One designer turns a childhood hardship into an intriguing game.

While I believe games have the capability to deliver meaningful messages that transcend the medium, most message games make the mistake of putting the artistic statement of the creator well ahead of the enjoyment or engagement of the player. I realize most of this is in the eye of the beholder, but I usually just don’t get it.

I was nervous, then, about seeing Minority Inc.’s Papo & Yo. On the surface, a game about a little South American boy who has a pet purple monster addicted to eating poisonous frogs seems charming enough. But when I heard that the whole thing was a metaphor for the designer’s experiences as a child living with an alcoholic father, I was sure were in trouble. I feared the game would either trivialize the subject or, even worse, wallow indulgently in the pathos.

The good news is that Papo & Yo does neither. Creative director Vander Caballero, on whose life the game is based, worked at Electronic Arts for eight years before he eventually realized that he couldn’t stand to make another shooter or driving game. “We all want to tell our story,” he told me, which makes creating a game about his complex relationship with his father sound as natural as it could be.

As a boy, Caballero escaped into the world of Mario, finding comfort in the control and unambiguous 1950s morality of the world. He hopes Papo & Yo can provide that same sense of power to another kid in a basement today. The metaphor that ties the game together is broad enough to not only encompass other forms of addiction but also our own internal struggles. So whether a kid has a parent who works too much or is merely wrestling with unhappiness over their own destructive habits, the game is broad enough to speak to them. At the most basic level, this is a story about a kid who grows up, which is about as universal a theme as you could want.

When I asked how Caballero could treat such a subject objectively, he was quick to remind me that he’s a professional. He prototyped the game and first pitched it to Sony without reference to the underlying metaphor. And even if he does feel too close to the material, despite years of therapy, his other designers, “We don’t let the facts get in the way of the story,” says Caballero, “and we don’t let the story get in the way of the gameplay.”

But all that would merely be little more than those inspirational videos they play during the Olympics if Papo & Yo didn’t deliver good gameplay. I played the game myself today and it does seem to hold up, even without the emotional weight of understanding the subtext. The boy, Kiko, wanders around a South American village, solving a variety of reality-bending puzzles drawn in chalk on the scenery. Kiko may, for instance, find that moving cardboard boxes on a rooftop will actually move nearby houses. Or that using his pet robot to pull on a rope attached to chalk-drawn gears will raise stop steps to help him get on a cliff.

But it’s playing with the monster that really begins to make the game feel like more than just another platformer. The monster, a giant pink terror, is deathly afraid of the robot so you’ll have to leave the robot behind if you want to play with the monster. Playing might involve something as simple as tossing a ball or a piece of fruit for the monster to eat. More complex interactions were hinted at during the demo, but we didn’t have the opportunity to do more than pass the ball around.

When asked how his own family responded to the game, Caballero says some of his brothers are glad he’s telling his story but others are less approving. His father died years ago.

Papo & Yo will be out on the PlayStation Network in 2012.

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