Big-budget video games are becoming more and more like Hollywood blockbusters — plenty of spectacle, but not much room for small, personal stories. Independent game designers, like indie filmmakers, are trying to fill the gap.
"Papo & Yo" (Minority Media, for the PlayStation 3, $15) takes place in an unspecified South American slum, a setting we gamers usually see only as the backdrop for a crime drama like "Max Payne 3" or the guerrilla fighting of the "Call of Duty" series. This barrio, however, is home to a boy named Quico, who discovers ways to transform his bleak environment into something magical. Graffiti turn into keyholes that unlock secret portals; shacks can be piled atop one another to form bridges.
Quico is accompanied by a lumbering pink beast he calls Monster. The creature is initially helpful: The boy can coax him into holding down pressure plates, or bounce off his belly to reach rooftops.
But Monster loves to eat frogs, and if he gets one in his jaws, watch out. They turn the big lug into a furious brute, and if Quico cannot scramble away quickly enough, the kid takes most of the damage. A piece of fruit is usually enough to calm Monster down, but the rampages are terrifying.
Monster, it turns out, is a metaphor for the alcoholic, abusive father of Vander Caballero, the lead designer of "Papo & Yo." As Monster's rages become more frequent and more violent, Quico has to make a decision — one that will resonate with anyone who has ever lived with an addict.
As a game, "Papo & Yo" isn't entirely satisfying. Its puzzles are generally obvious and its mechanics are a little rough around the edges. But it explores a distinctive world, and gracefully tackles a disturbing subject. It will linger in players' minds long after they've forgotten about more slickly produced games. Three stars out of four.
Another indie auteur who's making waves is animator and self-taught programmer Dean Dodrill. His "Dust: An Elysian Tail" (Humble Hearts, for the Xbox 360, $15) isn't a personal tale like "Papo & Yo"; instead, it's a loving tribute to some of Dodrill's favorite things, including Walt Disney, "Super Metroid" and "Ninja Gaiden."
Dust is a foxlike critter with a bad case of amnesia. With the help of a talking sword and a flying rodent named Fidget, he begins to remember his role in a brutal civil war — and, when he sees the damage done, tries to stop it.
Dust's odyssey takes him through a series of two-dimensional landscapes that evoke the great Disney movies; the deer and bunnies frolicking in one forest, for example, are reminders of "Bambi." There are thousands of monsters to slay, but a lively combat system that lets you chain together hundreds of attacks prevents the fighting from ever getting dull.
There's also a sprawling world map to explore, plenty of hidden treasure and some basic role-playing elements. For an indie game, "Dust" tries to squeeze in a lot — and, fortunately, most of it works. Three stars.