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Video games are meant to be an escape. Become the hero or blow up your enemies. Games don't often tackle real-world issues because that hasn't been their purpose, and because it's difficult for them to do so.
That is beginning to change in 2012. Games that force the player to witness difficult events (Spec Ops: The Line) or make tough choices (The Walking Dead series by Telltale Games) are being accessed by thousands. But neither of these tackle issues that any of us could face at home: the demons of alcoholism in a family.
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That's the mission of Papo & Yo, a PlayStation Network indie title released Tuesday. It's the brainchild of Vander Caballero, a former EA design director who left to start Minority Media in 2010.
"I worked at Electronic Arts and then I realized I couldn't work at Triple-A [studios] anymore. If you were at E3, you saw it was all about shooters and killing people. I said I wanted to do a game that actually means stuff to people," Caballero says. "I realized I was drawn to movies more than actual games. It was because of the content of games: it was always violence, big guns, and being as powerful as possible."
You can sense Caballero's distain for mainstream gaming in everything Papo & Yo isn't. The game is simple and sweet. There isn't a single gun to be found as you scale the favelas of a deserted city. Your character, Quico, is a 10-year-old boy who escapes to an imaginary world to avoid some nasty stuff. His companions are Lula, a flying robot toy that helps Quico solve puzzles and jump large gaps, and Monster.
A Monstrous Metaphor
Monster is a hulking, pink beast that passes for the distant cousin of a rhinoceros. He is driven by simple emotions and needs that float over his head. He sleeps and hunts for coconuts, which can be used to lure him to spots for puzzle-solving. Caballero says he looked to create a character that players would bond with. His biggest inspiration was ICO, a PlayStation 2 title where the player guided a blind princess through the whole game.
You quickly learn that Monster has a nasty side, despite his cuddly exterior. He is addicted to frogs, and eating them sends him into a terrifying rage, causing him to chase and attack Quico mercilessly until he can be changed back.
"10 years after ICO, people still talk about it. No other games have come close to the emotional relationship with a character," Caballero explains. "I wanted to do something like that, but with something that was meaningful to me: the relationship with my father. How I survived. I took the good parts and learned from that, and I put that in the game.
"I wanted people to deal with that: a character that is good to you and evil at the same time. I wanted people to deal with that conflict."
This concept sounds like it might come off heavy-handed, but it doesn't. There are some allusions to who Monster is and represents, but you can play and enjoy the game with as much or as little of the knowledge the backstory as you want. The game is still great at pulling you into the world and allowing you to invest in the characters -- a testament to the quality of the metaphor Caballero was able to weave.
"Someone I met while I was at EA was Nico Rodis, who worked at Pixar on the first Toy Story movie. He told me that metaphor was so important to a good story, to allow it to be accessible. I spent the years thinking of the right one for this game. This monster has the same elements that I see when I think about my father now," he says
Successes and Failures
The game brings you into a world that is unique to many games. The favela is magical place to explore. It can be manipulated by gears or switches Quico finds on the walls that look like they were sketched in chalk. In some instances, picking up a box causes a whole building to move, and you can drop the box anywhere to change the building's permanent location. Find a house with a crank, and it will sprout legs or wings and motor to a new location.
There are small touches that create wonder, too. The hint boxes are cardboard boxes Quico pulls over his head. The insides are covered with children's drawings that provide a tutorial.
But for every spot the inventive world shines, there are places that still need polish. While the game is independent, there are a lot of graphical shortcomings that make it seem rushed. Characters sometimes lose appendages to the environment in polygon clipping problems reminiscent of the Nintendo 64. Sometimes I had to restart because of weird glitches, including falling through the environments.
These issues aren't deal breakers, but they can take you out of the immersion. Thankfully, other gameplay elements like the controls and camera keep moving solidly throughout, and Minority is releasing a patch on some of the showstopping bugs Tuesday.
The game is worth sticking with to the end, which is powerful. (That's all I'll say without spoiling it.) Here's how Caballero described it:
"It is so emotional that people will react differently. Some people will cry. Some people will be contemplative. Some people who aren't in touch with their emotions will say, 'Ah, fuck it, I don't like it.' It's a drama game, and we don't have many drama games. Some people will see it from the outside, and say, 'Oh, it looks so happy and joyful,' but it's a drama game."
Papo & Yo is out now for the PlayStation Network for $14.99.
This story originally published on Mashable here.