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Savior’s struggle to become Cuba’s first indie video game

Trump, Fidel and the birth of a new gaming nation

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Concept art
Savior’s Facebook page

Josuhe Pagliery dreams small.

He simply wants to create art. And, if he’s lucky, if his dreams come true, maybe create more of it.

But dreams like his, even the tiny ones, are weighed down by uncertainty.

Pagliery is Cuba’s first independent game developer and he wants to make sure he’s not its last.

“We want Savior to be the first example of a successful video game for independent developers in the country,” Pagliery said, “something that might give other developers hope and encouragement, and make them think: ‘If they could finish Savior and succeed in midst of all these difficulties, then maybe we can do it too.’”

Pagliery recently raised just under $12,000 through an Indiegogo campaign to help pay for the creation of Savior.

The game will use hand-drawn animation pulled from Pagliery’s own experience as a multimedia artist and tell a uniquely Cuban story. Players take on the role of Little God, a savior who is searching for the Great God of a dying universe.

“For eons, this universe was kept in order by the Great God, but he has suddenly gone silent,” according to the website. “In his absence, the world begins to collapse, and as reality pulls apart, his followers wonder if they’re living in nothing more than a failing video game.”

The campaign kicked off during what was a uniquely hopeful period of time in the history of Cuban and American relations. Starting late last year, the long-held tensions between the U.S. and Cuba governments began to ease a little. That led to an agreement to open air service between the U.S. and Cuba this year. Cuba and its people were also undergoing a bit of a rejuvenation.

The game is a product of all of this, Pagliery said. Of the spread of internet in Cuba, the improvements of relations with the U.S., an uptick in the economy and a level of optimism among the people not seen for awhile.

Pagliery traveled to the U.S. on an artists visa in October to, among other things, meet with people about his ongoing campaign. I met with he and his girlfriend over lunch in a tiny New York City restaurant near Grand Central Station. He talked about his days as a visual artist and fan of video games and his desire to make a video game.

He told me about founding Empty Head Games with a friend and programmer named Johann Hernandez and how the two have spent all of their free time for the past 18 months or so working on the game. The duo also managed to get help from a small team of Cuba artists for music, visual effects and animation.

While the game’s overarching story seems loaded with metaphor for Cuba’s own struggles, there’s also a sort of other story at play in the game more attuned to the struggles Empty Head Games has had in creating Savior.

Savior Indiegogo campaign

“I was always interested in the idea of creating a game to discuss the process of developing a video game, but in reverse, like a game within a game,” Pagliery said. “This deconstructive vision allows me to create several layers of content that interconnect within the logic of a contemporary fable. With Savior, the conflicted relationship between reality and fiction is established not only through the narrative of the story but from the fact that the player is aware that they are playing an actual video game.”

When the game is finished, the team plans to give it away to those living in Cuba via the country’s Paquete Semanal, a sort of offline internet which delivers information, music, movies and games on a hard drive passed hand to hand.

“With the scarce resources of the majority of the Cubans, today,” he said,”it would be simply immoral to sell our game here. And it probably would be pirated anyway.”

Rich in artistry in so many other ways, Cuba has for some reason never been a place home to game development.

Pagliery told me he thinks that’s because of Cuba’s antiquated and severely limited internet access and that those who would make a game would do so without the support of the world’s other game developers. In fact, Pagliery said, underground is probably a better label than independent.

“The general conditions of independent developers in the rest of the world are much more favorable and different than ours,” he said. “In Cuba, there just a few public spaces with Internet access, and the awful reality is that of course these barely provide access to basic information, much less contact with other developers in the world, access to festivals, press, licenses, and other tools we need.

“It is as if we had to rediscover for ourselves every aspect of developing a game, in addition to an almost obsolete equipment. Things that are completely normal for every other developer, like owning a bank account, starting a company, running a crowdfunding campaign … constitute great obstacles for us.”

Josuhe Pagliery (right)
Savior Facebook page

Despite these obstacles, the studio managed to raise more than it was asking for by the time the fundraising campaign ended on Nov. 29.

But things have since changed so much for Pagliery and Cuba.

On Nov. 7, Donald Trump was elected U.S. president. Among his many campaign promises was the chance of pulling back on all of the progress made with Cuba. Later that month, Fidel Castro died.

“Both events are still too recent to know for sure what impact they will have on our project, but I can definitely say that the restoration of diplomatic relations with the U.S. was a big step forward and gives hope to the Cuban people,” Pagliery said. “For me it meant the opportunity to visit the U.S. for the first time, and to start a crowdfunding campaign on nearly equal footing to any other indie developer in the world, something unthinkable just a few years ago.

“Any political agenda, coming from the American or Cuban side, which would again drag both countries to the troubled relations of the past would undoubtedly negatively impact not only Savior but all Cuban people.”

Good Game is an internationally syndicated weekly news and opinion column about the big stories of the week in the gaming industry and its bigger impact on things to come. Brian Crecente is a founding editor and executive editor of Polygon.