Papo & Yo Creator Interview – Part Two: Breaking Conventions And Returning To The Past
Papo & Yo dealt with a not-so-good father and son relationship that’s set in a metaphorical/fantastical world with characters that reflected creator Vander Caballero and his family. In part one of our interview with Creative Director at Montreal-based Minority Media, we discussed his original vision, how he acquired funding for the game, and how he balanced the game’s puzzle elements.
In continuing with the interview, Vander and I got to talking about his relationship with his father and how it was reflected in the game, turning character progression on its head, breaking game design conventions, and even Papo & Yo’s original ending. It was a poignant discussion but an insightful look at how the game, its story and gameplay elements came about.
Check out part two of my interview with Vander Caballero after the break.
JTM Games: One thing you mentioned earlier was becoming powerful; when playing Papo & Yo, I noticed that it turned character progression upside down. Where other games made your characters stronger, Quico became weaker as the game progressed. Could you elaborate on that design choice?
Vander Caballero: So, in the video game industry since the beginning, we have layers to protect each other against the world. So bigger armor, bigger armor, bigger armor, I remember how heavy the Art Director worked in designing the armor. And we got to the point where we asked “what’s so special with the armor?”
Life is about opening yourself to others; I wanted to put that into the game and said “look, I want to take away pieces of his clothes.” And then in the game Quico starts losing his shirt, then his shoes, and that meant him opening himself – becoming weaker. The moment you’re able to acknowledge your weakness, you’re actually stronger. Opposite to putting layers (armor) where you’re just hiding your weakness.
JTM Games: Well, the world of Papo & Yo starts out quite beautifully; eye-catching even. But the deeper the adventure and story went, the more the world became unhinged. Could you talk about that and how it fit into the game design?
Vander Caballero: So I did the story arc, and the story arc I divided into five parts; each arc was a period in my life. It was ages 0 to 10, 10 to 15, 15 to 20, 20 to 25, and 25 to 30. And then in each one of those layers, in those acts I wanted to demonstrate what it felt like at that moment in life. So when you’re a kid, you think everything is fantastic, everything is beautiful; even when the world is terrible, you still continue. And as you grow older, its getting more gray, darker, and you have to figure out how to turn that into something beautiful again.
That’s the part in the game where it gets really really dark. And then at the end, what I wanted to do was break Quico’s fantasy into pieces because when you start the game you enter a fantasy world and the fantasy world is solid enough to keep him. What I wanted to do is break his dream because he cannot fall on that dream anymore – he’s actually hurting himself. Again this is reality, in the final act when you’ve taken the gondola and then Monster turns into father, that was a way of breaking the world and saying “look this is real, this happened to real people and you have to deal with it.”
JTM Games: Monster became dangerous whenever he would eat frogs. To be honest, I found the frogs to be quite entertaining and adorable in the beginning, yet as the game progressed I ended up dreading each encounter with them. Was that how you felt about alcohol growing up?
Vander Caballero: No no no, that metaphor didn’t come through well. We tried a lot of elements like rotten fruits, magic potions, a lot of other stuff and none of them worked. Once we were brainstorming and someone suggested “why not frogs?” And deep inside I was thinking “Frogs? I HATE frogs!” I can’t touch frogs. When I see a frog I go running.
I remember once I was in Argentina with my wife and my kid on vacation at my brother-in-law’s yard I saw a frog and I started running away to call my wife “There’s a frog! There’s a frog! Go take care of our kid! I don’t want to show him how afraid I am of the frogs!” And then we put the frogs in the game. They were cute and then they turned evil so that was kind of unexpected.
*ATTENTION: MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD*
JTM Games: Another facet of the game that went against game design conventions was the lack of a boss fight. Instead, there was a series of emotionally effective scenes. Could you elaborate on how you came to that design decision?
Vander Caballero: About 2/4 into the game development, the game actually finished with a boss fight. And then later on I thought “If I finish the game with a boss fight, I would never give closure to anyone who got a similar experience as me.” So I went back to the team and I said “look, we’re changing the end.” So I thought about it for a couple of weeks and I prototype it. I came back to the team and explained it to the team this way:
Games SUCK at giving closure. It’s like how people felt betrayed by the end of Mass Effect or the ending of Assassin’s Creed III. People felt like this because there was no closure. What? 30 hours of my life playing the game and what did I learn at the end? That sucks!
I always design flowcharts based on emotions. And I thought okay what are the steps I took to overcome my father and become a good father today? One thing you have to realize when living with an alcoholic father is that it’s real. It’s not a lie; people who are affected by someone who is addicted usually lived in denial. They say “no no, it’s nothing; he’s not really drinking too much.” Or “he only gets drunk three times a week,” or something like that.
Then I looked at my analysis and the first thing is realizing that these things happen to you. That’s the revelation sequence in the gondola and the statue. When you start seeing that this is real, this really happened to someone. The second step is to realize that no one is there to save you; no one can save you and it’s really hard. Throughout the game, we always mentioned the shaman who can cure Monster and save Quico – you see when you’re living with someone who is addicted, you think you can save them and you think there’s a cure. But really, there will never be a cure. When you get to where the shaman is supposed to be, you realize that there is no shaman. There’s only you and your memories. And people are surprised because there’s really no cure for Monster.
The third thing is realizing what role it is you’re playing. The last piece to the game is when you’re on the other side from Monster and you have bottles of whiskey and you’re giving it to monster and whiskey turns into a frog. You’re playing a really cruel game – that was the goal of the scene. This is what really happened in real life, it’s really bad, deal with it.
And then at the end you have to negotiate the good and the bad; and you have to let that person go. And that is the hardest thing that people have to do in their lives. The last scene of the game after Monster becomes really raged, he goes to sleep in this beautiful scene and you see the sunset there, and you have to let him go, and that’s the way that Quico coped with being the victim of an abusive, alcoholic father.
JTM Games: The ending was particularly powerful for me (and for most players), when Quico accepts and makes peace with his memories. Was it difficult for you to return to that part of your life? Did you have a different end in your mind when you first wrote the game?
Vander Caballero: The end that I mentioned earlier was the boss fight. Like when you first start writing a book, you never know what the end is. Was it hard? Yes it was hard; it was hard but it was beautiful at the same time. I remember when I did the boss when I prototyped the gameplay and what was going to happen, and I thought this is good. I hoped that the scene was good enough and that the people get it. The composer, Brian put the audio on top of it; and I remember the first time I played that with the audio I started crying. And there was something about that scene that touched a lot of people.
I remember when I was a kid and my father died; we were carrying his coffin my brothers and I. When we carried his coffin, his shoe was banging on the coffin; and I knew he was dead. Each of the sound was like a stabbing in my heart and it was really difficult. In the game in the end you feel when you’re letting go of that person and many people had this connection with that scene. In a weird way, that animation, that scene that I had in my head helped other people. And that the beauty of video games, that you can create these simulations and create those difficult experiences in your life and maybe help other people.
*End Part 2 of interview*
Many thanks to Vander Caballero for taking the time and chatting with us at Games Without Frontiers.