By now, everyone who plays games and reads the internet knows the story of Papo & Yo. The game is a metaphor on the cost of alcoholism, telling the story of a young boy who grew up with an alcoholic father. But you might not realize that it also addresses the topic of poverty in South America. I spoke to the creator Vander Caballero, a happy, excitable, and an all-around nice guy, who based the game on his real-life experiences of playing in the slums of Bogota as a child.
What was it like growing up in Colombia?
I grew up in Bogota, the capital. A big city. I was living in a wealthy family. I was with my father. He was a wealthy man. We had maids. I came from a comfortable environment. It was really funny. My family taught me that if you are poor, you are going to suffer. But I was rich and I was suffering. I had a realization that it was more evil being wealthy than being poor. That was a lesson from my wealthy childhood.
Can you describe the distribution of wealth there?
It’s incredulous what is happening in South America. The really, really rich are right there with the really, really poor.
How important is Bogota to Papo & Yo?
It is of high importance. I love Assassin’s Creed because it lets you travel to another place. Games are good at that, better than any movie. They are good at creating environments that people can go to and explore. With Papo & Yo, I was thinking: Where can I take people, which is actually a meaningful place that no one has been before? And I thought of the favelas in Bogota. I grew up in a home that had straight white walls. Everything was really clean, really polished. When you go to the favelas, you don’t see white straight lines. You see materials flying all around. You think that the materials are trash, but they are actually materials to build homes. Favelas are in constant construction. If a house falls three blocks from you, people take that material and build another house somewhere else. I talked to an architect and he told me that favelas are the most efficient architectural form that exists. Nothing is wasted.
Why did you want to take people there?
I wanted them to hear Latin music. When people play the game and explore the favelas, they hear it. I grew up with Latin rhythm, but I also grew up with U2 and The Police. I remember hearing those sounds for the first time and thinking it was so different. I said, when it’s my time to bring something of meaning to culture, I want people to experience the way I grew up in Bogota, the same way I experienced U2.
What good qualities would you say Bogota has?
I think the strongest is that it strives for survival. We never surrender. Life is a struggle. We never say no––never give up. It’s crazy to me that I’ve actually made a game enjoyed by so many people.
When you think about your childhood, and then you play your game, do you feel like you got it right? Did you capture it?
When you start working on a game, you never know where it’s going to end up. You are discovering as you go. You never know if you did it right or not. But the thing that proves I did it right is all the fan mail. I got a letter from a guy who had a little kid, and he said that sometimes he would scream at him. He never realized how his kid felt until he played Papo & Yo. I was like Whooooa! That’s amazing. The game has multiple emotions. I got letters from people who were dealing with having to let go of someone they love. That’s part of life––being attached to someone and having to let go.
Do you ever miss Colombia?
Yes, of course I miss it. I go there maybe once a year. I call my mom every weekend. I left when I was 18. I’m 38 and am still calling her every weekend.
What games did you play as a child?
I really enjoyed Mario. What happened with Mario is that it brought us the notion of challenge. But it’s time to move past that. It limits what games can do. I want Papo & Yo to be challenging emotionally. I don’t want it to be challenging dexterity-wise or logic-wise, because emotion and rationality do not gel together. You cannot rationalize it, but you can feel it.
About the Author:
Jason Johnson is a freelance writer. His work has appeared in Kill Screen, Gamasutra, Unwinnable, GameSetWatch, FingerGaming, WSJ Speakeasy, and The Guide to Classic Graphic Adventures. He owns 27 Sun Ra albums.