The first thing I am struck by when speaking to Vander Caballero is his infectious optimism. The man laughs constantly and speaks warmly about his tumultuous life story-growing up as one of the youngest members of a wealthy South American family and having to cope with his dad's frequent alcoholism and abuse.
After working in the AAA space for over a decade, he left EA Montreal to start his own company—Minority. Their first game, Papo and Yo, is an autobiographical depiction of Vander's relationship with his father. The core gameplay centers around Quico, the player character, solving puzzles with his large and fearsome companion, Monster. Monster is addicted to frogs, and whenever he catches and eats one in a level, he transforms into a very different beast. While Monster is drunk with rage and frog meat, Quico can only hide or trick Monster to protect himself.
The metaphor is pretty blunt, but Caballero emphasizes that he doesn't want to let players off the hook with the games cartoonish appearance. I caught up with Vander over the phone in the midst of a development push for the game to talk about his childhood inspirations to make videogames, why he used frogs to represent alcoholism, and the importance of empathy in modern game design.
So when did you first have the idea to make a game like Papo and Yo?
It's hard to say exactly. But...when you have a hardship in your life and you overcome it, when you survive it, you are so proud about it, so happy. And you go and tell people about the situation-it was painful. You go into the pain, the sorrow. And you get to the point where you say, "Ok, it was a bad situation but I came out alright, and I want to tell my story." There was a moment when I came through like that, it came about five years ago.
And you were already working in games at that point?
Yeah, I had been working in games for almost twelve years.
Did you ever pitch the idea for this game specifically to larger publishers?
What happens in AAA games is they take a situation and they take a snapshot, you don't actually feel the moment. What you do in these games is you have a gun and you go shoot people. When they give you an emotional situation, they give you a cinematic. They never make you take your father when he was drunk, they never make you deal with the situations. Or they would put you in a position of power, and you would have a gun. It's ridiculous [laughs] if you go back into the past and you give a kid who's in a bad situation in their childhood a gun and say, "Ok here's a gun, solve the problem with your father." It doesn't work that way.
That's a bad game design. When I make a game now, I know I need to give the context of a situation. The game mechanics in Papo are actually the mechanics you live when you are in a position of abuse in a way. You don't have weapons, you can't defend yourself. You're weak, and you're vulnerable. And you have to deal with this—I had to deal with this whenever there was trouble—and get out of it.
Do you think developers or gamers are resistant to see a game where the player comes from a position of weakness like this, rather than one of strength?
I don't think it's in the development community. Really, it's still pretty early in the history of game development. It's hard to tell the whole story in only 35 years. We've all wondered how you can tell an emotional story in the game mechanics itself.
Were you playing games in your own childhood when you were living through these experiences you're now representing in Papo?
Games helped me. They saved me when I was a kid, because I could escape in them. But part of that now, when I look back as an older man, I see that they were helping me cope with life, but they were not helping me become a better person.
How do you mean?
A good example is when you're playing Mario. Bowser is bad. And then what do you do? You just have to spend a lot of time, and then you defeat him in a boss fight. You just have to sit there and press the button press the button press the button press the button press the button to do it. That makes you a better gamer—it doesn't make you a better person. So what I'm doing in Papo is putting you in situations that you're actually going to have think about the actions that you're doing.
Games helped me. They saved me when I was a kid, because I could escape in them.
Can we talk about your childhood that you're bringing into the game?
[Laughs] Okay, so I have to talk about my childhood. Well, I have two brothers and two sisters. Two older brothers, one older sister, then me, then one younger daughter. I come from a wealthy family. I was kind of living two lives. In one, we pretended to be normal and everything was alright. We go to school, do everything regularly. But then we knew that at night when my father was getting back drunk, it was hell. We would have to hide. We were living a lie; I couldn't go to school and talk about this with my friends.
It was really hard for me, and I think that one of the things that the game is helping me to do now is talk openly about it. The worst thing that can happen is too many kids today have these problems at home, but they are shy and they can't talk about it at school or anywhere. By having games that actually talk about this really hard subject, it's helping anyone in a difficult situation to come out of the shadows.
How have your brothers and sisters dealt with growing up this way?
Some of them did ok, some of them did bad. Not in a way that they're junkies [laughs]...they're ok, but they live with the sorrow every day. You can see it and you can feel it. Any sadness can't go away—I think one of the ways I was able to escape and work out my pain in my past was because I was one of the youngest. The ones that get more hurt are the oldest; they have harder time coping with the reality because they are protecting you as well.
Since you come from a wealthy background, what was the thought behind setting the game in the slums?
When you grow up in South America, even if you are wealthy, you see poverty all the time. There were favelas five minutes from my home, I saw them every day. The maid for my home, she lived in a favela, sometimes we brought her to the favela. I knew what life is like in the favela, and it's something I wanted to show to people. There's a lot of poverty in South America, but I want people to go there and see it in a different way. It is not the way that Call of Duty would portray it. You don't land there and just start killing people.
One of the things that's interesting about this game is how you use metaphors to portray this family dynamic. I remember when I started to realize why certain things were happening in my family, between my parents, as I got older. Do you remember having those moments with your siblings where you realized, "Oh this is why he's acting this way?"
When did I realize he was an alcoholic?
Well it seems like the game is reflecting from the perspective of a child—it's influenced by a metaphor rather than a full understanding of what your dad's doing in the situation.
Well when you are a kid you don't understand what's going on. You just see this crazy stuff happening to you. In the game, I treated it the same way. When you go further down the game, you start to make the connection. It's good to do a game about the subject and make people experience it, but just leaving it their on the metaphor side is not enough. And so what I did at the end of the game is I put honesty into it. And it may be hard, but I think people are gonna get it.
How have you talked to your family about the game?
I think the most beautiful thing of all in this is having a living piece of a document, a story about your family that's so important. I'm showing the game to my son—he's now two years old—and I say, "you see that pink monster? That's your grandfather!" [laughs] I think it's really funny because then later on he's gonna play the game when he's older and think, "Oh wow, that was what my father lived. That was what my father experienced." And I find that so moving, that I will be able to connect with my son and my nieces on that level.
How did it work with your father. Is your father still alive?
No, no. He died.
Oh, I'm sorry to hear that.
No, in a good way, man. I'm happy about it. [laughs] As weird as it sounds, it is.
When did he pass away?
When I was sixteen.
What was the process like designing this monster? Were you explicitly making it in the image of your dad? How did your memory and your image transform into this monster?
First, I modeled the mechanics. They were the first thing I had to deal with, because I knew that without them, I couldn't understand what was irrational. When you deal with the mechanics,that is very rational. But when you play with the graphics, that is very emotional. So in the emotional side, I talked to some artists, talked to some friends, and told them, "Ok, draw a monster." I got a bunch of concept art, and then they gave me a model. But it was more like a gorilla, he was not really resembling my father. It grew from there—I got more drawings from more people, and the monster started evolving.
We went with one, but I was never that happy. Until I met Nilo Rodis. He's been helping me bring the game to life for a long time—he worked in Pixar, on the original Star Wars. He's influenced me a lot, so I went to see him again. And the first thing he said was, "Vander, do you see your father in the monster?" And I was like, "No, I really do not." So he redesigned it. And then, boom! I don't know what it was, but I got my monster.
People were actually attracted to the monster at the beginning, because he was really cuddly. It was stupid and funny, but Rodis's monster is not stupid, he's not funny. He was serious, he looks evil, and that's how I felt when I was a kid.
So I'm not sure how to put this, but why frogs exactly? What was the thought behind making him eat frogs?
I know [laughs], I tried everything. We were trying with food, with flames, with a lot of different metaphors and with nothing really sticking. Until once I was reading a book of The Brother's Grimm fables and they were talking about the princess and the frog. We know the story as the princess kisses the frog, and the frog turns into a prince. Reading The Brother's Grimm fable, it was not like that. The symbol of the frog was because the princess was going to marry this old guy because he was wealthy and she didn't want to. And they presented this old man as a frog because the psychological interpretation was that the frog represents old male genitalia.
I read that and went, "Ok, that is really fucked up." And then I remembered that I always hated frogs. Always. The other day I was in the woods with my kid and family and we discovered a frog. I started running away, I had to call my wife to go get my son! [laughs]
How do you communicate intoxication with the frogs?
When he eats the frog, he goes crazy. He gets into evil mode, he turns into this big ball of fire, he just runs after you to kill you. And you just have to run,escape, escape, escape. And then we have a rotten food—what it does is if you give this food to the monster, he will vomit and come back to normality.
Every time you see a frog in the game you say, "Fuck. I have to take the monster away from this frog." It's really stressful, especially when you're holding the frog in your hands and the monster is walking up bom, bom, bom. And you're like, "What do I do? What do I do?" So you will have to hide them, sometimes you will have to kill the frogs for the monster to lose interest in them.
So do you just have to hide from the monster when he's intoxicated?
Yes. Some of the situations you have to hide from the monster, in other ones you have to put yourself at risk of him attacking to get something. What all of these mechanics do is bring you back to your childhood, in a sense, when you're in these difficult situations. You're a kid, and you have to learn from dad—you have to hide. Sometimes when you're a kid you have to get out of it, sometimes you have to stare the monster in the eye, sometimes you need someone's help to escape. Sometimes you need to use his anger to your advantage.
You've spoken before about how you didn't like how games handled death for the player character, so you didn't want to make Quico die in this game. How do you maintain a sense of urgency then? What happens when the monster attacks you?
He bites you really hard, then he throws you away. It's funny because at the beginning we were wondering if this would work. But when you're playing it, you never want the monster to bite you. It's wonderful for me to see this, because it means that people are able to empathize with Quico.
I mean, you have to play it. The way we're looking at it is if you like Quico and you want to protect him, you don't want him to get hurt. If you go in after playing three hours of playing Call of Duty you may not like this game.
Do you feel like you're trying to have players empathize with Monster as well here, or try to communicate the experience of alcoholism as well?
You are going to empathize with the monster, you're going to like him. And then you're going to have to do stuff with the monster that you don't want to do. It's such a difficult situation—when your caretaker who's supposed to protect you hurts you instead—it's terrible, it's happened to many of us in our lives. And the only way to really overcome that is to empower yourself, to see the other person for what it is—to see them as a victim and not see yourself as the victim. When you're able to do that, you're able to free yourself because you have empathy for something that harmed you. And then you get cured [laughs]. You're gonna experience that in the game.
With all my friends—and myself I guess—I've always seen that problem in empathy when you're talking about addiction. They always say, "Oh, you just don't know what it's like." Whether it's something like cigarettes, or drugs, or alcohol. It's always hard to communicate just how strong that urge is to another person.
You have to play the game. We're digging really far into the emotional experience, but you have to see it for yourself. We deal with that part of addiction, how you cannot change someone with addiction, and be able to see someone based on their weakness. That's how you're gonna see the monster later on.
A comparison that jumped into my head when I first saw this was Calvin and Hobbes—a story where a child has a friend whose relationship to reality and imagination is blurred. How does the relationship between Quico and Monster relate to the rest of the world in the game?
Monster is absolutely a representation of my father in real life. What happened with the monster in my father, as much as I want to control his love for me or his appreciation for me, I couldn't. He was an autonomous guy; he was helping some times, protecting some times, hurting some times.