no thing difficult in this “mini-game”. The player can quit this game whenever they feel like and Jenny’s story progresses from there. I feel like most players will overlook this but this game inside a game not only allows Jenny to escape but also the player. The game is very heavy and can be mentally exhausting if played in one sitting. This “mini-game” allows the player to sort of escape from Jenny’s struggles just as she does.
Both Quico and Jenny have conflicting views of their fathers. One view is the loving father that played with them or took them on trips. SWFM shows this through the memories that Jenny collects throughout the game but Papo shows this through gameplay. It isn’t uncovered until the end of the game but the events of Papo y Yo are a metaphorical amalgamation of Quico’s memories. When Quico and Monster solve puzzles together this is symbolic of the times when Quico would play with his father. Given Quico’s knack for puzzles and spatial navigation it could be inferred that he and his dad worked on projects together too but that would be complete conjecture. Despite having memories of an ideal father, both children have to combat the present image of their father. The drunken rage and verbal, sometimes physical, abuse is in stark contrast to their memories of their fathers. This dichotomy is extremely confusing for young children and is most likely why, despite how they are treated, there is still a yearning for respect or acknowledgment from an abusive parent. Jenny confronts this, asking her mother “Why’s he acting like this? I didn’t even do anything.” This is when Jenny learns her father is an alcoholic. Jenny attempts to understand her father better. On the other hand, Quico believes that his father’s current affliction is curable and he can become the person he used to be if only Quico try hard enough to fix him. The later half of the game is about Quico searching for the shaman who will cure Monster of his frog addiction. Though, of course, there is no cure for alcoholism and not much to really understand about it. It is an addiction, plain and simple. One minute you see your parent and in the next you see a monster.
Speaking of monsters, the fathers in both games undergo a visual transformation whenever they become drunk. Jenny’s father becomes a ghoulish figured cloaked in black and appears as a mutated face with miniature faces protruding from it in combat scenarios. Monster, in Papo, literally burns with rage as flames flicker off of his skin. The world around them grows ominous. Jenny enters a hellish domain full of shadows, peering eyes, and complete darkness. Quico sees the world lose its bright colors in favor of multiple shades of red. This is all used to visually signify the change in environment and atmosphere the children feel. The change in colors also intend to evoke fear and uncertainty in the player, just as it does to the Jenny and Quico. For as much as they like to feel like they have some control in their lives, these moment remind them how little power they have. Jenny suffers from her father’s “poison cloud” and his verbal abuse. Regardless of what she says or what she does her father continues to berate her. No amount of tears or pleas stops the constant attack. Monster’s abuse is physical as he catches Quico in his destructive jaws, thrashing him around back and forth before throwing him through the air. Monster then leans back onto his hind legs, standing much taller than Quico, and beats his chest while growling making sure to assert his dominance. While Jenny only feels the sting of her father’s words, Quico is assaulted physically and mentally. But don’t look at this as Quico having a rougher time. Both children bear the same multitude of scars. There is no winner when talking about alcohol abuse.
While the fathers undergo visual transformation the children undergo mental transformations in the form of lost innocence or childhood. Jenny sees this when her father destroys her room. Not only does her bedroom fall into a state of disarray but her so too does her sanctuary. Her imagination, her safe space, now reflects the turmoil of her reality. Her mother protects Jenny when she can but that isn’t often enough. Jenny’s childhood is constantly under attack until she loses it entirely. In both of these examples Jenny realizes how fabricated her sense of safety was. All of her safe areas were destroyed by her father. Quico’s childhood is embodied in Lula, his toy robot. Lula helps Quico solve puzzles and saves him throughout his adventure. In pretty much a direct parallel to Jenny’s situation, Monster destroys Lula in a fit of anger shattering Quico’s childhood. Quico does set out to repair Lula, and he accomplishes this task, but it is quickly proven futile. Not long after the repair, Lula sacrifices itself so that Quico can continue his quest to find the shaman. I’d like to take a second to look at this scene. Lula stays behind so that Quico and Monster can be transported to the shaman. Quico and Monster both sit on a small platform, practically touching each other, but not a word is said. Papo y Yo hits a subject that is so rarely talked about, that awkward silence that is bound to come up between alcoholic fits. Where the child wants to talk to the parent but is so afraid to bring up anything regarding the moments of drunkenness. This scene is so heartbreaking. Quico and Monster are so close yet there is still an enormous schism between them with nothing to bridge the emotional gap. Quico has effectively given up his own childhood to save his father and they still cannot find the words to speak to each other.
“Winning” comes up multiple times throughout both games, both in the narrative and in the mechanics. In fact, in SWFM after the first “battle” with Jenny’s father the words “Nobody wins” flashes upon the screen. Jenny battles with her father a couple of times over the course of the game and loses every time. Despite her health bar reaching zero this there is never a game over screen. Quico is thrashed around by Monster but doesn’t have a health bar at all. Both games refuse to have losing conditions or even a Game Over screen. Unfortunately, there is no winning for the children either. Quico eventually comes to the realization that his father’s alcoholism isn’t something that he can fix. Simply moving on is the most healthy course of action for Quico. This realization is visually shown as Quico climbs the tower to see the shaman. Instead of running up the stairs of the tower, Quico runs in place while the tower twists into the ground. No matter how much Quico wants his father to reflect his memories, no matter how hard Quico looks for a cure, no matter how many solutions Quico tries his father will be an alcoholic. For Quico, “winning” is about accepting that he cannot win. Interestingly, SWFM allows the player to choose the ending by selecting the emotion you wish to present to your parents. Hate results in Jenny murdering her parents, Indifference results in Jenny running away and never bringing up her past, and Love results in Jenny forgiving her parents bringing the closure she needs. Regardless of what “justice” the player wants, Jenny’s best ending is Love. Hate makes her a murderer on the run from the cops and Indifference simply shuts out Jenny from her emotions. But Love allows her to confront her demons and accept them as part of her past. Both Quico and Jenny learn that there isn’t really a way to “win” in their situations, that they can only survive. This bleeds back into the lack of a loss state. You can never fail or lose, you can only persevere and survive.
These games both present the player with a realistic view of life inside of a virtual world. Video games have taught us that every problem has a solution, that anything can be accomplished with enough persistence and willpower. Even games the relinquish power from the player, such as horror titles, can be won. As long as you follow the objectives you will win. But Papo y Yo and She Who Fights Monsters are games that have very direct goals given to the player at the beginning of the game, fix Monster and “defeat” father respectively. Tools are given to the player to aid in their quest and the player makes their way through every obstacle and completes every objective. And while the game does end for the player, it does not for the characters. They will always bear the scars from their childhood. There is no winning for them, only surviving.