Minority Media's Vander Caballero opens up about making a game based on his childhood, or as he calls it, the one game he wants to make before he dies.
Prior to 2011, Vander Caballero was best known as the guy who gave Army of Two its high five. And its congratulatory ass slap, before the team cut it. He's the one who suggested soldiers should use tampons to heal partner wounds. And the one who left Electronic Arts in part because he didn't like the morality behind shooters.
Then, just before last year's Electronic Entertainment Expo, Caballero revealed his new company, Minority Media, and announced their first game: Papo & Yo. The story of his life, as told through metaphors.
Caballero's father appears as a monster - who's addicted to alcohol, represented by frogs. His mother, a protective robot friend that he wears as a backpack. His first love, a literal representation, but one who also shares elements of his real-life brother. Caballero himself is main character Quico, presented as his father's friend's son he knew growing up: the "funny," "handsome" and "energetic" kid he always wished he could be.
"What is the one thing I'm gonna do before I die," he says. "What is the one game I'm gonna make before I die?"
And now I can't imagine people will know him for anything but.
I first meet with Caballero the day before this year's Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. He has the excitement of a child with a light lisp and a thick accent. He's playing with an inch-tall toy doll that his son snuck under his luggage tag as a present before he left Montreal, where Minority is based.
About 30 hours later, I see him at a bar promoting Papo & Yo. For a game based on the relationship between a child and a real-life alcoholic, it seems like an unusual setup. But it soon becomes apparent there's a lot more to the story behind the game than alcohol, and Caballero turns out to be one of the most open interview subjects you'll find, willing to discuss being in therapy, his family life, and his critics - all of which appear in the game.
A game documentary
Rewind three years, and Papo & Yo's roots are easy to spot. After leaving his job at Electronic Arts Montreal, Caballero took his wife and son to Argentina, where he lasted three months on a working vacation. He spent his days in a backyard, tinkering on a game prototype with various ways for a child to interact with a monster.
"It felt like I was writing a book," he says of the unusual man-alone-in-the-wild approach. "I just had to go back and remember 'where do you put a key,' 'how do you do a skeleton,' 'how do you do an assignment?' ... I had to rig it. I had to animate it. It was a really fun activity."
Caballero tested mechanics like the ability for the boy to climb and tickle the monster, who at times would be his best friend and at times his worst enemy. He experimented with the monster fearing Lula — the robot friend based on Caballero's mother — an idea that he loved thematically but didn't work as well in practice. The point of all this was to create a foundation for Papo & Yo, so when the time came to return to Montreal and attempt to turn it into a proper game, he'd know where to start. He ended up with a character-based action-adventure/puzzle hybrid built around the idea of keeping frogs away from the monster, all the while trying to cure that monster of his frog addiction.
"WE'RE NOT GOING TO DO SHOOTERS; WE'RE NOT GOING TO DO DRIVING GAMES."
Tack on another few months after his time in Argentina, and Caballero was ready to make a go of things, building a team, finding funding, and setting up a company. Despite his 12-year history working for Electronic Arts, he avoided hiring lots of game industry veterans, because he found many of them had a "Steve Jobs wannabe complex" and weren't focused on the "cultural value of the product they're creating." Caballero wants Minority to make "meaningful games." "We're not going to do shooters; we're not going to do driving games," he says. "We don't call it 'majority' for a reason."
In that spirit, he formed a partnership with Rezolution Pictures, a Montreal-based video production company known for documentaries like Mommy Mommy, which follows a lesbian couple adopting a child, and Reel Injun, which looks at how Hollywood has portrayed Indians over the years.
Above: Caballero at GDC. Below: Caballero as a child, and as in-game character Quico.
Financing is a challenge for many independent games, and Papo & Yo is no exception. Minority received initial funding from the Canada Media Fund, and they are using that plus a deal with Sony's Pub Fund - a safety net deal that guarantees a certain amount of money for developers after they finish their games, in exchange for exclusivity toPlayStation platforms (in this case, a download on PS3) - to hedge their bets.
But Caballero says budget is one of the biggest challenges for the scale of game they are attempting. He tells a story about an inter-office debate over whether to include chickens in the game as something for players to pick up and mess around with (as seen in the art at the top of this page from an early concept trailer), but says he was happy in the end to include more frogs in their place since the team already had the assets ready.
"We really wanted chickens, and then we looked at the budget and said, 'Oh fuck - we cannot afford chickens.' And I said, 'But we have frogs. Why don't we just put frogs around instead?' And we realized, 'Why did we want chickens? We have frogs already!' And a lot of video game companies would have just thrown that money around."
When I ask what it would cost to add chickens, he thinks for a few seconds then estimates, "Probably $15,000."
With about 20 people in the studio, Caballero says he would like the team to stick with one game at a time if they can afford it. "If we have the luxury of getting the financing to do one game at a time, we'll do it," he says, "but it's a luxury, so I think we have to think about doing two at a time in order to maintain the cash flow."
There's one question Caballero won't answer. Well, technically a handful, if you count story spoilers or Minority's unannounced projects. But on-topic, he's hesitant to say his father's name. "I don't want to give that," he says with a nervous laugh.
When it comes to most other questions about his past, though, he shares without much prying - going so far as to invite these kinds of questions. I ask about his choice of frogs as the game's metaphor for alcohol, and he tells a story of how he explored the woods one day with his son, saw a frog, jumped and ran away scared, embarrassing himself in front of his child.
I ask about keeping secrets, and he tells a story about how he was taking the train one morning, looked up and got startled by a poster of a little girl with an adult finger to her lips saying "Shhh," noting that it reminded him of his past and issues with having to keep quiet about his father to the rest of the world.
At a certain point, it almost starts to feel like I'm playing the role of an armchair therapist myself, so I figure it's appropriate to present this part of conversation as it happened, with edits for context and to add-in follow-ups from a second interview.
Do you think this game will mean more to people who know you than to people who don't?
"Nah, no way. Of course, it's going to have a big impact on my family. For example, it's really fun because sometimes I can bring my kid to work and he's looking at theMonster mechanics, and I can play with him and the game and say, 'Hey, that's your grandfather.' [Laughs] It's really funny to be able to say that to your son, but I think the most important part of telling a story is that we learn through stories ... And the moment I had my kid and said, 'Look, that is your father,' I felt pride. It doesn't matter how difficult the story is. What is important is that it doesn't get lost and people learn from it. Of course, at this age he's not gonna get it, but when he gets older he's going to start understanding it. And I think it's gonna be invaluable for him when he gets older. I don't know. I imagine him being 15 years old, and saying, 'Oh yeah, my father did this game called Papo & Yo.' It will be really fun."
Does your dad approve of what you're doing?
Oh, I'm sorry.
"Don't worry. I'm happy in a way."
I see. Was it a really bad relationship growing up?
"Yes. I think that the problem when you grow up with someone who has an addiction is you always want to save them. You think you can save them, and you always want to save them, but you just can't. And sometimes, knowing that my father died taught me to realize that I couldn't have saved him."
Do you think he would be disappointed that you're making this game?
"Of course he would! No one wants someone to say to their face, 'You're an addict. You're hurting me.' No father wants to hear that. I think the worst thing for a father to hear is for his son to tell him, 'You're a bad dad.'"
"THE CHARACTER'S GONNA BE WEAK, AND THROUGHOUT THE GAME ..."
In some ways, do you view creating this game as a form of therapy?
"I think you'd have to go to therapy before you could make this game."
Are you in therapy?
"Yes, I've been in therapy for a long time. Yes."
What does your therapist think of the game?
"I haven't asked him, but I'm sure he's gonna buy it. [Laughs] I talk a lot about the game in therapy."
Obviously that's a sensitive topic, but it strikes me as very interesting. If you're willing to mention it at all, can you say what kind of stuff you talk about there?
"There's like an analytic term - psychoanalytic therapy, like Woody Allen. You describe yourself, and then you talk and then you talk and then you talk. And then I use a lot of psychoanalytic concepts in the game that people will experience..." [For more on this topic, see sidebar lower right.]
Above: Caballero at GDC. Below: Concept art for Monster (based on Caballero's father) and Lula (based on his mother).
Do you kind of, I guess, see therapy as a way to work out the game design? It's somewhere to bounce ideas off of?
"[Laughs] That's funny, but ... I bounce emotional ideas ... Now every time I [design] a puzzle, I start the puzzle with an emotion. So in that moment in time, what do I want people to feel? And then I start to compose that emotion, by giving them a little piece of it. Then I figure, 'OK, how can I do this through mechanics? How can I do this through the level? How can I do this through that?' So every level is based around an emotion. Then what happens is you have a mind map of emotions, and the relationship between the emotions. For example, I have a map in this game about protection, and it is how the monster protects you sometimes. And then I started doing the level, and I was thinking, 'OK how can he protect you?' And it goes like that."
"... HE'S GOING TO GET WEAKER AND WEAKER AND WEAKER."
Can you think of any specific example that you pulled from talking to a therapist that is in the game?
"[Laughs] All of it! Yeah, all of the game has been [discussed] in therapy, everything. The reason I'm able to get these things in the game is because I opened them in therapy. If I couldn't - if I was not able to do it in therapy - it wouldn't be in the game. And that's what happens with people. A lot of people, when they make these things, they hide emotions, but they still put it in the game. But for me, the way I do it differently is I discover the emotion and understand it, then I put it in the game."
Is your therapist going to be a character in the game?
"[Long pause] It's embarrassing, but ... yes. Yeah. I will just say yes. He is in the game."
I assume the idea is for the main character to feel kind of weak. Not as far as how he can pull giant blocks around, but as far as he can't grab onto ledges or attack.
"Yeah, I can't say too much about the game, but you nailed it in that notion that the character's gonna be weak, and throughout the game he's going to get weaker and weaker and weaker in some areas. I think that in games today, we're doing these kinds of mechanics where you're fighting to get a bigger shield every time, and if you use that metaphor in real life it doesn't work. Like, I'm sure your success has been in opening yourself to the world, but in games we do the opposite - the bigger the shield, the more powerful you are, the more separate you are from the other people, the better it is. I want to do the opposite."
So do you feel you've gotten weaker as you've gotten older? Is that the metaphor here?
"No, I think realizing your weaknesses makes you stronger. I think when we're young, we're really pretentious and think we can take the world down by ourselves, and it's not true. I think as I've gotten older, I've realized I need more and more people to move forward, and that's connected me with people."
Do you think that is one of your goals with the game, to kind of open up the world a little bit in that way?
"Yes, and I think in every cultural product it is. So, we're not creating games - we're creating cultural products. Games are not only games. They're cultural products, and they have to serve something to society ... Nilo [Rodis, co-writer of Papo & Yo] said once to me. He said we're in the business of creating traffic stoppers. OK, what is a traffic stopper? When you wake up in the morning or go to bed at night, you get slammed by 5,000 publicity messages. Maybe one of them is gonna touch you, and that's a traffic stopper."
If somebody knows you, are they going to know how the game ends?
"[Pause] Wow. That's a really heavy question. [Laughs] Yes, but I don't know. When you talk so much about a personal story, it goes further than facts. It's more the emotional journey that you go through, and sometimes people who know you don't know that. But if you have a couple of drinks with me, you'll get my emotional side."
CABALLERO ON PSYCHOANALYSIS
"In psychoanalytic therapy, what happens is that you actually have to get inside your past and you have to experience [it again] - you have to go back to your past and feel it, and actually get to the emotion again. And what happens is, in order to survive, we create all these things on top not to let us go to that difficult moment. We avoid difficult moments. We forget difficult moments. But we don't forget what it means. Like you can remember the color of your favorite toy car, but you may forget a really bad experience with your brother, or with your neighbor or someone. How can you remember the color of your car, and not that experience that's more meaningful than the color of your car? And what happens is that the brain - the unconscious - puts all these layers on top of it for you not to feel bad, for you to survive and be functional."
"So what happens when you go in psychoanalysis is it's like an onion; you start taking out these layers. And through those layers, you discover the actual emotions. You start to discover the actual pains that you block ... Now when I go back I see it as an adult, I don't see it as the kid I was. And that's it; it's going back to all of your emotions and taking care of yourself. That's the beauty of it. And I use a lot of those concepts in the game. Everything has meaning to it. And then when you look at the game, every part of the game is a peel of the onion; then at the end you're gonna open it all. And then you're gonna get confronted with the reality of what's left - what I was living."
The day after my first interview with Caballero at GDC, Sony puts on a press event highlighting three of their Pub Fund games, including Papo & Yo.
Their "Pub Crawl" seems smart on the surface. Get a bunch of media together, shuffle them between bars with developers waiting to shuck their products, and reinforce the play on words so people can't forget the name. Taking the concept further, one of those stops features themed drinks including a "Papa & Yo." Par for the course for a company trying to promote their games, minus the typo.
But most games don't center around a real-life alcoholic. From my perspective, it feels like somebody messed up. Like it was in poor taste having a Papo & Yo demo set up 10 feet away from a bar serving its themed drink. Was it possible those organizing the event didn't realize the connection?
Caballero, naturally, puts a positive spin on it. "I find it really cool," he says. "I find it kind of a twisted metaphor."
I ask Caballero if he drinks -- he does, and thinks the Papa & Yo is "OK" -- and if Papo & Yo has an anti-alcohol theme. He says it's important to separate alcohol and addiction.
"I want Papo to be a game that makes people realize ... it's not alcohol," he says. "I think there [are] many addictions that are more terrible than alcohol today. Workaholism is even worse than alcohol. Workaholism can kill families faster than alcohol actually does ... I think it's a game about bringing awareness about addictions and the effects it could have on kids."
"To actually confront alcoholism," he continues, "staying away from the alcohol is not gonna fix anything. An alcoholic is cured not when you have to hide the alcohol from him. An alcoholic is cured when he sees the alcohol and he doesn't need it anymore."
To be clear, Caballero is far from the first game designer to put elements of his personal life into his work. What makes him stand out is the quantity of those elements, that they're going into a relatively ambitious project, and perhaps most notably, how open he is speaking about them publicly before the game is complete.
In his post announcing the game last year on the PlayStation Blog, he mentioned how his father was "a good man but also an evil one. Like many, he used alcohol and drugs to cope with a challenging life, and I was caught in the middle of it." And in the game's recent GDC trailer, the line "inspired by a childhood" appears. In games like Braid andBastion, the personal themes sit in the background and are open to interpretation, with the developers declining to state their intentions publicly. In Papo & Yo, many of the key themes sit in the marketing.
Minority's intentions are clear - this isn't a case where the developer is trying to trick people into playing a game and sneaking a message in the back door. But some online have criticized them for being so on the nose with it.
"Does he have to mention [his father] every time he talks about the game," asked user shadyspace on the NeoGAF message board. "I'm looking forward to it for this exact reason but talk about belaboring the point. Let the work speak for itself, man."
THE SILENT ENEMY:
While most of Minority is working on Papo & Yo, the team is also developing concepts in the background so they'll have a head start when it comes time to roll onto what's next. One of those is an idea called The Silent Enemy, based on the life of Rezolution executive producer and chief spiritual officer Ernest Webb - and specifically his grandfather and the Aboriginal people of James Bay in Canada.
"What I can tell you about that one is that is the first authentic Aboriginal game ever created," says Caballero. "We're actually working really hard and trying to find the financing to do a game like that. I mean, it's not easy, because ... it's a look into a culture that is really interesting and is really about survival and understanding how they live and how they survive.
"And I want to do this game about hunger and survival, and it's really hard to find money for it, because everyone wants to do what Assassin's Creed is doing - there's an Indian guy climbing trees with a bow ... Indians don't climb trees. Indians don't use bows from trees.
"One thing that's really crazy is we have this notion that we use arrows with a pointy head to hunt rabbits or small animals, and what happens is that, it's not good to hunt rabbits with a pointy head, because the arrow may go through them and they may escape. What you do is you use a really heavy spear in the front, so when it hits the animal, it breaks its bones and it doesn't go through it. So we want to bring this authentic game to life, but that's another story."
When I ask Caballero for his reaction, at first he seems defensive: "I say ... play the game, and look at the quality and the love and the dedication we have to put [into it] to make a great game, and then I want you to write that comment again."
But after pausing for a moment, he peels back the layers and gives a more reasoned response. "I understand where they're coming from," he says. "I understand that from the point of view that it may be opportunistic. But if you're doing it in the movies - [say] I want to do a movie about my alcoholic father. People would say, 'I've seen that 100 times.' But if you do that in games, people go, 'Oh, oh, it's something else.' What I want is people, when they come to it like that, to [know] when I started the game, and I sold it to Sony, I didn't talk about alcohol. I didn't talk about my father."
Caballero says he changed his mind around the time he was showing Sony his initial prototype. On a trip to their Foster City headquarters, he met with a group of indie developers at Spore designer Chaim Gingold's house in Berkeley and showed them what he had. He says the feedback from Chris Hecker, Jonathan Blow, Rod Humble and others was universal: "You have to talk about where the game comes from. It's important."
All of which plays into one of Papo & Yo's primary themes - that keeping secrets can be unhealthy - so I can't help but feel like he's willing to put himself out there to help drive that message home, no matter how uncomfortable it may be.
"There are many many alcoholic people that live in families, and no one wants to admit it," he says. "No one wants to talk about it publicly. And what happens is that really haunts you, and that really haunts a lot of people ...""Now, doing this - at the beginning, I was reluctant to talk about the addiction in the family. It was kind of a taboo. It was kind of a secret. But right now, the more I do it, the more I get encouraged to do it and the more free I feel. And it feels really good. Also, by doing it, I have people come up to me and say, 'Oh, yeah my father was [addicted] to sleeping pills; he was [addicted] to alcohol. He was [addicted] to this; he was [addicted] to that.' And then people start sharing their stories because you give them the courage to do it, and I think that's beautiful."