Papo & Yo Creator Interview – Part One: Vision, Funding, and Puzzles
One of the PS3’s most groundbreaking independent titles of 2012, Papo & Yo is a semi-biographical story of Creative Director Vander Caballero’s past as he dealt with issues such as his father’s alcoholism and abuse. As the title alludes to, Papo & Yo deals with a not-so-good father and son relationship that’s set in a metaphorical world with characters that reflected Vander and his family.
I recently had a chance to talk to Vander, the Creative Director at Montreal-based Minority Media and creator of Papo & Yo at a recent gaming event. In part one of the interivew, Vander discusses his original vision, acquiring funding, and balancing the game’s puzzle elements. Check out part one of my interview with Vander Caballero after the break.
JTM Games: What would you consider the most important lesson you learned as a game developer that you apply today?
Vander Caballero: One night I started playing Super Mario, played all night and defeated Bowser. I felt really happy and really strong; I put the controller down and realized that I had learned nothing. As fun as it was, defeating Bowser taught me nothing in life. So everytime I develop a game I think “will this game help society? Will this game help someone else?”
JTM Games: Could you tell us how your vision for Papo & Yo began?
Vander Caballero: I knew I wanted to make games but I didn’t know why I wanted to make games. When I realized that I wanted to do games to help other kids that were in a similar situation like I was when I was a kid, I said okay. Now that I know that’s what I want to do, its how am I gonna do it? How can I make a game with such a heavy subject matter?
I got a lot of advice from Nilo Rodis; he was my mentor at EA for a few years. He was our director for Star Wars; I got a chance to meet him – this guy is amazing. One night I was having dinner with him and I started crying while telling my story. He stopped me and said “Vander, your story – don’t get me wrong – is a painful story, but maybe people have already told that story.”
And I was surprised, I thought “Why? Is my pain not important? Or do I fit in here?” And I got really angry; what I didn’t realize was that I needed to do this for others, not for me. Like if I was doing it for me, I would never have made Papo & Yo. We kept talking and he told me “Look what you have to do is take the medium you master and tell your story.” And the medium that I master is video games, simulations. He then told me “You have to find a metaphor that will not scare people away and people will come to the game.”
I worked really hard on the metaphor; it took me a long time to figure out that the story was about a kid named Quico and this monster who’s addicted to frogs and when monster eats the frogs, he goes crazy and wants to destroy everything. Quico’s goal is to find a cure for Monster. It’s a simple metaphor and people aren’t afraid of it, and it has a really heavy subject matter underneath. I used that metaphor to sell the game and to find financing for the game. If I went to Sony and told them the story of my alcoholic father, they would have never given me money. But because I went to Sony with a story about a monster that’s addicted to frogs, they gave me money.
JTM Games: At what point during development or planning were you able to say to yourself “this is the game I want to make.”
Vander Caballero: It was a game I needed to make. As video game creators we are artists. I have that game inside of me all the time – it was something I needed to make. I had to get it out of my system. So I did it. It will be more difficult to make games from now on.
JTM Games: Could you walk us through the process in which you received funding from the Canada Media Fund and Sony Pub Fund?
Vander Caballero: If you see the cinema, the independent cinema, and funding for independent cinema, almost all the funding has a governmental part of it. And then what happens is if you take that governmental cultural funds and then you pair it with a publisher, you get a lot of money. You get a lot of resources to actually do something cool. That is crucial in Canada and in any other place in the world.
When you get money from the government, then get money from the publisher, the risk for the publisher will be reduced and they’ll be more willing to work with you. For example, one of the things that Sony committed to do Papo was because we had money from the government, so that alleviated the risk for Sony.
The Canada Media Fund is the most amazing tool to make games that Canadians have. We should take advantage of this fund to create as much as we can.
JTM Games: Papo & Yo tells a story similar to yours and your fathers’ relationship. Did you find the development process to be a therapeutic one? Were there times when you had difficulty recalling memories from your childhood?
Vander Caballero: When you’re dealing with a big projects, you have a lot of responsability on your back to deliver something. So then you have to have your story clear already inside of you. You have to already deal with those subjects. Yeah of course in the process I remembered a couple of stuff but you have to have everything ready; you have to know what you’re doing because when you have a team of 12 people working and then you go “wait, let me go to my past and let me cope with this memory” it doesn’t work that way.
I went through almost ten years of therapy to be able to do this. When I was thinking about a specific moment in the game, I knew exactly what I wanted and I knew how to explain it to people, to work with people and give the right direction.
JTM Games: I thought the game had a great balance between platforming and puzzle elements. Could you talk about the process of creating and balancing puzzles to the environment in Papo & Yo?
Vander Caballero: It’s great that you thought it was balanced! Many people don’t think the same thing! (Laughs) Look at Braid; Braid is an awesome puzzle-platformer, but I felt stupid and many people felt stupid playing the game after 30 minutes. When I played Braid I really liked what I was doing, but I didn’t like the fact that it made me feel stupid. It’s a great title though.
I wanted to make a game that wasn’t about making people feel stupid at all. I wanted to make a game about people experiencing being dependent on a monster that had a good and a bad side. So when I did the puzzles, they could be resolved in two ways, if you put your rationality to it, you can solve it. But if you just start waving it around, you’ll find a way too. There’s the rational way, and the experimental way; so if you’re an experimental person, you can start moving pieces around and you’ll figure it out.
Going back to balancing the puzzles, it’s really hard because what happens is I meet people on the street who say “oh we love the game, the puzzles are very easy!” And then you have the people who didn’t like it as much because they found the puzzles too easy. What I learned is that when you have a product and you want to please the casual and the hardcore gamers, you’ll never get a sweet point; ever. So right now, I’m trying to stay away from doing too many puzzles in future games.
JTM Games: One of the more interesting puzzles that I remember from playing was the bridge puzzle where you get boxes and put them put them in order, while the houses (that are floating) come together to create a bridge. How did you come up with that idea?
Vander Caballero: The way that I design is I’m really big into prototyping stuff and doing stuff myself. What happend was we had a concept art – it was a cliff – and the other side was a lot of favelas, and I found it was really cool, I want to create that cliff. So I created that cliff and I put myself on the other side, I thought to myself “Okay, if I had to get to the other side, but I cannot fly, what would I do?”
Then i started thinking of the multiple possibilities of what I would do and I said “Oh! What if I move this object and it actually moves an object on the other side?” I thought it was a good idea; we produced it and it worked pretty well. My goal with that puzzle was to empower people, so when the game starts with this kid in the closet so people feel powerless. They turn to Papo & Yo’s world and realize every puzzle is about giving them power. You move a box, and it moves a house.
My friend said, “I want to think as a kid, and I want to do things that kid would want to do to empower the player at that moment.” When you do a puzzle in the game, you have to know the intention.
*End Part One of Interview*
In part two of my interview with Vander, we’ll talk about the design decisions that turned character progression upside down, the game’s fantastical world and the unique art style, going against established gaming conventions, and Papo & Yo’s powerful ending. Vander will also discuss the legacy he wants to leave as a game developer.