Papo & Yo behind-the-scenes: Making a game that matters

In the latest Game Developer magazine postmortem, Papo & Yo's devs talk about how creator Vander Caballero's deeply personal story guided the team's direction -- and caused problems with scope.
Minority Media's Papo & Yo successfully attracted the attention of players and developers last year; after all, it's not every day you play a game designed around a person's experiences with their abusive alcoholic father. In the postmortem for the January 2013 issue of Game Developer magazine (sister publication to Gamasutra), Minority Media devs Deborah Chantson and Julien Barnoin explain how Papo & Yo creator Vander Caballero's deeply personal story guided the team's direction -- and made it harder to define the game's scope. Here are some choice extracts from the game's postmortem:

What went right: Choosing a story that mattered

Papo & Yo is an emotional adventure filled with puzzles. You play as Quico, a young boy hiding in his closet from thunderous footsteps outside. Through his imagination, Quico escapes to a magical world of colourful favelas, with houses that can sprout legs and fly, and a robot friend who can act as a jetpack. Quico is soon introduced to Monster, who is both friend and foe. Monster can be helpful and kind -- Quico can use his belly as a trampoline -- but when Monster eats a frog, he turns into an uncontrollable fiery demon. It's an autobiographical metaphor of Vander's childhood with his alcoholic abusive father in Colombia. In many ways, being able to tell that one true personal story was a unifying factor throughout the whole development process. Firstly, it's much easier to stay on course creatively if there's one vision, and in the end, it shaped the experience as if we were working on a film with a director, including the emotional highs and lows. Deferring to Vander helped gel the team, design, and filter creative ideas effectively, because he could say, "That's not what it was like in real life. My life." For instance, the design of Monster was changed late into the project because Vander found the old one too nice and likable. It did not evoke the same emotions he had when seeing his father, who he describes as "distant and scary but at the same time protective." Some fans were upset at the change when we first showed it, but ultimately Vander is the one who knows what it should feel like. A week after release, a fan tweeted, "It would be so sad, being afraid to hang out with your dad." When Vander read this, he went really quiet and eventually said, "It is." People understood. Secondly, the team's personal buy-in was a big motivator. Vander was fighting to change the industry with more emotional stories by offering up his own story to start. Being a part of that meant being able to make a difference in creating something that was touching and entirely unique with an artistic depth, but since the game is autobiographical in nature, we encountered some unexpected challenges, like planning and implementing the right emotional curves for how we wanted players to feel, striving to evoke empathy through interaction. None of us had ever worked on a project this profound, and it was important for us to convey the story that Vander wanted to tell. We found that Papo & Yo made a difference in people's lives, but we never imagined the quantity and kind of meaningful fan mail that we would receive, like children of alcoholics finding healing or gaining the confidence to talk about what happened to them. Or the single dad who wrote us a Facebook message to say that he doesn't want to appear like Monster when he loses his temper and yells at his five-year-old son, so he'll handle tough situations differently.

What went wrong: Scope

Papo & Yo was definitely an ambitious and challenging project for such a small team to make, especially as we set our own expectations quite high, coming from big studios. And while the budget for Papo & Yo was approximately a mere 3% of most triple-A titles, we were still aiming high, not only for the end product, but also for ourselves. The reality was that budget constraints couldn't afford us the freedoms that we were used to, like other people from alternate studio locations jumping on to help finish the game. We initially planned for much more variety in settings, going from the favela to a tree village, an electric plant, and ancient ruins inside a mountain. As we progressed, we realized that this was more work than we could handle, and we had to consolidate the settings by focusing on the favela a lot more, differentiating scenes through lighting, weather and changes in texture and color, without completely changing the background. Even though the game has a wide variety of mechanics as it stands (new mechanics are introduced throughout the game in nearly every puzzle), we had plans for several more that we had to remove, like climbing on Monster's back to control his movement, or making Quico's robot Lula interact with electricity and water. Keeping to the game's story was both a blessing and a curse. While it helped to tailor the creative direction, it also had a huge impact on iteration, level design, and quantity of assets because certain things just couldn't be cut. We did reduce the scope of the game compared to original plans, but we had a story to tell that we did not want to compromise, even if that meant having less time to polish certain areas.

More in the January Issue

The January 2013 issue of Game Developer magazine is now available via subscription and digital purchase. This issue also features the 2012 Front Line Awards for game dev tools, an interview with PaRappa the Rapper creator Masaya Matsuura, and more. You can subscribe to the print or digital edition at GDMag's subscription page, download the Game Developer iOS app to subscribe or buy individual issues from your iOS device, or purchase individual digital issues from our store. (The January issue digital version is temporarily available through the store and app as a free preview.)

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