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Q&A: Papo & Yo Creator Vander Caballero On How His Troubled Past Inspired His Newest Project

The founder of Minority Media gives an open and frank interview about how Papo & Yo became a metaphor for his childhood.

When I first met Vander Caballero, I was immediately struck by his infectiously positive attitude. By the time I caught up with him midway through day two of E3 2011, most people trudging around the West Hall of the LA Convention Center stood slump-shouldered and somber-faced, exhausted by the grind of the show. Caballero had no such air about him.

Papo & Yo creator Vander Caballero.
Papo & Yo creator Vander Caballero.

He bounded up to the kiosk in the Sony booth where I was waiting for him, and did so with a kind of energy I didn't think could exist by this point at E3. As we began talking, I could sense a bit of weariness in his voice, which certainly made sense given the rigors of E3. But the smile hardly left his face during the entire course of our conversation. This was a man who seemed truly excited to be where he was at that very moment.

He had good reason for such enthusiasm, as Papo & Yo, his newly-announced PlayStation Network project, was making its playable debut. The game is the first project from Minority Media, the independent studio that Caballero helped found in Montreal, Quebec. For any independent developer, it can be an exciting experience to finally show to the world the thing you've poured months, or even years of time and effort into. But in the case of Caballero, it's not just his time and effort he's dedicated to this project, as the story of Papo & Yo is meant to be a metaphor for his own troubled childhood.

The game features a young South American boy named Quico, along with his two friends, a small robot named Lula, and a pink rhinoceros-looking creature known as "Monster," who has an unhealthy addiction to eating frogs. Quico's relationship with Monster is meant to echo that of Caballero and his father, who throughout his life suffered from alcohol and drug dependency. Like the Monster in the game, Caballero's father had two sides: a loving, friendly side, and a monstrous, evil one. In effect, Caballero is pouring the very essence of his life's experience into this game, while trying to turn a very tough story into something fun and engaging for a wide variety of players. No easy feat, to be sure.

What I've played of the resulting game is a fascinating combination of wordless storytelling and third-person, puzzle-based platforming. Quico moves through an imaginary world that feels loosely based in reality. You see mountains, favelas, and other elements of South American landscapes you'd expect, but that world can be manipulated. Chalk drawings on various structures can be played with to reveal new paths, or allow Quico to literally transport buildings and other obstacles that would normally seem immovable. What I played of the game at E3 seemed extremely promising, despite the game's relatively early state of development (the game won't release on PSN until next year).

In talking to Caballero, I found myself less interested in the usual mechanic-and-multiplayer-focused questions one tends to ask during these sorts of events, and more interested in the inspirations behind Papo & Yo's creation. I wanted to know what would inspire a developer who had spent years working on successful franchises at EA Montreal to start his own company and create such an unusually personal video game experience. Thankfully, Caballero was more than happy to oblige, talking with the kind of openness that you really only tend to find in someone who is truly independent, and truly doing exactly what they want to be doing.

== TEASER ==

Giant Bomb: You don't often hear game designers specifically reference or talk about personal experiences when describing inspiration for their games, let alone personal trauma. What led you to the point where you decided that you wanted to make a game about something so specifically personal?

Vander Caballero: It was my love for games, I think. When I was a kid and going through difficult times, games actually saved me. It was the only space where I could be in control and... experience safety, and predictability in a way. Everything outside was crazy.

No Caption Provided

I was a director for Army of Two, I worked on Need for Speed, I worked on FIFA, all these major EA franchises. I learned how to make really high quality games with them, but this was my opportunity to jump out and tell my story. We all want to tell our stories. The difficult part is finding the right metaphor. I had a mentor, Nilo Rodis, who worked on Star Wars, and has worked with Pixar. He taught me a lot about how you have to find the right metaphor to tell your story and not freak people out. And I think that the magic part that we have to learn in this industry, is how we have to find these metaphors that are meaningful to bring the real human story out there. It's really hard, but I've learned, and I hope I can do this many times!

GB: Is the specific story of Papo & Yo a metaphor you've always had in the back of your head? Or did it only come to you recently?

VC: First, you have to work on yourself and understand your emotions inside. They say you cannot bring someone where you have not been, so first you have to go there, come back a better man, and then you can bring people with you. Once you've done that, then you can say, "Okay, what's the metaphor I'm going to use, and then how am I going to make this truthful to games?" Because, it's about telling your story through a simulation, and you have to use simulation rules to tell the story. And that can be really hard. It requires a lot of know-how, it requires a lot of systems, it requires a lot of experience and failure to get there, so it took me a long time to figure that out.

I don't want to make a game where you just say, "Oh, I'll put a cinematic there," because it doesn't work that way. I want people to feel it and finally when you get there, and you see the Monster angry... we're not actually showing it here, but we have it at the office, we've been testing it with people, and when the Monster becomes angry, you see right away that people change, the complete feel of the game changes, and you are performing in a different way. It's a beautiful way to see it.

One thing... in order to take away the Monster's anger, you can give him a fruit. Every time people were taking the fruit and giving it to the Monster and he became normal again, I was like, *sigh of relief*. It moved everyone, even myself. When you have a person who is addicted, you always want to save them. You always want to try to save them. But you actually can't.

GB: Was that your experience? Did you spend a lot of time growing up trying to save your father?

VC: Oh yeah, all the time. You always try to find a way, but you can't. You're just a kid.

GB: One of the things I noticed when playing the game was that there aren't really any other human characters around, it seems. You had said before that you had felt very alone in your situation growing up. Is Quico's world specifically representative of that feeling?

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VC: Right now what you're seeing is the imaginary world that Quico created to protect himself from the outside, and once in a while there's a kid who appears here and there and does drawings to transform the world [referring to the sketch drawings related to the game's puzzles]. And that is what the game is, it's about how you transform the world around you and make it magical. But in your game in the story, you're going to get some flashbacks. You're going to go back to another time... and then you're going to go back again... that's all I'm going to say, I won't tell you more about that yet.

GB: Creating a game around a subject like addiction, even in whimsical, metaphorical fashion, can be a dicey subject, given how dark the subject matter is. Was crafting the right tone for the game a difficult challenge for you?

VC: I got the chance to work with Nilo, and he gave me a lot of advice on how to do that. Pixar does that in amazing ways. If you remember Finding Nemo? What a terrible story! Five minutes into the story, you lose your mom, you lose your brothers. Ten minutes into the story, you're lost. But they are able to bring these really heavy stories and immerse you in them, without making you feel afraid. That's what I want to do.

GB: Do you feel like you have achieved that balance? That this is the sort of game that accurately captures your story, while still being a fun, accessible experience that anyone could to pick up and play?

VC: Oh yes. The only thing I could say that perhaps is a flaw in the game is that it's in third-person. And third-person limits the amount of people who are going to play it. I would love for more people to play it, but I love third-person games! So that's the only thing maybe is that it might be hard for people who don't know how to play third-person games.

GB: Has creating Papo & Yo been a therapeutic experience for you?

VC: It's great, and scary at the same time. Because after I do this game I don't know what I'm going to do! So I have to get through this one and I don't know... but it's been really great, and really liberating. The best thing of all is seeing people who actually enjoy and appreciate the story, because it's an honest story. You know, like, I cannot see another shooter. They're so detached, there's no emotion, there's no personal story, there's no growth.

GB: Do you have children of your own?

VC: Yes, I have a child. He's two years old.

GB: I ask because I recently came across the story of another Canadian developer named Ryan Creighton who actually involved his child in the making of a game that she helped design. It was a flash-based game called Sissy's Magical Ponycorn Adventure, and she drew all the art and did all the voice acting for it. Creighton wrote a blog about how much she loved working on it with him. Did you hear about any this?

VC: I had not heard about this! You know, when I did the first prototype, I asked my nieces (my child is still too young), to draw the icons and everything I put it in the game. That's something in the game that's going to happen later on. We didn't have time to input that exact childish... view into the world, but we had it in the prototype and it was really successful.

No Caption Provided

GB: One of Creighton's quotes about the experience of making that project with his daughter was that "Our goal as parents is to give our kids the kind of childhood we would kill to have had." Do you feel like this game is an extension of that notion? In creating this game, do you feel like you're making something to help your own children understand how you grew up, and how to face such a challenging situation?

VC: I think it's right. We always want to give our children the childhood we didn't have. But, it's also crucial to pass your learning on to your children. So when I was a kid I was playing Nintendo, it was more about things being "good" or "bad." You're Mario, and the rest are evil. Life is not like that. What I want to do in the game, your Monster is your friend, you're going to love him, but he can also turn bad. He can be evil. That's what I want. I want a kid playing this game to get a little more out of it, to gain more satisfaction and growth than they otherwise would. That's my goal.

GB: In your PlayStation blog announcement, you actually mentioned Shigeru Miyamoto as a big influence on you as a designer. Is there anyone else in the game industry you can cite as a particular person of influence on your sensibilities as a designer?

VC: Fumito Ueda. ICO was a great inspiration for me. They told a beautiful story, a deep story, and they did it with mechanics. I learned a lot from that, how I can tell my story with mechanics.

GB: What is the one thing for anyone playing Papo & Yo that you most want them to take away from the experience?

VC: *grins* That you can get a beautiful experience that is not a shooter.

Alex Navarro on Google+
62 CommentsRefresh
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Avatar image for captaincody
Posted By CaptainCody

You know you're cool when your name sounds like a skateboard trick.

Avatar image for jmfinamore
Posted By jmfinamore
@spilledmilkfactory said:

This is starting to look really great. Can't wait to play it. The fact that he mentions telling a story through mechanics is what really excites me, because that's what makes gaming so unique, and I feel that if more developers approached storytelling this way, the products that the industry produces could be that much more powerful

I completely agree. This is is one of the most difficult aspects of games to capitalize on but it's the most rewarding. I understand why games tend towards more traditional story telling means (cutscenes, etc), but I wish more people would experiment with this style of game.
Avatar image for festeringneon
Posted By FesteringNeon

Dude, it's Mr. Brainwash (Thierry Guetta)

No Caption Provided
Avatar image for abe
Posted By abdo

Caballero is pretty cool and smart. I love that he cites Fumito Ueda/Ico as an inspiration, and I wish him the best. Can't wait for the game to come out.

Avatar image for philzpilz
Posted By Philzpilz

Ok, I'm pretty interested in seeing this now...

Avatar image for cozmicaztaway
Posted By Cozmicaztaway

Great article, and this game seems really interesting.

Avatar image for funexplosions
Posted By FunExplosions
@Cerafin: I'd have to assume so. Funny, I took 4 years of Spanish and it took your comment to make me realize that. 
Avatar image for sonkite
Posted By SonKite

Great read, Alex. Thank you
Avatar image for spilledmilkfactory
Posted By spilledmilkfactory

This is starting to look really great. Can't wait to play it. The fact that he mentions telling a story through mechanics is what really excites me, because that's what makes gaming so unique, and I feel that if more developers approached storytelling this way, the products that the industry produces could be that much more powerful

Avatar image for cerafin
Posted By Cerafin
I wonder if the game's tittle is intentional ? "Papo & Yo" is very similar to Papa y Yo which is spanish for Dad and Me. 
Avatar image for gizmo
Posted By Gizmo

So this is an 'Art-Game'? 
I'll certainly be picking this up, the curious art student that I am.

Avatar image for xpgamer7
Posted By Xpgamer7

I really liked the article. I knew about the subject matter behind it but reading into it even more, I became thoroughly engrossed.

Avatar image for mmafanqc
Posted By MmaFanQc

the game look awesome!

Avatar image for beard_of_zeus
Posted By beard_of_zeus

Great interview/article, Alex! Really looking forward to this game. As someone who went through a lot of awful family shit like this when I was younger, I find Callabero's situation very relatable. It's great to see him use a personal experience like that as inspiration for a game; I hope that translates into a game that is more of an emotional, moving experience while also being enjoyable to play.

Avatar image for krystal_sackful
Posted By Krystal_Sackful

@Agent47: Zeno Clash was South American.

Avatar image for mrmarkrobson
Posted By mrmarkrobson

Its great that people are looking to new spaces for inspiration...and its great that people realize that they can have a project that doesnt necessarily reach the widest possible audience

Avatar image for agent47
Posted By Agent47

It's pretty cool to see a South American developer for once I hope he goes on to do more great things in the future.

Avatar image for drdarkstryfe
Posted By DrDarkStryfe

This was a wonderful interview with a man that is not afraid to bare all.

Avatar image for norsedudetr
Posted By NorseDudeTR

You know, I really have been enjoying Alex' articles, and he was great on the E3 podcasts too!

If Patrick is the influence, great, if he just kicked his stuff into gear all by himself, great! I just know really like reading his stuff now .

Avatar image for mistermouse
Posted By MisterMouse

I feel like this emotional connection in the video game can really elevate this to another level, but unfortunately it all comes down to how the game plays...

Avatar image for m2cks
Posted By m2cks

Really interesting article. I found myself nodding along and muttering agreement when Caballero stated "When I was a kid and going through difficult times, games actually saved me. It was the only space where I could be in control and... experience safety, and predictability in a way. Everything outside was crazy." How true. Indeed, I am now more intrigued than before about his game; looks like I'm gonna fire up my PS3 once more when it hits.

Avatar image for rndmtask
Posted By rndmtask

Great article, Alex. I hope Papo y Yo is a great success.

Avatar image for donpixel
Posted By DonPixel

Nice - Cool article, I hope the industry keep evolving in stuff like this...

Avatar image for subjugation
Posted By Subjugation

Even a developer that has shooter fatigue. How telling.

Avatar image for gregomasta
Posted By Gregomasta

I can't wait to see this game.

Avatar image for theht
Posted By TheHT

God damn. This E3 didn't have many exciting reveals or anything, but some very interesting conversations sure did come out of it. Sounds genuinely intriguing.

Avatar image for davotron
Posted By DavoTron

Giant Bomb keep on bringing it with the articles.

Avatar image for jeust
Posted By Jeust
@Underachiever007 said:
Really cool article, Alex.
Yeah! Great piece.
Avatar image for patrickklepek
Posted By patrickklepek

@craigbo180 said:

More of this, I'm sure there are many indie developers working on interesting projects because they are not the cut and dry boring shooters that saturate the market. I mean Alex Neuse, Jonathan Blow, Edmund Mcmillien and Goichi Suda always give really interesting interviews. Great article Alex, I really do hope we see more in this format in the future.

You'll see more. Hint: The Killer.

Avatar image for tikicobra
Posted By Tikicobra

I want to buy this. And then I want to buy it again.

Avatar image for little_socrates
Posted By Little_Socrates

I no longer need to read anything about this game, as I'll be buying it when it launches. Really hope this turns out as well as it looks like it will; on top of the story and metaphor, the art style is GORGEOUS in this game!

Avatar image for dougmansion
Posted By dougmansion

Great article! I love what Caballero is trying to do here, and it feels like relatively new territory for game design. If he makes good on his design, hopefully we can see more like it in the future.

Kinda makes me wish I had a PS3.

Avatar image for catpowerd
Posted By catpowerd

Wow that was a great article! Looking forward to seeing more of this game.

Avatar image for yyziggurat
Posted By yyZiggurat

Great interview, Alex. I loved the music in the trailer and am really looking forward to this game.

A couple of typo's:

Third paragraph fifth line "Caballero father had two sides"

Caballero's answer to the question about Sissy's Magical Ponycorn Adventure: "my child is still to young"

Avatar image for craigbo180
Posted By craigbo180

More of this, I'm sure there are many indie developers working on interesting projects because they are not the cut and dry boring shooters that saturate the market. I mean Alex Neuse, Jonathan Blow, Edmund Mcmillien and Goichi Suda always give really interesting interviews. Great article Alex, I really do hope we see more in this format in the future.

Avatar image for scodiac
Posted By Scodiac

This was a great interview and, man, I am ever interested in this game. I'm really glad Sony continues to support truly creative game devs with PSN. I love to shoot dudes but our medium could certainly use more of this kind of genuine work.

Avatar image for oginam
Posted By Oginam

Great article. Looking forward to playing this game the more I hear about it.

Avatar image for deusx
Posted By Deusx

I am so excited for this game. Alex, that was a great article!

Avatar image for boylie
Posted By boylie

That was an amazing read. I have to look into this Nilo Rodis too, I wonder if he's written anything about crafting metaphors and stuff like what Caballero was talking about. I'd love to read it. GG Alex

Avatar image for raginglion
Posted By RagingLion

A great interview.  I'm heartened to hear that the mechanics are being used to tell the story and hopefully that means all of these interaction with drawings in addition to the more obvious metaphor surrounding monster.
I also love that he wants to use games and their mechanics to show that the world isn't just black and white (ala Mario) - I've thought myself before that I want games to show the complexity of the world and that they could be used in that way really powerfully.

Avatar image for polyorpheus
Posted By polyorpheus

Now that I know more about the game and the aspirations for it, I'm very interested in this game. 

Avatar image for crusader8463
Edited By crusader8463

As someone who is not a big puzzle fan, I really hope the gameplay doesn't get in the way and keep me from enjoying the story.

Avatar image for sameeeeam
Posted By sameeeeam

Really cool article, Alex.

Avatar image for arcadiaexeter
Posted By ArcadiaExeter

I really cant wait for this game. it contains everything i look for in a game experience. it is whimsical and child like. it encourages imagination while at the same time has real meaning and tells a real story. it also tells that story without resorting to movie scenes. it's also a great argument for why games can be just as deep as any book or movie. This is why games can be art.

this sounds incredible and i cant wait to play it.

Avatar image for synaptic
Posted By Synaptic

Awesome work. Really interesting to hear about it, looking forward to playing it when it comes out.

Avatar image for maceg
Posted By MacEG
@Tesla said:

Alex Navarro has been on fire with the GB articles, all the while pulling double duty on Screened.

He is definitely the front runner for Whiskey Media's 2011 MVP award.

Totally agree. It's funny because I'm not a fan of his voice (I don't know what it is. Maybe I'm just a douche like that) but really really good article. Awesome work Alex.
Avatar image for cirdain
Posted By Cirdain

Beautiful article.

Avatar image for rmanthorp
Posted By rmanthorp

Serious business! Sounds interesting though.

Avatar image for silver-streak
Posted By Silver-Streak

Wow, the basis for the game idea may be why the original concept resonated with me so much. Without going into detail, I really hope he pulls this off, and I can't wait to try it.

Avatar image for kombat
Posted By Kombat

From the sound of it, Papo & Yo has some really interesting shades-of-grey storytelling going on. I like the concept of loving your Monster, even when he is "bad," and wanting to save him. It is such a refreshing true-to-life idea that seems sort of no-brainer thinking about it. But even something this surface-level has been pretty absent from the gaming space. There is just too much black-and-white, good-and-evil, Mario-and-Koopas going on in this industry.

I can't say that I am really all that excited about this game, but I like the sound of what Caballero is trying to achieve. I miss the more personal, subtle stories that the medium used to put forth. Everything has become too bogged down in technology and effects to the point that few games are truly affecting. Sounds great.

Now, if only I can come up with the cash to replace my broken PS3 by the time this releases...

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