On The Border’s guest this week is Vander Caballero, designer of the award-winning game Papo & Yo, and co-founder and Creative Director at Minority Media, Inc. Beginning as a designer at EA Montreal, Vander worked on games such as Army of Two and the FIFA franchise before realizing his dream of becoming an independent developer and creating a game that embodied an important personal experience of his past.
Co-founder and Creative Director of Minority Media, Inc., and lead designer of Papo & Yo, Vander Caballero.
The Border House: What was your time like working at EA on games like FIFA and Army of Two?
Vander Caballero: I learned a lot about making games with them. I really thank them for giving me the space to do that. But the problem is that the game industry is so new that the processes for creative authorship in video games has not yet been really set out. What happens is that it becomes a kind of consensus approach. It takes a lot of authorship and authenticity out of projects. And that is something that is sad about big productions.
Being small and indie, you can have a structure that is not that; what is important is the life of this story that the person wants to tell. For example, when we were working on Army of Two, we had to define a sequence with an animator for how a guy gets shot. We have multiple debates on how he would react, what the life system is going to be, and stuff like that. The discussion happened like, “I think it’s this, I think it’s that,” and you can have multiple debates on what’s right or not. Sometimes decisions are made more based on who has the most power. That happens a lot, and that’s sometimes not the best way.
The main characters of Papo & Yo, Quico and Monster.
But when it’s personal and about your personal life, no one can discuss it because, that’s what I lived. There’s a sequence [in Papo & Yo] where at the end of the game you have to let Papo go and you push him down into the cliff. And I remember seeing how the animator was animating Papo when you’re pushing him in his bed when he’s sleeping, and it didn’t feel right. When my father died, I was carrying his coffin with my brothers. When you carry a coffin, what is really weird is that when the person is dead, his feet still move. The person is dead inside of the coffin, and his feet hit the side of the coffin and it goes “clack, clack, clack”. And you’re walking, you hear the “clack, clack” and it’s just so hard, it’s kind of a stab in your heart every time. I told that story to the animator, and he said, “I get it. I’m going to do it.” And he did a really beautiful animation when you actually feel that you’re carrying this person who is going to die, and it’s beautiful. You put all of your heart into it, and it’s not about saying, “Oh I think the guy can react like this.” There’s a big difference.
TBH: When did you know that you wanted to transition from working at a big company like EA to starting your own independent games studio, Minority?
VC: When I saw Braid, and I saw that I can download and make crazy games and challenge the notion of what games are, in a small package. I said, “That’s what I’m going to do. I have to get out.” I’ve always wanted to be independent, I’ve always wanted to tell my story and create my own game like many people. In the past in order to make a game you needed $50 million. And now you don’t need that. You can do a game for $5,000. It’s crazy. Today, to make a game and make it available for consumption, you just need to put it on the iOS.
TBH: How would you describe the vision and direction of Minority?
VC: I think that Minority’s vision is to create game experiences that challenge people emotionally, at the same time give them closure, to help them lead better lives.
TBH: Papo & Yo, the flagship title of Minority, was heavily based upon your own childhood experiences. Can you speak to the process that was synthesizing these difficult memories from your past into an interactive, emotionally-arresting piece?
VC: I think that video games are the most powerful tool we have in the world today. Before, seeing a movie was a passive experience: you sit down, and you see what is happening to other people, and you project yourself onto what is happening to other people. But with video games, you’re not projecting. You’re there. You’re that person, and you’re living it. For example, the main mechanic [in Papo]: Monster is being your friend and being playful, and the second he eats a frog, he goes crazy and starts attacking you. And then you need to find a cure. So in the game you’re Quico, this kid, and you’re playing with Monster, and suddenly you see a frog. You freak out! And you want to run and catch that frog and splat it against the wall, or you just hide. And that was exactly how I felt as a kid. Seeing other people play and see how much they get touched by the experience, it is so beautiful and so powerful, because what happens is that you get to live this really difficult experience in a safe environment. And that’s what books do, and what movies do. But video games do it at a deeper level. And I think that it’s really beautiful when you can actually make it happen.
Most people are unhappy when they finish a game. They’re never happy with the ending. Because so far, it’s not been about teaching you how to cope. It’s just helping you to escape. They don’t give you a moral, they don’t give you a transformative experience like movies or books do. Right now, I think that games have to do that and we have to do it more often: give you a transformative experience. You start a game, and you end up as a different person. But sometimes you play a game and you play it for hours and you end up being the same person at the end, so it’s kind of a shocker, expending 30 hours of my life playing this game and getting nothing.
TBH: What are your and Minority’s plans for the future with regard to game development?
VC: We’re doing games that are about transformative, emotional journeys. That’s what I’ve done, and that’s what I want to keep doing. And at the same time, we’re doing some experiments here and there; one of them might become a game one day.
TBH: How would you say your design aesthetic, how you make games, meshes with the industry’s aesthetic as a whole?
Quico in the visually-arresting, favela-inspired world of Papo & Yo.
VC: Gabriel García Márquez is the Latin-American writer who brought fantastic realism as a unique touch. He used techniques to create a world based on reality, then injected magic in to this reality to help people cope with difficult situations.. I liked that, because many video games are about sci-fi or science fiction and these fantastic worlds, but I think that what I don’t like about them is that they have no links to reality. And that’s what I like, and that’s what I bring to video games. I bring the fantasy and reality together.
TBH: Is there anything you’re looking forward to making in the future? A dream project, perhaps?
VC: I want to do an Oculus Rift emotional experience. I don’t know what it is yet. I’ve worked with virtual reality, so I know the tech, and it’s incredible to see how accessible it is to people now. Around 17 or 18 years ago, these devices were really expensive and it was really hard to make something for them. Today, you have Oculus Rift and you have this website where you can download everyone’s demos. Virtual reality accessible for everyone. And once these devices improve and go into the mainstream, it will be a trip to make a game for those.