Some creators would rather avoid labels for their work, out of fear of being pigeonholed. But Vander Caballero, designer at Papo & Yo
developer Minority Media
, believes his style of games -- the kind that are focused on the human condition -- need
a label in order to thrive.
"In order for an art form to expand and be successful in society, it needs to be recognized, and then it has to have an economy around it to sustain it," he tells us. "Without an economy, the idea cannot grow."
That recognition would come under the label of "empathy games," a term that Caballero suggested in a GDC 2014 talk
. In empathy games, the main experience is driven by players' desire to understand and relate to the emotions of other avatars or players, he says.
According to Caballero, games that would fall under this category include Journey
and Papers, Please
for example, as well as Minority's Papo & Yo
and its upcoming Silent Enemy
, a game that tackles the issue of bullying. All of these games aim to help players develop the capacity to understand how someone else might feel in a certain situation.
Caballero argues that with a genre label, developers of such games can manage the expectations of players, including taste-making game reviewers whose yay or nay can drive or damage sales.
When Minority was working on Papo & Yo
, Caballero says he did not set out to create something called an "empathy game." He didn't even imagine that such a game could or would exist. "I just wanted to do a game that was meaningful to me," he says. It wasn't until after the game came out did he have to rethink his understanding of Papo & Yo
"IGN gave us a 4 [out of 10], and I'm thinking, 'Why? I don't get it,'" he says. Meanwhile other critics were raving about the game, while others were middling in their reviews. The range of reactions was wide. "It was really crazy seeing reviewers and players not knowing how to communicate what the game was, or really knowing what it is," he says.
"We have to give these games a label."
"After some time, I understood, after hearing people talk about the game," Caballero says. "They just didn't know what to expect." People didn't know what to make of a game that uses a frog-eating monster as part of a metaphor for a father-son relationship damaged by alcohol abuse.
"We have to give these games a label," he says. "Some people don't like the label 'empathy games,' but when someone is looking for an experience about empathy, and having a deeper, meaningful experiences that focus on emotions towards other people, then you'll know what you're getting, and you'll be happy."
Minority's next game is Silent Enemy
, which quite deliberately fits Cabalerro's concept of an empathy game. The game deals with bullying - not only being bullied, but also becoming the bully, and coping with that transformation. Caballero is not heading up that project as he did with Papo & Yo
, rather Minority's design director Ruben Farrus is working as creative lead.
But even though Minority has appointed one person to head up the project, every single person at the studio had been bullied growing up. Once members of the studio realized this, they knew they had the seed for their next game.
For some developers, this is a backwards way to design a game - to start with a specific emotion you want to convey, then retro-engineer that emotion to arrive at game mechanics and systems. To Caballero, designing an empathy game isn't about "finding the fun" game mechanic first.
"The first thing [when designing for empathy], is not starting with the game mechanics," he says, "because when you start from the game mechanics, what happens is [the designer] gets the player hooked into those mechanics. And you just repeat those mechanics over and over and over. ... The moment you start with mechanics, you'll be pulled back [away from empathic goals of the design]."
"You have to start with, 'I want to take someone on an emotional journey. What is that emotional journey?,'" he says. "Then the question is 'what can I bring to someone's life that's going to be important and meaningful for them, a lesson that will help people in their life?'"
"I took the need-based AI behavior system in The Sims, mixed it with alcohol and frogs, and voila you have innovation."
"When you start with that angle, you'll get to a completely different place," he says. To him, the designer on an empathy game will be thinking about where they want to take the players. "Then you figure out the mechanics for the journey - you starting forming your mechanics for the journey you are building," says Caballero. "But you have to figure out the moral at the end, first." For Papo & Yo
, for example, the moral related to Caballero wanting to make peace with his father, and helping others make peace in regards to their past abusive relationships.
Caballero recognizes that his approach is "backwards." After all, he worked in the traditional triple-A industry at EA for eight years on games ranging from FIFA
to Army of Two
to Need for Speed
and The Sims
- games where mechanics and systems come first, not empathy. But for him, Papo & Yo
would be part of a healing process, and reaching the point of healing would've been near-impossible if he didn't clearly define the emotional purpose of the game from the start.
"Working backwards does not imply that gameplay will suffer," he says. "Instead, it's the opposite: It forces designers to push existing mechanics in unusual ways, and also invent new ones."
Caballero says that in Papo and Yo
, the monster-frog mechanic came about because he wanted to express an emotion. "I took the need-based AI behavior system in The Sims
, mixed it with alcohol and frogs, and voila you have innovation."
Designing from this angle also has a commercial benefit, he argues; a game designed from an emotion will separate itself from the pack. "It is true that if you start with a traditional approach to mechanics, you have a better chance of ending up with a more polished game," he concedes, "but your game will resemble a thousand others that are coming out every month," he says. "In the end, it is the choice of the creator: Are you the type who wants to recreate what is out there, but better, or are you the creator who wants to bring games to new frontiers?"
Minority doesn't only
make empathy games. The studio released what Caballero calls a "toy" on iOS called Loco Motors
("basically the Spore
editor, but with cars," he says), a game he always wanted to make. One thing is for sure: "We're never going to do violent stuff," he says.
"[Our games are] more about healing yourself. We all have pain in our lives - immense pain," he says. "I don't see a better way as an artist in helping other people cope with that pain."