After Taking On Abuse, Papo & Yo Dev Sets Sights on Bullying
Game Front 1-on-1 is a continuing series featuring interviews with and personality profiles on a variety of people in the vast and diverse community of gaming, including creative fans, passionate players, amateur developers and everyone in between.
Most gamers know that the business of video games doesn’t really cater to especially deep thought. In many ways it’s a whole industry of Michael Bays: just flash, action, and blockbuster payoff at the expense of anything meaningful.
Many of us just complain about that, but some developers actually set about doing something about it. Among them is Vander Caballero, a former AAA developer and founder of Minority Media, a studio focused on using games as a storytelling medium rather than an engine for pure entertainment.
Minority Media made a name for itself last year when it released Papo & Yo, a game that addresses issues of childhood abuse. Now the studio is attempting to tackle childhood bullying with a new game called Silent Enemy that its developers hope will provide players with a way to understanding why it happens and how to cope with it. That’s a heavy topic to take on in a video game, but drawing on his lifelong experience as a gamer and later, as a developer, Caballero seems bent on proving it’s possible.
“When I was a kid, I felt betrayed by video games, as much as I liked them and played Mario and Zelda (my favorites when I was a kid),” Caballero said in an interview with Game Front. “What happened was, they helped me escape real life, but when I dropped the controller after I finished playing, I was back to reality. I was angry to live in the virtual world and that happened to many people—like when you finish a game you’re angry to live in the virtual world because you have to get back to your real life and it’s really difficult.”
That feeling stuck with Caballero even after he entered the industry and helped develop some of Electronic Arts’ most important franchises, including Army of Two, and the new intellectual property for Need for Speed. Games may be an art form, but developers are often less interested in telling a story, he said.
“I just got fed up because what was happening was that we were doing games that were really not moving the game industry forward. They were games that were really shallow,” Caballero said. ”I would find myself getting older and watching more movies every day and playing less games. I said ‘What’s going on here? I like games! I love virtual reality, I love this craft, I love this stuff, why am I watching more movies?’ and then I got fed up and said ‘How many shooters can you play?’ It’s cool when you’re 15, when you’re 20, but when you’re 30 you’re like, come on! What can you do?”
His dissatisfaction with the industry lead Caballero to found Minority Media, a studio which would focus on using games as a storytelling medium that could tackle important, emotional issues.
A good videogame had to be about transformation and I think Papo & Yo achieved that in a way. Many people don’t get it but it’s just not their cup of tea. Now how you achieve that transformation is the goal we want.
The Studio’s first outing, an action-adventure game called Papo & Yo addressed child abuse through gameplay mechanics. Released to strong critical acclaim, it connected emotionally with many gamers, sparking much discussion of the topic of abuse and about the potential of video games as a storytelling medium. A major developer might follow that success with a sequel, but Minority instead turned its attention to Silent Enemy.
Much of what he and the rest of the team set out to do is to provide the player with a feeling of being transformed through the game experience.
“OK, let’s say you are working on a big triple-A title and you come up with a new feature — what can you do? It’s pretty hard to come up with something new or something compelling, but when we did Papo we opened this branch,” Caballero said. “There’s a lot of topics that have not been tackled by video games. For example, like bullying — we jumped to tackle that with Silent Enemy. What happened in Papo & Yo is that it understands that a good movie is about transformation. A good book is about transformation — you read it, at the end you come out transformed. A good video game had to be about transformation and I think Papo & Yo achieved that in a way. Many people don’t get it but it’s just not their cup of tea. Now, how you achieve that transformation is the goal we want.
“When we’re doing Silent Enemy, we want the player to defeat their bullies. But you don’t defeat your bullies by going to the gym or becoming a hero by fighting them head-to-head. In fact, character development in games is so broken because we start really weak and at the end of the game, we end up with bazookas, sniper rifles, machine guns, shields, everything imaginable. That’s the way we’ve been taught in the last 10 to 25 years in the gaming industry, is by having these power fantasies. That does not apply to real life. You cannot solve problems in real life with a bazooka. So in our game, you have to defeat your bullies but not by fighting with them. It’s a really hard challenge but it’s really, really exciting, because not only do we get to break the standard rules that were stated before, but you actually have to defeat them without fighting.”