Saving the Monster: what the ending of Papo & Yo can teach us about abuse (SPOILERS)
The ending of Vander Caballero's Papo & Yo can be troubling. The game speaks in absolute terms, and doesn't seem to offer the possibility of redemption. The game's metaphors are removed, the reality of Monster's identity as an abusive father is made explicit, and it becomes clear that you can't save him. I reached out to Papo & Yo creator, Vander Caballero to discuss the game's distressing final act. To understand the ending as it is now, you have to know how the ending once was. It turns out, Papo & Yo used to end quite differently – with a boss fight. “I thought, 'This is wrong, this feels wrong. You don't give closure to people this way,'” Caballero said. It took ten years of therapy for him to deal with his fears and be ready to tell the story, but nothing he learned in therapy came anywhere close to a boss fight. He knew something needed to change. “If I had followed the traditional structure of ending a game, I couldn't give closure to people,” Caballero said. “One day, I went to work, I worked for one week straight, and I did the ending. What I did is I took all my psychoanalytic learnings, and I put them in one by one.” The new ending conveys a different sort of message: self-empowerment through removing the lens of fantasy.Quico, the game's hero, spends the game searching for a cure to his friend Monster's addiction to frogs. A girl tells Quico there is a Shaman that can cure Monster, and the two set off to find it, aided by Quico's robot friend, Lula. Monster's addiction continues to increase as a danger to Quico and the girl and, at the end of the game, Quico is alone. Monster has eaten the girl, and Lula has to stay behind so that Quico can take Monster to the Shaman. Monster stays behind as Quico forges ahead to the Shaman, and ahead of him lie four statues: One of Monster eating the girl, one of Monster chasing Quico, one of Monster with a frog, and one of Quico rocket-jumping with the help of Lula. When Quico pulls the levers attached to these statues, they transform into Quico's father attacking the girl, Quico's father pulling out his belt while Quico cowers, Quico's father with a bottle of whiskey, and Quico playing with a toy version of Lula, respectively. Quico attempts to run to the top of a central tower, where the Shaman is supposedly located, but the tower spirals down and Quico makes no vertical progress. A flame appears once the tower has completely sunk to tell Quico the hard truth: There is no Shaman, and there is no cure. Quico must let Monster go. Quico then completes three “mini-levels” where he confronts reality. The metaphors of Papo & Yo shift into literal truths. In the first level, Quico drops a bottle of whiskey through a pipe while standing atop a far-off platform. When the bottle comes out the other side, it's a frog. Why did we need to see whiskey bottles turned into frogs? Wasn't it obvious that's what was going on? Caballero pointed out Papo & Yo takes place in the mind of a child, and a child who is the victim of abuse rarely sees his abuser's actions as such. They can't see the truth. Sometimes things need to be shown explicitly before healing can begin.
Nature vs. nurture: how our culture shapes our behaviors
This is common in abusive relationships, be it alcohol abuse, sexual, physical, emotional, or verbal. The person who is abused being made to believe that the abuse is not something to take seriously; that it is not damaging. This distortion of reality can be due to the abuser's mental conditioning of their victim, the victim's lack of understanding what is happening, or even, as it is in Papo & Yo, a son's love for the man who should love him back. But none of these reflect reality. Ray Rodriguez, a Certified Health Education Specialist who specializes in abuse prevention and education, knows what it's like for a victim of abuse to not recognize negative behavior for what it is. He told the Penny Arcade Report that such beliefs are often grounded in the culture a victim is surrounded by. “Nowadays, you're a 'fucking pussy' if you get offended at language. If someone hasn't hit you, beat you, or made you bleed. And then, the question is, 'What did you do to provoke it?' We victim-blame like crazy,” Rodriguez said. “As soon as someone opens their mouth, 20 more people start victimizing them. It's almost like that's the expected behavior. We've made it more difficult for people who've been victims of violence to step forward.” Rodriguez explained that abuse, be it physical, emotional, sexual or otherwise, often starts with language and the breaking down of a victim's sense of self worth. The mind of an abuser is one that tests methodically. “If I call someone a bitch today, nine times out of ten, I'll find people who are still offended by that. But one time I'll find someone who says 'Yeah it's okay, it's just a word.' So I'm going to call her bitch again. I'll call her bitch a third time, and that time three other people hear that. So now there are five people calling her a bitch, now there are ten,” he explained. “Then I'm going to see what other words I can get away with. I'm going to up the ante. I'm going to call her a whore. I'm going to say things that aren't true at all, but there's other people around me. There's 20 people listening,” he said. “What does it do to her, hearing the message repeatedly? Now I've created a culture by which this person is less than human, everyone feels obligated to continue the behavior, and most important, I'm gonna feel empowered.” While Rodriguez may be speaking of male-on-female abuse and violence, the pattern of control and abuse is repeated across most unhealthy relationships, including the father-son relationship portrayed in Papo & Yo. Children are uniquely vulnerable to abuse, due to the level of control parents hold over their lives. In abusive relationships, power and control are a common theme. The Power and Control Wheel, also known as the Duluth Model, shows ways in which an abuser will exercise control over a victim in order to maintain power. Two years prior to the Duluth Model, psychiatrist Lenore Walker detailed a Cycle of Abuse that originally included the phases “Tensions Building,” “Incident,” “Reconciliation” and “Calm.” Many therapists and counselors now use the terms “Build Up,” “Act Out,” “Justification,” and “Pretend Normal” in their place, respectively. In conjunction, these models can be used to understand repetitive abuse, and help victims – or even those who victimize – recognize the negative behavior and distorted thinking that occurs in an abusive relationship. The models were originally conceived specifically to address male-on-female domestic abuse, but Rodriguez said the patterns of an abuser are similar across different offenses. The biggest thing is to see the abuse for what it is and confront it. When that happens, progress is made. “There have to be ways to build empathy. This game sounds like it will help build empathy, I think.” If an abuser works to create a world where their abuse is normal and inescapable, it's important to show the victim, especially children, that the abusive behavior is neither okay nor their fault. The ending of Papo & Yo removes the game's metaphor, and allows Quico to see that he must escape his father.
Building empathy by confronting reality
“The ending is about confronting reality, about taking off the cover from what is terrible,” Caballero said of Papo & Yo. It was a design Caballero mulled over for a long time, but ultimately he's glad he chose the route he did. “I would have felt really terrible leaving it in the space of fiction,” he told the Penny Arcade Report. “When you throw the bottles of whiskey to Monster and he starts getting drunk, you're far away. The distance is so you can see that Monster is a fucking addict. There's nothing you can do. You're impotent. The only thing you can do is give him more alcohol, more alcohol, til he gets drunk and falls down. Then, you take the lever, and when you push him out it's like you are throwing him away from home.” The next mini-level has Quico tossing doll versions of the girl Quico has been following to Monster. She screams and tries to run, but Monster will catch her again and again. Each time he consumes her, a bridge builds upon itself, until Quico can safely place the girl onto the bridge and she can escape. This time, when Monster chases her, he tumbles to a bed below, where he falls asleep. “What I was trying to do there was make people realize that you've been playing this really cruel fantasy. It's really cruel to see these kids getting hurt by this monster. You need the distance in order to cope with this. You have to put on another person to cope with this hard reality.” In other words, Quico takes our place as the player of a game, one we are not meant to enjoy. In the final mini-level, Monster is asleep on his bed. Quico pushes a lever, which turns the bed into a walking centipede-like creature. The centipede teeters over the edge of a swirling abyss, struggling to stay up, but as it does so, tips Monster off. Monster slides into the vortex and disappears, never to be seen again. “The end is you kind of closing it down, in a way that has you realize the same way I realized my father was an alcoholic, and there was nothing I could do with it,” Caballero said. “I heard these beautiful words from therapist: 'When someone wants to hit bottom, there's nothing you can do to stop them.' When someone is self-destructive or destructive of others and you want to stop them, there's nothing you can do. They're looking for something there. They're getting something out of that destruction, and if you stay with them, you're gonna get destroyed. So the only thing you can do is let them go, and it is the most painful thing you can do in your life.” Rodriguez echoed Caballero's statements as he told me, “You have to recognize the problem, you have to get the abuser to recognize it's a problem, or they need to be enlightened on their own. There need to be resources for his change so people can support him, but they can't do it for him.”
Alcohol as numbing agent
I asked Rodriguez how alcohol factors into abuse. “Alcohol, because of its sedative effect, changes the way we perceive our world. Sedative means we're numb; we don't feel. Like Novocaine,” Rodriguez said. He explained that numbness as something both literal and mental. Someone who is intoxicated can fall down a flight of stairs and laugh because they're not feeling pain, but they can also, as was the case with Caballero's father, harm a loved one without recognizing the pain they cause. “You know what the DSM is?” Caballero asked me. “You know that in that book, every year, we get diagnoses for more and more diseases? So suddenly the definition of disease in terms of medical terms is… I don't think the greatest one. For me what is more important when it comes to this is that when you're not hurting others, go for it. The problem is when you have responsibility towards other people and your behavior starts affecting them. That's where I'll personally trace the line of dysfunctional behavior.” “The moment that the person is not able to be empathic to the pain he's causing to others,” Caballero said. “When the pain takes over empathy. When a father needs to drink or take drugs or whatever it is to calm his pain and the pain takes over the caring he should have for his son or his family. That is the line for me.” Rodriguez identified another effect of alcohol, a hypnotic effect. “The hypnotic effect means that we start doing things that people tell us to do. So if people that are violent get drunk and their self-talk is 'This is acceptable, to get violent and drunk,' they're gonna get drunk and violent. I hear people say 'Alcohol makes me happy.' No it doesn't. It enhances the mood you were in because of hypnotic effect. If I start drinking when I'm happy, I get happier. If I start drinking when I'm angry, I get angrier.” Rodriguez wants to see more social structures in place to help victims and those who have victimized. If the biggest problem is that people feel like their stories can't be told, we need to find a way to make the stories that are told more powerful, more important. My concern about the game's ending was shared; Caballero himself didn't seem to realize what he had done until after the game was released. “I'm starting to understand what I actually did; how people are taking it and perceiving it,” Caballero told the Penny Arcade Report. “The whole point, why I was so vocal about alcoholism, is because that's the way you fight it. The reason that there's alcoholism and abuse in families is because kids cannot talk about it. People don't talk about it. You wouldn't believe the amount of emails I get from people thanking me, that because of Papo & Yo, now they have the courage to talk about it more.” I asked Rodriguez why it's important to talk about the issue, and what he says to people who think talking doesn't solve anything. “Talking's the only thing we have,” he told me. “Talking is how we communicate in our culture. It's how we give ideas. Negative talk holds things in place, positive talk influences change. Talking leads to empathy, empathy leads to change. Words have power. Let's use the words we have.” Caballero used his own vocabulary, that of video game design, to reach people and let them know that they're not alone, and the abuse they may be suffering isn't okay. If victims of abuse struggle with seeing their situation clearly, playing a game where a character strips away his own fantasies and confronts the reality of their abuser in empowering. That's a revelation that wouldn't have been achieved through a boss fight. If you or a loved one is at risk of abuse, please contact The National Domestic Violence Hotline or your local crisis services and shelters.