Unlocking the puzzle of Papo & Yo

In the second part of our coverage of innovative, locally designed game Papo & Yo, programmer Julien Barnoin talks about how the game came together and the joy of avoiding clichés.

Not your average alternate universe: Papo & Yo

Papo & Yo, the first game from local indie studio Minority Media, arrived on PlayStation Network yesterday. To mark the release, we here at Cult sat down with a few members of the team to learn more about this incredibly unique game that actually tells a personal story instead of being the usual G.I. Joe trigger-happy bullshit.

Today’s Q&A is with lead programmer Julien Barnoin, who originally met Minority creative director Vander Caballero at EA Montreal when both were working on the original Army of Two. Even back then, both knew making safe war shooters wasn’t for them, so Barnoin jumped at the opportunity to work on a game about Caballero’s life growing up in Colombia.

While Caballero came up with central ideas like main character Quico, his pet monster and how they interact, it was up to Barnoin to create a lot of the puzzles young Quico must solve in order to save his beastly buddy from his frog addiction.

“I like shooters,” says Barnoin, “but I worked on the first two Army of Two iterations for six years, after a while you want to work on something different. Papo & Yo was cool because it wasn’t focused on violence or shooting.”

If you haven’t read our interview with Caballero, which appeared on Cult yesterday, you can check it out it here.

Cult: Was it important the puzzles make sense within the favela environment? Like, there’s one puzzle that takes place on a soccer field.

Barnoin: In some instances, yes, but in the case of the soccer field, this was one where I had created a puzzle with three zones you could swap for each other, and it was our artist who realized it looked like a soccer field and implemented it. It’s what’s great about working in a small company: things are really flexible. A lot of our best ideas were not designed from the start, they were more like we discovered them along the way and we embraced our ability to try out things even at the last minute, which is where a lot of our ideas came from.

Something like the hint box system [where Quico sticks his head into a cardboard box if he needs a clue to solve a puzzle], we weren’t sure what to do; we didn’t want some hint popping up on the screen. Then I remembered there was a bug we had — when Quico was moving cardboard boxes around, the boxes would go through his head. We had a good laugh about the bug, but it actually inspired us to try something that ended up working for us.

Cult: Was working on a game where capturing emotions is the focal point vastly different than, say, working on shooters?

Barnoin: Yes, but it was more Vander’s thing when he was writing it and presenting it to us — the emotion is designed from the start. The way it works is, first you’re supposed to be friendly with the monster, then he becomes angry, and players are taken through a series of emotions, and this is what guided us through making the puzzles.

Cult: Did the team feel like they were working on something unique?

Barnoin: A lot of us had gotten tired of the subjects we see in a lot of current games. A lot of the big games have to play it safe, and it has a lot to do with marketing driving games. If you say you’re making a war game, marketing guys have data on it so they’ll be more receptive, but if you come up with something about a personal relationship, they won’t know how it will sell and they won’t want to take a risk. It was a big risk for us, don’t get me wrong, but we’re happy with what we’ve done.

Personal vision: Caballero’s world

Cult: Was it also strange working on a game that was essentially one man’s vision?

Barnoin: Everyone got behind the vision. We all had a lot of input, but we were happy to let Vander take the reigns with the story. It’s something that EA couldn’t do for instance: you couldn’t have one designer all of a sudden say, “I want to tell my story,” because then every other designer there will want to tell their story. In this case, being small allowed us to make the game happen.

The fact that we did this isn’t going to make all the big companies suddenly be interested in making games about personal stories. Maybe for indie developers it can open things up a bit more, but I don’t think Papo & Yo will start a trend with big companies. It works in auteur movies though, where you can feel the director’s hand, but it would be nice for games to get away from clean, corporate guidelines.

Cult: What was it like when you and Vander were working at EA then?

Barnoin: I remember when I was new to EA I didn’t necessarily follow the rules — Vander can’t follow rules anyway — and he would come over, tap me on the shoulder and ask if we could try out all sorts of crazy ideas. You’re supposed to follow a process on a big team, but I would think his ideas were cool and I would start working on them.

Then we’d get sidetracked sometimes. and Vander got told a few times he needed to follow the process. But some of my favourite times were at the beginning when we didn’t even know what Army of Two was going to be and we were just trying out ideas — that’s what we do all the time at Minority now. ■

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