Moving Past the Monster: Vander Caballero on Papo & Yo

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I really wish I played Papo & Yo when it released last year for PS3. Having finally had the chance to play through it with the newly released PC version (available now on Steam), I’m honestly shocked it wasn’t front and center in more year-end “best of” list discussions. My excuse is I didn’t play it at the time. Everyone else's? An oversight, maybe?

Papo & Yo is a special kind of experience. It’s rare to see a game that appears on the surface so fantastical approach subject matter so serious. You see, Papo & Yo is the story about a young child dealing with an destructive, substance abusing father. The game’s creator, Vander Caballero, lived this, and Papo & Yo is his expression of the experience, both the positive and the truly awful.

I recently had the chance to talk with Vander about creating Papo & Yo. We covered everything from why he chose to express his feelings with a video game as opposed to a film or book, to why character development in games is broken, to what was the most cathartic experience of creating Papo & Yo. Vander also lets us in on what he and his company, Minority, are working on next!

CraveOnline: Vander, I finally got around to playing through Papo & Yo thanks to the newly released PC version and I must say, wow, what an experience. The game is clearly a project close to your heart, for better or worse, and it’s something you state upfront with an opening dedication, but what I want to know is why tell this very personal story through a video game? Why not a book, movie, comic or some other form of entertainment?

Vander Caballero: What I love about video games is that they are simulations. What I mean by that is that books and movies are about projecting empathy. They are media where the viewer doesn’t interact in real time and is completely passive, making this a strictly mental experience. However, in video games, all our primal instincts and behaviors are triggered, and our relationship with the characters becomes real. This is what I consider to be real empathy and this is why so many people find the ending of Papo & Yo so emotionally striking. Letting go of someone you love is the most difficult thing a human being has to experience.

I won’t spoil the game for those who haven’t played it yet, but I do want to touch on the subject of addiction. I find it interesting that the game not only tackles the issue head on, but at the same time manages to do so through allegory and metaphors that at face value don’t distract from the whimsical nature of the game’s world. What with Monster’s addiction to poisonous frogs and even main character Quico’s fixation with helping Monster when he only brings trouble to the table. How did you find this balance with tackling such heavy subject matter without coming across too heavy-handed?

One night, I was having dinner with my mentor, Nilo Rodis. I was telling him my sad story of growing up with an alcoholic father. I was crying when, suddenly, Nilo stopped me and said: “Don’t take it personally, but your story has been told a thousand times.” At first, I felt like crap and I asked myself whether my suffering even mattered. Then, I realized that if I wanted to finish this game, I needed to do it for other people, not for myself. Then, Nilo advised me that “The first thing you need to do is find a metaphor in order not to freak people out. Then, you have to tell the story through a medium you master.” And that’s how Papo was born.

Was it hard to distill your troubled relationship with your father into a game? Were there times you just had problems continuing the project because of the memories it may have dredged up about your childhood?

In order to create an emotional game in today’s game industry, you need to resolve your issues beforehand. When I left EA in order to create Papo, I needed to build a company, find the financing, recruit the people and, finally, make the game. If I hadn’t resolved my issues, I would have failed miserably. I spent many years in therapy just to get to this point. Yes, at times, it was hard, but at the same time it was liberating to share my experience with the members of Minority who helped me develop this game. The best part about this is that no one could contradict my story. I can imagine marketers telling me: “But Vander, are you sure that frogs are a good metaphor to connect with our audience? Why even use a metaphor? Why not just get a license?” If this had been the case, I would’ve lost it! [laughs]

Haha. Was getting your emotions out there something that was kind of liberating for you, then? A cathartic exercise even?

The most cathartic experience didn’t consist in making the game; it was receiving letters from people thanking us for developing the game. I never expected the response and the effect it had on the team and on myself. Suddenly, I felt that all the hard years – all that struggle – in my life, had a purpose.

I want to ask about Quico next, actually. I’m not sure if you want to share this information or leave it up to interpretation, but what’s the deal with the character slowly losing his clothing and becoming almost more feral – for lack of a better word – as the game progresses? We see him go from a proper kid in what looks like a prep school outfit to a shirtless, shoeless kid with war paint all over his body over the course of the game. Can you talk about the symbolism this represents a little?

Character development in games is completely broken. We usually start with a weak character and we power it up through the game by picking up weapons and armor that make it invincible. However, that’s not how things work in real life. If I tell my wife: “If I had a bazooka, you would understand,” chances are that I won’t solve my problem; I’ll probably create a new one! [laughs] In real life, conflicts get resolved when we are most vulnerable and we are able to be empathic to others. That is the reason behind Quico gradually shedding his clothes. Quico becomes more vulnerable as the game progresses, losing every layer that shields him, leaving him naked and open to the world.

Very well said. Outside the story and themes Papo & Yo explores, why did you decide to make the game a puzzle/platformer at its core? Was it simply because you enjoy making those types of games or was it because that genre fits the themes of the project better?

Puzzle/platformers are a great tool to engage players emotionally. The pace is slow and this allows players to reflect while experiencing the fun elements that help them cope with challenging emotional moments.

So Papo & Yo has been out since August of 2012 on PlayStation 3. It’s just now hitting PC through Steam. Was a PC version of the game always the plan? Is there anything different about this edition as opposed to the PS3 version, outside better visuals?

Bringing our game to more platforms is something we always planned on doing, as we naturally want to reach as many players as possible. We spent a lot of time ensuring that the game feels like a genuine PC experience rather than a console game port. So, there are plenty of configuration options for people who like to customize their game’s look and feel. We even included multiple-monitor support, so if you're lucky enough to have 3 monitors to play on, you'll be fully immersed in the game! We also added lip movement to all the character animations, so that they really look like they're talking, and we touched up many more animations throughout the game. Finally the character movement and cameras have been revisited and will feel better than in the original version.

That’s all I have for you about Papo & Yo. But before we go, what’s next for you now that the game has released on Steam?

We are now developing a new game titled Silent Enemy in which we explore the issue of bullying and the feelings of isolation it causes in its victims. With this game, we want to challenge the traditional power-up focused trappings of gameplay and illustrate our perspective that, in order to overcome bullying, we need to survive it, not fight it with physical strength.


Erik Norris is the Gaming Editor for CraveOnline and co-host of Watch Us Play and the Next Gen News podcast. You can follow him on Twitter @Regular_Erik.