June 9, 2011 7:04 PM | Cassandra Khaw
My interview with Vanders Caballero, the man behind Papo & Yo, was the first interview that had ever driven me close to tears. It began far too awkwardly. I had difficulties putting my questions to words, afraid that I would somehow offend the wild-haired maestro responsible for what many consider as Sony's next Playstation Network darling. A veteran of the gaming industry, Caballero had been previously involved with Electronic Arts and, to paraphrase the man, has been somehow involved in almost every one of their major franchises. Driven by a need to relate his story, Vanders Caballero left his job of eight years and moved on to create Minority in order to tell the story of Papo & Yo.
To recap for those who have not been keeping up with Sony's latest stable of games, Papo & Yo tells the story of a boy and his Monster. Quinco, the protagonist, sees no evil in the Herculean pink creature that he calls his best friend. For the most part, there is none. Monster, from what I could tell in the demo, acts a lot like an overgrown puppy. The creature doesn't seem to harbor any inherent sense of malevolence; only the potential for it. However, according to how the story goes, Monster has an addiction to frogs. When he indulges in his lust for amphibians, he changes, turning into a violent abomination. Quinco, in turn, is apparently dead set on finding a cure for this. What makes Papo & Yo so heart-wrenching, however, is not the premise of the game but the inspiration that comes behind it. Vanders Caballero's upcoming masterpiece is an allegory for his relationship with an abusive childhood, a fantasy-soaked look into his past and what might have been.
As someone who had grown up in a destructive home environment, it got to me. A member of my family had a history of substance abuse, something that led to far-reaching consequences. I was luckier than Cabarello, though, I think. What I went through was nothing physical. Nonetheless, the emotional repercussions, I think, were very similar. It was also the reason I decided that Papo & Yo was a must-play at E3 2011.
On Wednesday, I finally got a chance to sample the game and I'm glad I did. Papo & Yo blew me away. Visually speaking, it was breathtaking. Though not on par with the cinematics in a triple-A production, it came close. Very close. Minority's first game takes place in what feels like a dream. Huge cliffs surround a colorful, sleepy town where buildings are stacked up upon one another like a cluster of cardboard boxes in a game of pretend. Beautiful as it might be, it was also empty. Outside of a brief sighting early in the game, there was no one else in the demo, a haunting contrast to the beauty of the town and its surroundings. Though likely unintentional, it left me with the faintest hint of foreboding. Years of brainwashing have left me with the certainty that a vacant settlement, filled with chalk drawings and instructions on the wall, meant something was out to get me.
Disappointingly, my theory was never proven. The demo only lasted approximately fifteen minutes. However, during that time, I got to see two of the many puzzles that the game contained. The first one was relatively easy. Using Lula, the little yellow robot that I carried on my shoulders of the time, I managed to transform chalk drawings onto the ground into a series of stepping stones, huge boulders that levitated in the sky without outside intervention. While it got an appreciative whistle, it wasn't what had me stunned. Somewhere towards the middle of the demo, we were required to construct a bridge. Penned into a fenced area, I looked around, found chalk drawings on the floor and a couple of boxes. Puzzled, I moved the box and heard a loud, rumbling sound. Nothing had changed. I turned, asked the person at the booth and he told me to look right.
A house was floating in the air. I was building a bridge of houses.
It caught me off-guard. "Isn't it what a child would think of?" Cabarello had asked in the subsequent interview. "If you were a kid and you had to cross a massive chasm, what is the most fantastic idea you could come up with?" Personally, I probably would have thought of just flying across the gap but his words had made sense. Cabarello expounded briefly on nuances and reality, citing certain elements of the game as pure fantasy as opposed to symbolic representations of things in his life. "You can't let facts destroy a good story or let a good story destroy the truth." He observed cryptically.
Eventually, however, the questions led to murkier waters. Do I ask him about the inspiration of the story? Would it be appropriate? How much would he tell me? Reassured by Cabarello's promises that it would be fine, I questioned him about what Lula represented.
"Lula? Lula represents my love for video games." Cabarello explained with a candid smile. "Playing video games made me feel invincible. It's what kept me safe. It's why I'm still alive." The last statement was a punch in the gut. I choked up. He wasn't the only one who had found escape from a difficult childhood in the form of video games. The open expression did not fade when I asked him whether the game represented a happy resolution in his life. "Unfortunately, my father died when I was younger. I coped with it through therapy."
When asked if this was representative of what he wished could have been, the answer was a terse, "Yes." and a slightly forlorn smile. "This game is made for people like you, really. It's so people can represent themselves in the game. We're human. We grow from other people's stories. We want to share, and we want to be cheered up. You can't bring people somewhere you haven't been yourself so we're making Papo & Yo to show that others have been there too."
Official website can be found here.