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Growing up with a real monster - video game tells one boy's story

Papo & Yo
Minority
'Papo & Yo' takes players on a journey through one boy's adventures with his monstrous best friend.Minority Games

It was video games that helped Vander Caballero survive his childhood.

"When I played games, I felt I was in control and that I was protected," Caballero, a game designer who has worked on big titles such as "Army of Two" and "Need for Speed," told me.

What did the young Caballero need protection from? His volatile, alcoholic father.

Caballero is the creator of the game "Papo & Yo" -- a puzzle-filled adventure game coming to the PlayStation Network next week. On its surface "Papo & Yo" is a game in which a young boy and his best friend named Monster must navigate a surreal world, solving puzzles as they go.

But Monster is, as his name suggests, a monster with a sharp horn and immense power. More importantly, Monster has an addiction to poisonous frogs. When he eats these frogs he is utterly transformed -- just as Caballero's father was when he drank.

Is Monster your best friend? Or your worst enemy? InMinority

I first got a chance to play 'Papo & Yo' while it was still in early development during the 2011 Electronic Entertainment Expo. And I had a chance to talk to Caballero about his deeply personal, almost autobiographical game.

Caballero said he left gaming giant Electronic Arts to create "Papo & Yo" -- a game in which he has taken his experiences growing up with an alcoholic father and channeled it into something that is at once upsetting and enjoyable, dark and beautiful (at least from my early hands-on experience with it).

"I wanted to tell a difficult story, but make it entertaining at the same time," he told me. 

Indeed, the dreamy game world Caballero has created is a delight to behold with its colorful, surreal South American cityscapes. And the puzzles are uniquely challenging. 

Like Caballero's father, the monster in the game has two sides --  the friendly, loving side, and the dangerous, violent one. And navigating those moods is at the core of the gameplay. To solve the game's puzzles you must learn how to use  Monster’s volatile emotions -- both the good and the bad -- to your advantage.

Caballero and the development crew at Minority Media has just released a haunting cinematic trailer in advance of the game's launch on Aug. 14. With the help of Montreal Director Alfonso Maiorana, it mixes game footage and live action as it explores Caballero's own experiences trying to live with and escape from his father -- a man he longed to save. Check it out below.

As it was with Caballero's father, the boy in the game is searching for a cure for Monster. But Caballero says, in the real world, his father was never cured.

"You can never truly cure an addict," he explained.

But Caballero said that, ultimately, he doesn't think of "Papo & Yo" as a game about addiction or alcoholism. Instead, he says, "This game is a metaphor about a kid becoming an adult and learning to cope with the gray areas of life."

Winda Benedetti writes about video games for NBC News. You can follow her tweets about games and other things on Twitter here @WindaBenedetti and you can follow her on Google+. Meanwhile, be sure to check out the IN-GAME FACEBOOK PAGE to discuss the day's gaming news and reviews.