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Tell me if you’ve heard this one before: a brash young man gradually mellows over the years, gains perspective on life’s annoyances, and begins to respond to setbacks in a more measured, thoughtful way. At some point, I realized I was this walking stereotype. The things that annoyed me in years past had gradually become easier to take in stride. I can’t do anything about a traffic jam. The old lady at the grocery store who insists on paying for two apples with a personal check will finish when she’s finished. A single bad day at work isn’t a sign that I should abandon all my earthly possessions and become a monk. Life is a marathon, and patience is the key to winning.

However, this general mellowing hasn’t completely extended to my attitude towards games. In fact, it’s often the opposite. I find myself increasingly impatient with games. I tell myself that I don’t have the time to invest in a 50 hour RPG. I don’t like being asked to slog through a long manual or parse obscure game mechanics. Long cutscenes? Widely-spaced checkpoints? Load times? I don’t have time for any of that, or so I think.

Creators always put themselves into their games in some shape or form—they cannot help it. We naturally infuse the things that we create with all the experiences, cultures, values, and ideologies that we call our own, even if we do not recognize them consciously. While these outside influences vary dramatically in size and function, they are ever present in the games we make. None of this is more true than in Papo & Yo, one of the few truly autobiographical games. The first game from the new Minority Studio undoubtedly sprang from the childhood of its lead designer Vander Caballero.

Papo & Yo wears its themes on its sleeves. Even without knowing the story ahead of time, it is hard to miss the game’s blatant metaphors. Quico, the game’s protagonist, begins his journey wanting to save the big pink rhino-like monster that is obviously a metaphorical stand-in for his father. The coconuts that make him fall asleep and the green frogs that turn him into a fiery vessel of anger clearly represent alcohol. I have serious doubts any player missed this, even before the game literally turns bottles of liquor into frogs before your very eyes. This is a very personal story about Caballero’s confrontation with his history of abuse.

Believe it or not, I do listen to podcasts about subjects other than video games.  For example, the Freakonomics podcast is one of my regularly weekly downloads.  However, this isn’t to say that I’m not still thinking about games while listening to a supposedly unrelated topic.  Case in point: the recent episode called “Fear Thy Nature”.

The show, like all Freakonomics episodes, was about trying to figure out what influences human behavior.  This particular episode looked at how our social environments impact our actions and devoted a significant chunk of time to discussing an interactive theater production called Sleep No More.  Freakonomics framed Sleep No More as a bold experiment in socialization and storytelling, and I have no doubt it is very impressive both as a piece of theater and in its relation to social science tests like the Stanford Prison Experiment.  However, as someone familiar with video games, many of the statements made in the podcast (some of which I’ve included here) sounded very familiar.

I have said it before, and I will say it again: to really understand the nuance of class-based game systems, play support. The healers and strategists are the unsung heroes of multiplayer games. To play a support class is to embed yourself into deep system analysis out of simple necessity. While exclusively reinforcing your teammates can be a burden, support classes remain one of the most compelling roles in games. Until recently, Team Fortress 2’s Medic class held the title for best support class in a first-person shooter. Now, with the release of Gearbox’sBorderlands 2, Maya the Siren handily deserves our praise as an incredibly well-designed support character.

Like the rest of Borderlands 2’s cast of playable characters, Maya can actually level up, in the traditional RPG manner, three different skill trees. The Cataclysm tree focuses primarily on elemental effects, increasing her offensive capabilities. The Motion tree emphasizes crowd control and, coupled with Maya’s healing-focused Harmony trees, creates a very satisfying support-focused Maya.

The following post contains spoilers for Papo & Yo.

Video games are often criticized as being childish and obsessed with power fantasies.  It’s an understandable sentiment.  Whether it is an uninspired cartoonish aesthetic or a simplistic plot in which a 90-pound weakling becomes the master of the universe, many games come off as immature.  In games in which kids are the main characters, it’s easy to find a combination of these two tropes: shallow child characters that somehow manage to get caught up in a grand conflict in which they become the hero.  It’s a fun daydream, but not especially representative of the real challenges that youths face.

Papo & Yo got me thinking about the topic of children in games, largely because its child-protagonist has modest abilities and its story is grounded in reality.  Quico is the main character, but he’s not the world’s savior.  He makes use of unique abilities, but he is by no means invulnerable to harm nor totally in control of his situation.  Quico’s journey of personal growth serves as a metaphor for the private battles that people face every day, rather than a literal war for control of the universe.

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