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When Fantasy and Reality Collide

Papo & Yo creator Vander Caballero's game about a troubled childhood with an alcoholic father is stirring strong emotions in players, and reminding them they're not alone.

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(This story features spoilers for Papo & Yo. If you haven’t finished the game yet, you should stop now.)

A certain song, a passage from a book, a flashing dream, a quiet moment in the shower. We never know when our emotions might overwhelm us, and the best anyone can do is ride the wave until it crashes and disappears. Video games are, more and more, becoming a place for people to tell personal stories, rather than the same tale about the hero saving the galaxy from an alien threat (those are still okay, though). Video games may have a long ways to go, but games like Papo & Yo, in which understanding of a troubled childhood is made interactive, are taking us there.

Ever since finishing Papo & Yo, I've been following developer Minority Media's Twitter feed, which often features the powerful reactions players are having to the game's narrative. One reaction, in particular, stuck out to me.

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It's one thing to say a game has affected people, it's another to see it actually happening.

Chris Aponte’s father passed away of cirrhosis of the liver in 2004, a consequence of alcoholism. He was just 24-years-old at the time, and when Aponte turned 31-years-old, he decided to give up alcohol.

A photo of Aponte with his mother and father, a snapshot in time that hides a troubled reality.
A photo of Aponte with his mother and father, a snapshot in time that hides a troubled reality.

Aponte was not aware of the emotional motivations behind creating Papo & Yo when he originally bought it last month. As a fan of Team Ico’s games, he figured Papo & Yo was a game created for the same kind of person patiently waiting for The Last Guardian.

“Before the introduction of Monster,” he told me, “I figured the game was about an escapist little boy using a wonderfully creative & artistic imagination to help him cope with poverty.”

(We spoke over email, a place Aponte felt more comfortable, given the nature of the conversation.)

Obviously, that’s not what Papo & Yo is about. It’s a interactive expression of creator Vander Caballero’s troubled childhood, in which he and his family dealt with an alcoholic, abusive father.

Once the monster was introduced, Aponte put the pieces together.

When there's an opportunity, he plays games with his girlfriend, and during one of her turns, he looked up interviews about the game.

“I read Vander Caballerro said his father was an alcoholic, so I kind of knew before the gamer is probably supposed to know that it was related to alcohol,” he said. “Before I read that, I knew that I profoundly understood something that was happening in the game. I had to research it to scratch that itch.”

It doesn’t become explicitly clear the substance in question is alcohol until the end of the game, when the player is no longer tossing playful, colored fruit at the Monster. Instead, the player passes him (it?) bottles of liquor.

When Aponte picked up on where the game was going, it actually provided him a sense of comfort.

“Knowing that while playing through the game made me feel like I wasn't alone in my pain,” he said.

Aponte, now 33-years old, has been without alcohol for two years now.

“After years of partying, getting fired from job after job, and dropping out of college after college, I finally got my act together,” he said.

He’s currently in the second of a five-year apprenticeship program to become an electrician, and just prior to finding this path, found himself faced with his own profound questions about his relationship with his father’s demons.

“When I decided I had enough of the guilt, shame, and self-torment I gave myself with alcohol, when it was time for self-reflection, I would finally look in the mirror and see my father,” he said. “He died at 47-years-old, I had just turned 31 when I finally quit. I would see his face in the mirror and ask ‘Do I want to give myself a chance, or am I only giving myself 16 more years to live?’”

The emotional climax of Papo & Yo involves the player, as Quico, saying goodbye to the Monster. At this point, it clearly represents Quico's alcoholic father. Even though Aponte was aware of Papo & Yo’s allegorical origins hours ago, in this moment, everything came crashing down, and the weight of his experience collided with Cabellro’s.

He was crushed. His girlfriend put the controller down. He cried.

“I was just watching, stunned, and tears were flowing down my cheeks,” he said. “I think it startled her at first, I mean, it is just a video game--but then she quickly understood what chord this story probably struck with me. We didn't say much through the credits, just held each other and watched them while I let some more tears out. It's the saddest, most painful thing any person has to go through, letting go of a loved one. When they suffer from a substance abuse problem, you have to let them go at their own peril. You almost know they won't survive. And then you have to live with it when they finally DON'T. That scene captured that allegory flawlessly. It was the most emotive I've ever been to any type of story dealing with this situation since my father passed.”

Touched by Aponte’s story, I reached out to Caballero, and I read him a passage from my exchange with Aponte. There was a lingering silence on the other end of the Skpye line.

Caballero used to work at EA Montreal, but can't imagine making big, commercial games again.
Caballero used to work at EA Montreal, but can't imagine making big, commercial games again.

“Now, I’m gonna cry,” he said.

Aponte has not been the only player to express their gratitude to Cabellero and the rest of the team at Minority Media for Papo & Yo.

Cabellero spoke of a single father who wrote in, distressed at how he’d let the stresses of his life prompt him to yell at his children. Papo & Yo gave him a glimpse into what it was like for them.

“One of the most difficult things is that when you suffer,” said Caballero, “when you have some type of abuse--either mentally, physically, or whatever--it is that you think you’re alone. And, suddenly, when people play the game, they know they’re not alone.”

Cabellero said he couldn’t imagine working on a traditional game ever again, and hopes more developers will take life experiences and express them in games.

Interviews are often a one-sided affair, but Cabellero was not a normal interview. While setting up a question, I mentioned that my father passed away recently, and how the ending of Papo & Yo spoke of a universal truth about the relationship between parents and children. In my case, there was no abuse. My dad still died, though.

“How did you feel when you played the sequence?” he asked.

I was taken aback, and realized no one had asked me that question. Or any question like that, honestly. When a life-shaking moment occurs, like the passing of a parent, you find most people err on the side of not asking anything at all. Here, Cabellero cut right to the heart of it. The blurring of reality and fantasy, I told him, came from the last moments I had during the viewing services for my father, when, at some point, you have to leave. It’s the last time you’re going to see this person’s body, but you also have to walk out the door. Eventually, you have to say goodbye.

Saying that out loud caused me to give myself a moment to pause.

Hearing stories like this and others has been a reward all its own for Cabellero.

“I cannot put words into it, as an artist,” he said. “Something that is so precious to you and...other people get. It is...[pause]. It gives sense to all the suffering that I had all this life.”

Despite our completely separate lives, this act of creativity forged a bond between Cabellero, Aponte, and myself.

“When your character throws the monster over the ledge, it broke my heart,” said Aponte. “There is nothing harder in this world than letting go of someone you love.”

Though our experiences are worlds apart, I know what you mean, Chris. I know what you mean.

Patrick Klepek on Google+