Not many games look and feel like Papo & Yo. If you need to categorize it, you can call the upcoming PS3 exclusive a magical realism puzzle platformer. It's a game where you put cardboard boxes on your head to get hints and move houses to get across gaps. But, from what I played over the last few months, genre categorization really don't capture how Papo & Yo comes across as a sweetly poignant metaphor for an impoverished, abuse-filled childhood.
I've written about Papo & Yo before. It draws on the boyhood experiences of Vander Caballero, putting players in the role of a young boy who's chasing his sister through a shantytown wonderland. A key part of the game comes from teaming up with Monster, the giant pink creature goes on destructive rampages when he eats the frogs found throughout the game. Caballero says openly that Monster is an analogue for his alcoholic father and that making the game helps purge and repurpose the bad parts of his early life.
It stuck in my head when a commenter said that "[I] don't know if I feel like paying for someone else's psychotherapy" in response to a recent look at Papo & Yo. When I asked Caballero about that statement last week at E3, he laughed. To him, that sentiment shows how much maturing the video game medium needs to do.
"If we were at the Cannes Film Festival right now and I told you, ‘I'm making a short film about my personal backstory,' nobody would even care," Caballero offers. "Because it's a game and because it's so early [in the lifespan of the medium]—and only a few people are actually putting their stories in the forefront—when you do it, people go, "Oh no, it's not for me." But, every piece of entertainment comes from a backstory. In reality, that's what we love. We love the backstories because we're no different from the storytellers and audiences throughout history. If this were another medium, no one would even mention it."
Caballero doesn't feel particularly vulnerable baring aspects his childhood either. "There was a really great Facebook post that I read the other day that said "a creative person is a child who survived," he says. "What saved me when I was a kid and going through the alcoholism and abuse was my imagination. I'm still a kid at heart, and that has everything to do with my imagination."
"So it really comes easy for me, for example, when we were doing the puzzles that let you pick up cardboard boxes and have big houses moving [across the screen in response.] People say, "How did you come up with that one?" It came to me all at once. You just have to let go and and remember what it was like to enjoy being a kid."
But why bring a game with all that child-like whimsy to sit alongside the big, noisy, bloody-spectacle games that tend to dominate the attention spans of E3 attendees? It's because he himself worked on games like those, says Caballero. "I was doing those games at Electronic Arts when I was the design director for Army of Two," he elaborates. "You get out of school and you get into the industry. And you love it. You go, "Oh wow, this is great." And you're doing what you always dreamed of. And then you think that the industry will evolve."
But, as far as Caballero can see, that evolution didn't come. "Right now, I'm essentially playing the same games I played 10 years ago. The shooters, the violence… Yeah, there's minor improvements. But the innovation has plateaued. And that really pisses me off, because I want to grow old playing games. I don't want to stop. To think that you are bored is terrible for the industry. I decided we have to be responsible and actually bring these backstories into the games that we make. Maybe it's not going to be for everyone, but it might speak to a few people who feel the same way. And I think that independents have to fill that hole." To that end, Vander and other refugees from AAA development formed Minority Media, a game development studio based in Montreal.
"I think what happened actually is there is a lot of people who are afraid of leaving the industry because it's a culture of fear inside the corporations. You hear things like ‘If you leave, you will never be able to last.' ‘You won't find another job.' There's no money out there. If you step out of a corporation, you'll die. It's not true at all. There are so many opportunities out there. And then the other stuff is just golden handcuffs. That they give you the golden handcuff. Why would you like to leave? You get good money. You get recognition. You get to travel. They give you development power. Why would you leave? And the reason you would like to leave is because, in my case, I felt responsible to the industry for doing something more meaningful."
Caballero wants to stir emotions with Papo & Yo but not all of them will be positive ones. "Yeah, people are going to feel sad. Because it is a sad story. But they are going to grow out of this sadness into joy. We've been testing the game with people. People actually get to feel that sadness, and it's a beautiful feeling. I think in order to be happy we have to be sad. You need a contrast."
If you want to experience a game that offers its own contrast to the brutality common to so many AAA games, Papo & Yo should be out sometime this year on the PlayStation Network. It may not be for you, as Caballero says, but if it is, you'll probably wind up playing through something singularly unique.