Papo and Yo erases monstrosity with art: an interview with the game’s creator
Vander Caballero worked for EA for around eight years, and put time into a number of the company’s largest games. He also helped to create the Boogie franchise. I met him at E3 this year, where he was showing off his upcoming game Papo & Yo, and it’s rare to speak to someone who seems so happy to be at E3, and so passionate about his game. Papo & Yo is a game that follows a young man, his robot, and his friend, named Monster. Monster seemed to be an easygoing companion in the section of the game I played, although I never watched him eat a frog. Monster is addicted to frogs, you see, and they cause him to become violent and attack the little boy. When Caballero left EA to make games that were more personal, this is what he prototyped, and what Sony liked enough to fund. The game is autobiographical. Monster is Caballero’s alcoholic father.
A game as exorcism
Many stories have been written about the game, and most of them focus on that single detail. I hear a PR person describing Papo & Yo to a writer at Sony's booth: This is the game about the designer’s abusive father. It’s a selling point, because it’s an interesting story, but the game is also plumbing a deep well of pain in Caballero’s past. The story is repeated every time the game is demoed for a member of the press, and the personal story becomes something like a bullet point on a marketing page. I asked Caballero if it’s hard to talk about his past every time he discusses the game. “No,” he said. “The good thing about being an artist is that by doing your work, you free yourself. And the more you free yourself, the more you work on it, and the more you talk about it, the better you feel.”The problem is that many people don’t talk about it. “In the case of alcoholism many families live it, and it’s a secret,” Caballero explained. “Children go to school after their fathers get drunk and it’s a secret. When you get a person to talk about it, you talk about it, and you feel better. Talking about the story made me feel better. I’m not ashamed anymore that my father was an alcoholic.” There is something amazing about hearing the stories of Caballero’s youth. He’s open with his life and the reasons he created the game, and his eyes sparkled as he talked about his years at EA. It’s hard to be around him without smiling. He told me the most rewarding thing about the game is how many people share their own stories with him after playing it. He takes pictures with fans, and hears them talk about the alcoholism in their own family. The game is a kind of open letter to people who may be living in difficult situations: “This is what I went through,” it says. “This is what I made. You are not alone.” The team working on the game now comes from the world of AAA game development, and Caballero doesn’t worry about the game’s subtext overwhelming the fun of the puzzles or the enjoyment of someone looking for something topical to play. “Our goal is not to create an artsy-fancy experience where no one can get into it. I want to create games like Pixar creates movies,” he said. He brought up the first scenes in the film Finding Nemo: Marlin’s wife is killed, and the fish, voiced by Albert Brooks, is forced to deal with being a single father who is terrified of losing his son, but the story is told so well that children watch it and enjoy it. It’s a personal story that uses those feelings of loss and fear as a jumping off point, not to lecture the audience. I played the game for around twenty minutes and, while the jumping mechanics were a little imprecise, the mood of the game was impressive. Monster walks around and seems to be a gentle giant. The little boy is on a quest to meet the shaman who can cure Monster of his addiction. The story is heartbreaking in context; this is what it looks like when a boy is abused and wishes he could go on an adventure to fix something violent in his life he doesn’t understand. And that’s why Caballero left EA. “I was making the same games I was playing ten years ago. I’m getting old, and I want other games. Many people are aging with the game industry, and they’re getting frustrated because the games don’t evolve. They don’t tell other stories,” he explained. The more stories of that kind that are told, the wider the audience will become. “I want to get old playing games,” he told me, and smiled. I smiled back. It was impossible to have any other reaction.