How ‘Papo & Yo’ Shined a Light on Alcoholism and Mental Health
Developer Vander Caballero on real-life inspiration, and using games to overcome personal trauma.
All Papo & Yo screenshots courtesy of Minority Media
The article contains story spoilers for Papo & Yo, and contains mention of abuse.
Everyone know what mental illness is, right? Depression, bipolar disorder, dementia, schizophrenia, anxiety disorders—these are all said to be the most common examples of mental conditions. Yet there are actually over 200 classified forms of mental illness today.
Alcoholism may not be immediately associated with issues of mental health, but despite being the cause of several physical indispositions, it is recognized as a mental illness within the reach of substance abuse disorder. Given the fact nine million people in England alone drink more than their recommended daily limits, and that 17.6 million people—that's one in every 12 adults—suffer from alcohol abuse or dependence in the United States, it's a pretty big deal in the wider scheme of mental health.
In 2012, Canadian studio Minority Media launched its debut video game, Papo & Yo—an autobiographical puzzle platformer based upon the childhood of the developer's founder Vander Caballero.
You play as Quico, an unassuming youth whose unlikely best friend is a huge beast with razor-sharp teeth. Named Monster, it's on you to help direct your mate through a surrealist world to safety—all the while learning and adjusting to Monster's bouts of hostility when he becomes starved of his otherwise steady supply of poisonous frogs. That behavior, we learn, reflects that of Cabellero's real-life abusive alcoholic father; and that the relationship between Quico and Monster stands as a metaphor for his childhood.
"If I didn't, I would die," Caballero says, laughing, when I question his decision to create such a personal game that explores very specific themes and emotions. "I started being creative when I was a kid, and I coped with the difficult things I was going through via my creativity."
"I learned to develop video games, I learned skills, and then I just couldn't do triple-A games anymore," he continues. "I wanted to make something meaningful for me and for everyone else. I wanted to get this story out to the world. I think that's what pushed me to do it, and I think there are many developers out there who have these things inside that they want to let out. I think they need to be brave enough, break the walls and come out from the big companies and try to make it happen."
Caballero explains that even when Papo & Yo was ready to ship, he had no idea what he had created. To him, this was a labor of love and a decidedly idiosyncratic game—one that, despite tackling sensitive material, was central to his own experiences and was simply a story that he wanted to tell.
"Games can really help people," he says, "and can help people to heal." Yet he didn't expect the inundation of emails, letters and social media responses that followed his game's release, which is something that persists today.
Papo & Yo clearly struck a chord with people who were living with or who had lived in similar circumstances, then, and it is perhaps the preeminent example of a game that explores issues of alcoholism and addiction. Video game developers are not therapists, but games do wield a very unique power to help people, or at the very least set them on the path to seeking help.
"If someone with alcoholism wants to stop being an alcoholic, they will stop. But it has to be their decision, and that is really important." — Vander Caballero
"The difference with movies and video games is that movies do not resemble therapy at all," says Caballero. "Movies are linear stories that have you, the viewer, projecting yourself into. Games actually happen in real time, like therapy. You're projecting memories, but at the same exploring them, you're actually trying to see how the impact on you and it's not a linear model. Therapy is exploration, as is gameplay. I think that video game simulations are the perfect tool where you can actually go back and relive those memories—even if they are painful to you and find a way to cope with them.
"I remember when we were doing focus tests, I had a nine-year-old playing Papo & Yo. He was playing the prototype and at first the Monster is friendly. It then becomes really aggressive and suddenly I noticed the kid was breathing heavily as he guided the protagonist away from the Monster. He eventually stood upon a rock, out of the Monster's way, and I watched him react to this, using his analytical brain, saying: Why is the Monster like that, how can I help him, how can I survive? All of these questions were happening in real time. And the game is there, it's running, it won't stop. Suddenly, whatever he needed to work out in his head, he did. He started interacting with the Monster to calm it down. This was like real-time therapy, in a way."
By contrasting its whimsical tendencies with terror, Papo & Yo illustrates the temperamentality that can accompany addiction with such finesse that even those with little understanding of its influences can appreciate Caballero's message. In turn, Papo & Yo marked a milestone in how video games can not only acknowledge addiction, but can also serve to educate in an oft-ignored area.
Yet while it's relatable, it's also very clearly told from Caballero's own perspective, even considering its fantastical world, characters and mechanics. He tells me that for a number of years he blamed his father for his alcoholism, but that this was mostly because he didn't understand it—both from a dependence point of view and from a circumstantial one. His father died when he was 16, he says. Therefore, he didn't have the chance to confront him, and was forced to do the understanding on his own.
"I started digging into the past, his relationships with the family, his childhood, his relationship with his own father," Caballero explains. "Once I understood the whole picture of his life, I understood him. That helped me to set him free. He had a really, really difficult life and I think that it'd be hypocritical of me to judge him. If I was in the same situation, I can't say that I wouldn't have done the same thing."
The ultimate scene in Papo & Yo is heartbreaking. After working alongside Monster, traversing its world and overcoming its multitude of puzzles, you eventually discover that Monster cannot be saved because, deep down, he does not want to be. By your hand, you send Monster tumbling from a cliff that, in turn, mirrors what Caballero wasn't able to do in reality.
"If I was not healed and hadn't gone to therapy, Papo & Yo would never have happened." — Vander Caballero
I ask him if the game's ending reflects a view that people with addiction cannot be saved.
"No, people can be saved from addiction," he says. "But it's their choice, it's not yours. And that is the hardest part. If someone with alcoholism wants to stop being an alcoholic, they will stop. But it has to be their decision, and that is really important.
"The same idea translates to creating such an interpersonal video game. Making video games is a group effort, as there's a lot of people. It's not like painting, where people paint to heal themselves—you can't do that with video games, and you cannot do that with movies. Before you start making a personal game, you have to be healed from the inside in order to bring people to follow you. If you don't do that, or can't manage that, then you will kill the team, and the team is not going to follow you.
"What I needed, personally, was ten years of therapy. I had a lot of therapy, I worked it out, then I tried to bring my ideas to the game. I had to first understand what I was doing and I also had a mentor—Nilo Rodis-Jamero, an art director from Star Wars—who was mentoring me through the process of figuring out how to translate the story into a game.
"It was really fun in the end, strangely. Myself and the team were all having a blast, and I enjoyed building the game. Even though the subject matter was serious, it was a beautiful and creative experience because I was explaining my life to the team and we were discovering not only my life but their lives too. It was beautiful, but that's because I was healed within—if I was not healed and hadn't gone to therapy, Papo & Yo would never have happened."
One of the most interesting stories Caballero recounts involves a father who, while watching his son playing Papo & Yo had something of an epiphany. Caballero has no sense that said father was an alcoholic, however he later contacted him to say the game made him realize how his son felt whenever he chose to shout at him.
He then second guessed his own behavior and sought to go easier on his son whenever they were in disagreement. This is a point worth underscoring: not only can a game like Papo & Yo touch victims, but it can also touch aggressors—again testament to the power of the video game medium.
Caballero returns to the nine-year-old boy who caught his eye while playtesting.
"It's a great example of both how video games work and the message Papo & Yo aims to send. The game doesn't stop—the game is waiting for you to endure within, and the hardest part when we are talking about alcoholism, in order to survive with someone who has alcoholism, is to let them go. When you follow their path, you go down with them. And the hardest part is to let go of someone you love. At the end of the game when you have to push Papo (the Monster) off of the cliff, that's when people break.
"A lot of people have since come and said to me: I know that is what I need to do with whatever person they are referring to, and identifying with Papo, but I couldn't until I did it with the game. It helped them on the first step to letting that person go. That moment was so powerful that it's beautiful. You can't do that with a movie."