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Diego Angel sits outside while talking on the phone
Diego Angel at home in Colombia
Photo: Blake Hester for Polygon

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‪Two days in Colombia with the founder of Rockstar San Diego

Diego Angel left Rockstar and returned home, so we went to meet him there

Diego Angel is stumped. Really stumped. Try as he might, he can’t seem to find the answer he’s looking for. Maybe 10, 20 minutes pass, and still nothing.

He says he doesn’t know why he moved back to Medellín, Colombia.

On the one hand, he says he always knew he’d come back. He’s from Colombia; he spent his teenage years here in the city before leaving for America. He knew he’d come back. But when is a different question.

In 1984, he founded Angel Studios, initially as a contract developer specializing in 3D graphics, then becoming a game studio, joining Nintendo’s Dream Team of developers before moving on to making games for Microsoft, Capcom, and Rockstar. Rockstar ended up buying Angel Studios, acquiring its engine and the then-in-development Red Dead Revolver from its previous publisher, Capcom. Angel Studios became Rockstar San Diego, and the Red Dead franchise went on to become one of the most successful in the game industry.

But Angel wasn’t there to see it. A few years after the acquisition, after splitting his time working for Rockstar’s headquarters in New York and here in Colombia, he resigned from the company and stayed in Medellín. He’s just not sure why, he says.

We’re sitting here in Medellín on his patio trying to figure it out. I flew in yesterday and have spent the day today talking to Angel about his life, passions, and career. Discussing how he went from a game developer to running numerous restaurants in Medellín. Talking about Rockstar, lying to Nintendo, and everything in between. Everything except why he left Rockstar. We won’t come to a conclusion tonight.

Behind us, down the mountain, the lights of Medellín shine. It’s a lively, colorful city, one with a complicated, violent history. It’s where Angel calls home, and for the next two days he might even learn something new about himself here.

A look off into the distance in Medellín, Colombia
Medellín, Colombia
Photo: Blake Hester for Polygon

The now

Nothing quite prepares you for seeing Colombia for the first time. I leave from Miami, fly over the Gulf of Mexico, Cuba, and the Caribbean Sea, then finally over Colombia. It hits you like a ton of bricks. Green, everywhere. Every shade of green mixed along the grasses and trees that slope over the mountains covering the country. Colombia isn’t all that big, but it feels immense. Huge mountains surround you at all turns. You feel tiny, consumed by the bright, colorful Earth around you.

A short drive from the airport, and I’m in Medellín. Built between, throughout, and up onto the surrounding mountains, Medellín is a city of vastly varying verticality. From where I’m standing, the equally colorful city rises far above me.

At Angel’s suggestion, I stay in Parque Lleras (which translates to Lleras Park) in the Poblado neighborhood. It’s the nightlife district. Dozens of bars, nightclubs, restaurants, and mixes of all three surround Parque Lleras, about a standard city block in size. The area throughout Poblado is a lot of the same: trendy restaurants, bars for locals, bars for tourists, and nightclubs warming up their speakers for the evening, playing music at a medium volume before cranking it all the way up.

I’m not meeting with Angel until tomorrow, so I take my downtime to try and understand the city and neighborhood I’m staying in. Poblado, these days, has more in common with the Williamsburg neighborhood in Brooklyn than its reputation might lead you to believe. It’s a tourist-friendly area.

It wasn’t always like this. Historically, throughout the ’60s and ’70s, Medellín was known as an entrepreneur’s city. Then Pablo Escobar happened. Cocaine happened. Medellín, offering the technical know-how and laboratory facilities required to turn paste from the coca plant grown best in countries like Bolivia and Peru into cocaine powder made it an ideal base of operations for cartels, Time magazine reported in 1988. It’s also relatively close to the United States, which, as of 2018, was still the world’s largest consumer of cocaine.

The cartels took over this city, and Escobar ran one of the biggest in the world at the time: the Medellín cartel. He became the most wealthy criminal in history and actually brought a lot of money into Medellín, building a zoo and low-cost homes for the city’s poorest communities, and temporarily creating some job opportunities in construction and retail. However, as Time reported, for all the money being brought into the city, none of it was actually invested into productive infrastructure.

With drugs often comes violence, and in the late ’80s and early ’90s Medellín was one of the most violent cities in the world. In January 1988, the U.S. State Department issued a travel advisory for Medellín warning Americans not to travel there. Even the locals considered it “suicidal” to go out at night. There were more than 6,000 murders in 1991 alone.

Escobar’s death in 1993 brought a lot of change to Medellín. So did a string of progressive mayors that invested in the city and its citizens. Flash-forward to the 2000s, and Medellín was undergoing a radical transformation due in large part to a city-length public transportation system, new access to city centers for the poorer communities up in the mountains, and a heavily increased police presence throughout the city. By March 2020, when I show up, Medellín has been called the most innovative city in the world, hosted the United Nations’ seventh annual World Urban Forum, and experienced a more than 80% drop in its murder rate, though it has risen recently after hitting its lowest point in 2015.

There is still plenty of violence in Medellín, especially in the neighborhoods furthest from the city center. But it’s also not what it used to be. Do most people know that? Or do they only know what’s distilled to us in pseudo-historical dramatizations like Narcos — an American-made Netflix show that, it’s worth pointing out, isn’t the most popular over here. Worse than that, as Medellín tries to move beyond its past and leave Escobar behind, is the rest of the world choosing to not let it?

The sun sets on Parque Lleras and no one seems all that worried about Medellín’s past. The people walking around only seem interested in the moment. In a city where people used to be afraid to leave their houses at night, this one block is now packed with hundreds of people laughing, yelling, and partying. Really partying. It is loud here in a way that’s rivaled only by sports events. It’s loud in a way that makes it hard to sleep, even though I’m on the fourth floor.

It’s cacophonous and exciting. Parque Lleras — for locals and tourists alike — is a place for friendship. Hardly anyone here is alone; everyone is roaming in packs hopping from bar to bar, club to club, and back again, living in the now.

Tomorrow I’ll meet someone who lives their whole life around that mantra.

A look at the city streets in Medellín, Colombia
Medellín, Colombia
Photo: Blake Hester for Polygon

Alternate routes

Diego Angel walks into the restaurant Carmen a few minutes after 12:30 p.m. Before I can get up to introduce myself, he’s surrounded by the staff, all taking turns saying hello, shaking his hand, or exchanging cheek kisses. The boss has entered the building.

Angel, along with his daughter Carmen, whom the restaurant is named for, and her husband Rob Pevitts, opened Carmen just about 10 years ago here in Poblado. It’s since become one of the best restaurants in Medellín, and has given the trio the opportunity to open numerous other restaurants here and in the city of Cartagena in northern Colombia. Three of those restaurants, Carmen included, are here and in the building next door. After I get my introduction with Angel, he takes me to see them all.

Next door is Moshi, a blend of Asian and Carribean cuisine, with menu items like ceviche, bibimbap, and ramen with chicharrón, or fried pork belly. Next door, connected by a side room, is a small, traditional-style sushi bar that will open later in the day. Upstairs above Moshi is Don Diablo, a steakhouse that dry-ages its beef for between 15 and 60 days before serving.

As we walk around, everyone continues to stop what they’re doing to say hi to Angel. There’s almost a reverence to the way the staff greets him. His money and know-how are why these restaurants opened in the first place, and that counts for something.

For lunch, our choice is Carmen. He chooses a corner in a wrap-around booth, insisting we both sit on the cushioned side so we can get comfortable. “We’re going to be here for a couple hours or so,” Angel tells the staff taking our food and drink orders. I mostly leave the ordering up to him — he’s been here before, he knows what to get — and our meal ranges from octopus, to buffalo, to duck, to pulled pork, and to soda made in-house.

It is all very good, if not a little overwhelming. It’s a lot of different flavors one after the other, a lot happening in quick succession, immediately following tours of multiple restaurants in multiple buildings. It’s a lot of information for the brain to process, which it turns out is a lot like Angel’s life, which has seen many different careers, passions, and places to call home.

Angel’s family is from Medellín originally, but he was actually born five or six hours south of here in a town called Valle, where he lived until he was 12 years old before being sent to the boarding school Colegio de Jesús in Santa Rosa de Cabal. Decades later, he still seems annoyed by aspects of it.

“You have to get up at 5 in the morning and go to mass every fuckin’ day,” Angel says about the school.

“Even the weekend?” I ask him.

“No,” he replies. “The weekend, no. But you have to go to school at 7 in the morning from church.”

Angel came to Medellín at the age of 14, after his father passed away, to be closer to his family. As a teenager, he says, he was largely interested in the arts. He wrote poems, painted a lot, and really enjoyed the work of Hermann Hesse, a German poet and novelist who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1946. Early in his life, he thought he was going to pursue a career in the arts. Specifically, he thought he was going to be a director, making movies and documentaries. It was a way to express himself, he says.

The problem with wanting to be a movie director in Medellín, though, was that the industry just wasn’t that lucrative, especially at the time. “It’s still a bad business here,” Angel says. “I got a lot of friends in filmmaking, and they suffer and they don’t make any money, even though they make a lot of good movies here.”

He chose another route: He decided he would go to America. He would leave the country to learn, he tells me, to become a director. He wouldn’t come back for three decades.

In 1971, in his early 20s, Angel moved to Chicago to go to school. As he tells it, he looked at film schools in Los Angeles, New York, and other cities, but Chicago won him over because he already had some friends in the area. And he loved the architecture, specifically the skyscrapers.

Angel studied film at Columbia College Chicago — the name is merely a coincidence, though he makes sure to point out the spelling difference. “C-O-L-U,” he says. “Not Colombia, but Columbia.”

In college, Angel discovered a love of animation. For all intents and purposes, this was a big deal for the young man. Animation caught his eye, and he never really let it go. It altered the entire course of his life.

“I wanted to do filmmaking, but what I found there was, I loved animation,” Angel says. “I took some classes of animation. I liked it. I was painting in those days, too, so I knew how to draw. Not very well, but I learned more.”

Angel did not become an animator. But it was this fascination that led him to investing in a new, then-unproven technology: 3D computer animation. After graduating, Angel decided he was going to go all-in on computer graphics and animation. Not only that, he was going to start his own studio to do it. The company’s name? Pretty easy to come up with — Angel Studios. As for basing his company in San Diego? “I liked California because the [street names] were in Spanish, and next to it there was a country that spoke Spanish,” Angel says. “So I kind of felt closer to home. [...] Intuitively, I kind of was moving back to here.”

In January 1984, Angel’s company was born, a work-for-hire studio specializing in 3D graphics and animation. It didn’t exactly get going on the best foot, though. As it turned out, 3D animation was very difficult.

“In San Diego, I got the computer, I got this, I got myself an office, I went to training,” Angel recalls. “Within the first [few] days I found out that, ‘Wow, why the fuck did I get into this?’”

“I became what I never dreamed of,” Angel says, “which is, ‘I have to run the fucking place? I have to get the fucking money?’ I wanted to grow and I liked the thing, so I couldn’t be the operator, I couldn’t be the art director, I didn’t have the technology knowledge to [use the computers]. Especially in those days. Boy, they were hard. They were not easy to work, to handle.”

Angel staffed up his company with what little he could, hiring an art director and someone to head up systems for the computers to help himself out. And then, as he tells it, he started “suffering” for the first two years. Work did not come quick for the newly founded Angel Studios. “I think I got one job in the first year for $7,000,” he says, laughing.

People who worked for Angel Studios early in its history often talk positively about their experience working for the company and under Angel. Numerous former Angel Studios employees I spoke to in 2018 about Red Dead Revolver brought up “Sippy Wippy,” Angel’s nickname for Patrón tequila, which he’d often pass out to employees after work on Fridays.

“That was the best time I can remember in my career,” said Daren Bader, a former art director at Angel Studios, in 2018. “You seen that commercial [for] Dos Equis? The most interesting man in the world? That is Diego Angel. Literally, if you talk to anybody who worked at Angel Studios with Diego, they would say they based that commercial on this man. I mean, the whole attitude, the whole demeanor, that was the guy running the show.”

“He wasn’t really into video gamers per say, but he was an artist,” said Stewart Spilkin, a former producer at Angel Studios, in 2018. “He was more interested in building a video game studio than the actual games themselves. [...] Very charismatic, sociable guy who was very approachable. You could always go into his office and talk to him.”

As the years went on, Angel Studios slowly began to make a name for itself in the 3D graphics world, until working with a variety of large-scale clients throughout the early 1990s. In 1992, the company worked with New Line Cinema on the movie Lawnmower Man, developing not only the first cyber sex scene ever put to film but also the first time a human actor had been fully replaced by a CG avatar. In 1994, it animated a music video for Peter Gabriel’s song “Kiss That Frog,” winning an MTV Video Music Award for Best Special Effects. Angel Studios also worked with Disney Imagineering on a virtual safari ride for the flagship location of the now-defunct DisneyQuest chain of interactive theme parks, and according to Michael Limber, the studio’s former chief creative officer, the firm worked with NASA and the U.S. Navy on various projects.

One of Angel’s clients would end up changing the course of his life forever and sending him in a wildly different direction than expected. In the early ’90s, Angel Studios had a deal with tech giant Silicon Graphics. Angel would develop demos to showcase Silicon’s 3D computers in exchange for, well, its 3D computers. One of the people who saw Angel’s demos was Genyo Takeda, then general manager of the Nintendo Integrated Research and Development division. He liked what he saw, and with a new console on the horizon, he gave Angel a call.

Diego Angel sits outside his house
Diego Angel at home
Photo: Blake Hester for Polygon

In the gut

Two hours later and we’re still at Carmen talking.

Angel is a challenging interview. Not because he’s hard to talk to by any means. He’s funny, generous, and a good storyteller. He simultaneously has a suave, confident swagger to him, yet can be soft-spoken and gentle. He’s just as likely to put his hand on your shoulder to bring you closer to him while he talks as he is to ogle a pretty girl that walks by. Both of which he does. A lot. And he’s just as quick to praise himself as he is to ask you questions about your own life. At one point, with what seemed like absolute sincerity, he asked why I was a writer. He even told me to record it so I could have my own story.

No, Angel is a challenging interview because it can be hard to get a straight answer from him about how he did, well, most anything.

Angel is adamant that he never plans ahead, and certainly not in business. He seemingly treats million-dollar decisions — decisions that would leave massive, lasting impacts on the video game industry; choices that could have serious ramifications, positive or negative, on any developer, much less one with no real background in game making — with the same consideration you or I might give picking out our socks in the morning. Ask him why he did pretty much anything, and you’ll often be met with a shrug and, in the most casual voice he can muster, an “I dunno.”

“You know, you don’t plan a lot, do you?” I ask him. “You just kind of take it by the seat of your pants.”

“I told you I function that way all the time,” he replies. “Do you know what’s gonna happen in your future?”

“No.”

He has a couple of different philosophies to back up this almost blasé approach to business. One is doing what feels good in his gut. When you talk to him, he often points to his stomach to emphasize this point. “The opportunity is everything,” Angel says. “If it feels good in here, it feels good.”

His other philosophy is what he calls the “three P’s” — passion, patience, and perseverance. Angel didn’t accept every job offered to Angel Studios; it wasn’t solely about the money, he says. Rather, he only accepted jobs that would showcase the talent of his team and the technology of his studio. Do that and the money will come, he says.

“I had Angel Studios for 20, 21 years, and I never had a mission statement. I never had a business plan,” Angel says. “It comes from my gut.”

So went his first meeting with Takeda. As Angel tells it, Takeda was so impressed with the company’s demos that he called the studio requesting a meeting as soon as possible. Angel asked when Takeda would come see him. Takeda told him the next day, in the morning, at 8 o’clock. The meeting was a success. Takeda was interested in working with Angel Studios, utilizing its 3D prowess. Angel, sensing a good opportunity, didn’t let the moment go to waste.

“He said before he left, ‘I want to work with you guys, but I need you to give me some time,’” Angel recalls. “And my Paisa — remember I told you [about] Paisas? Medellín people, that we’re very businesslike? We’re very astute. Is that a word? Very astute for business. So, my Paisa got out of me. I say, ‘Mr. Takeda, I have to be honest with you, but I’m talking to Sony, too.’”

“Were you all?” I ask Angel.

“No, I wasn’t,” he replies, laughing hard.

From that meeting came a partnership between Angel Studios and Nintendo. In February 1995, Nintendo announced that Angel would be a part of its Dream Team of developers — 10 third-party studios that Nintendo chose to make exclusive games for the then-upcoming Nintendo 64. Coincidentally, DMA Design, which became Rockstar North, was also part of that lineup.

Angel Studios didn’t just work with Nintendo, though. It jumped headfirst into game development, working with companies like Microsoft and even Nintendo’s biggest competitor at the time, Sega. But speaking to Angel, the partnership with Nintendo seemed to have the biggest impact on him. Being a part of the Dream Team put the studio in a unique position where it was able to interface with a lot of the company’s most legendary developers — including Shigeru Miyamoto, who instilled a different design philosophy in Angel when working on the canceled racing game Buggy Boogie.

“Mr. Miyamoto came to the first meeting in San Diego. We had the honor that this motherfucker came to us,” Angel recalls, claiming he prepared for the meeting for “45 days,” working with his designers to draft a design bible to present to Miyamoto. Angel says, “Mr. Miyamoto went and spent 10, 15 minutes look[ing] at it, closed the big fucking book, got his hand behind [the book], pushed it to me, looked at me and said, ‘Diego, I don’t want this.’ My balls got frozen. I lost my legs. I said, ‘Fuck, fuck. I blew it.’ He said, ‘This is not what I want.’”

“I said, ‘What do you need, Mr. Miyamoto?’” Angel continues. “He said, ‘I don’t want any game designs. [Let’s] spend the next three months working on the technology and making sure it feels good.’ [...] He says, ‘You’re going to throw away most of that shit.’”

Clinton Keith, Angel Studios’ former software director, expanded on this in a 2008 interview with Gamasutra: “If you want someone to fail, you want them to fail fast, before they spend a lot of money. That’s how Nintendo was. When I was working on the Dream Team [at Angel Studios], they wanted us to do this DNA-based driving game called Buggy Boogie. You had these vehicles that would eat other vehicles and adopt their powers and morph. It was really cool. But they would sign three month contracts, and Miyamoto himself would say that he did not want any documents. He would just say, ‘Find the fun, and I’ll be back in three months to take a look at what you have.’”

After nearly a year in development, Nintendo ended up canceling Buggy Boogie when Angel Studios was unable to find that fun. As Keith put it, Nintendo’s short-term approach to contracts wound up saving both parties a lot of money and time on an idea that might’ve never panned out. “So rather than getting pissed off at us and canceling the contract after two years and millions of dollars, they spent just a tiny fraction of that with a small team and said, ‘Well, it was just a bad idea.’ It maintained the relationship with them, so we could go off and do something else,” Keith told Gamasutra.

Angel Studios only finished three games for the Nintendo 64 — Major League Baseball Featuring Ken Griffey Jr. in 1998, Ken Griffey Jr.’s Slugfest in 1999, and the well-received port of Resident Evil 2, also released in 1999. The latter wound up being a big deal for the studio. The company’s ability to fit all of Resident Evil 2 — which originally shipped on two discs when it debuted on Sony’s PlayStation — as well as new features onto a Nintendo 64 cartridge impressed the game’s publisher, Capcom.

After the success of its Resident Evil 2 port, Capcom approached Angel Studios about designing a new intellectual property together. The result of that collaboration would become Red Dead Revolver, the first game in the Red Dead Redemption series. But Revolver’s development was anything but smooth, with cultural differences between Angel and Capcom sending the game into development hell. For a while, developers at the studio didn’t know if the game would ever see the light of day or if their years of work would vanish when Capcom finally decided enough was enough. Until, that is, Angel sold his company.

We finish our meal and finish talking. For now, at least. Angel has a meeting he needs to get to a few streets over, so I walk with him through Poblado to get there. As we walk, he gives me about a dozen different recommendations of places to see, coffee shops to try, and other ways to spend my time. We make plans to meet back up later tonight at his apartment to continue our interview.

I take Angel’s advice and walk around, taking in what I can. The area is much calmer now than it was last night. It’s still busy, sure, but I’m struck by the lighthearted feel of everything. It’s beautiful and happy here. I walk in big circles around the area, watching people as they go by.

A look the city streets in Medellín, Colombia
Medellín, Colombia
Photo: Blake Hester for Polygon

From above

Angel’s apartment sits high on a hill overlooking the city of Medellín. From up here, it’s all visible, the way the city weaves through and up into the mountains of the Aburrá Valley. It’s nighttime now, but I can still see it, the entire city lit up by thousands of lights.

We’re sitting here on his patio with a direct view of Medellín. During breaks in conversation I turn around to peek at the lights. Up here, you have time to hear yourself think, to contemplate. By natural extension, my conversation with Angel gets much slower than it was at Carmen. There are long breaks between our responses.

A few years ago I interviewed Angel over the phone about the development of Red Dead Revolver. At the end of our conversation, Angel asked me something that no interview subject had before and none have since: He asked when I was going to come visit him.

I bring this up to Angel and ask him what it is about Medellín that he loves, why he has that pride in his city, and why he wants complete strangers to come see it for themselves.

“I mean, look around,” he says, laughing.

In the early 2000s, Rockstar Games was one of Angel Studios’ biggest clients, having worked together on the popular Smuggler’s Run and Midnight Club series. Due to the success of games like Grand Theft Auto 3, which was the bestselling game in the U.S. in 2001, Rockstar had a lot of money and it was beginning to buy up its partners. As Rockstar co-founder and former vice president of development Jamie King told me in 2018, from a business perspective, it was a move that made sense. When you have a third-party studio making successful games for you, it’s smart to go ahead and buy them up to bolster the success of a franchise.

“Ultimately, it scales the head count and grows the company profit,” King said.

Angel Studios was acquired by Take-Two Interactive, Rockstar’s parent company, in November 2002. As part of the acquisition, Rockstar gained all of Angel’s 125 employees, including management, and the rights to its technology — the latter also being a large part of why the purchase happened in the first place. The Angel Game Engine (AGE) became the Rockstar Advanced Game Engine (RAGE). It’s been the company’s proprietary engine ever since. Take-Two also acquired the rights to the then-still-in-development Red Dead Revolver from Capcom. Rockstar helped get the game out the door before setting its sights on a sequel, which became Red Dead Redemption. Lastly, Rockstar changed the studio’s name: Angel Studios became Rockstar San Diego. Coincidentally, Angel’s name stayed in there.

He stayed on with the company for a few years, he says, splitting his time between San Diego and Rockstar’s headquarters in New York City working on the publishing side of the business, before splitting his time between New York and Colombia in the last six to eight months of his time with Rockstar.

“It was great to leave Colombia and cross the Hudson River [...] and see fuckin’ Manhattan,” Angel says. “Ah! It was orgasmic.”

Angel speaks highly of Rockstar and his time with the company. He especially talks a lot about Rockstar co-founder and president Sam Houser, who Angel says treated him with a lot of respect. But in May 2005, Angel decided it was time for him to leave Rockstar and the company he founded. To stay in Colombia. Why did he do that? Well ...

“I dunno,” Angel says in the most casual voice imaginable.

It’s not that Rockstar didn’t try and convince him to stay, Angel says. He tells me Sam Houser and fellow co-founder Dan Houser did try. It’s definitely not that it wasn’t a good job; Angel was being paid well by Rockstar and would have continued to be paid well, he says. But for whatever reason, he left all those opportunities behind him in America to return home to Medellín. He just doesn’t know why he did so — or at least, he says he doesn’t.

Angel didn’t necessarily leave the game industry behind. For a while, he tried to cash in on Medellín’s growing tech industry by establishing game development opportunities here and for Colombia at large. It worked for a while, until lack of help from the local government and technical talent — specifically in programming, Angel says — slowed progress. He does still occasionally give talks at local colleges about entrepreneurship and mentor game developers here, such as the Bogotá, Colombia-based mobile developer Brainz, which was acquired by publisher Jam City in 2018.

Angel says that if Colombia ever got to the point where it had a thriving video game industry, he’d be interested in getting back into it. As of right now, though, it doesn’t look all that likely.

“It’s interesting that there’s still a passion there for the game industry even though it’s something you never planned on getting into,” I say to him.

“It would be great,” he replies. “But I dunno.”

Outside of video games, he has his restaurants with his daughter and son-in-law. While Carmen was working in the restaurant industry in San Francisco — she’s an American citizen, born in Chicago — the three of them laid the groundwork for what would become their first restaurant together: Carmen in Medellín.

“I said, ‘Well, you know I’ll participate. I’ll help you guys figure it out,’” Angel recounts. “My [underlying] intentions were to bring my daughter to [Colombia],” he adds.

In his life after video games, Angel has fallen back into the world of the arts. One of his hobbies is gardening. At his weekend home out in the country — the “farm,” as he calls it — he spends a lot of time working on his large collection of plants surrounding the property. On a smaller scale, he takes care of the gardening outside Carmen, Moshi, and Don Diablo, working right there on the sidewalk next to the busy street.

But his biggest passion these days is painting. His approach to art is mostly unconscious, Angel says. The less thought he puts into a piece, the better. The correlation between his approaches to business and art are hard to deny. “I don’t wanna be thinking; just fucking do it,” Angel says about painting.

“Like going to the bathroom,” he continues. “I mean, that’s kind [of my] attitude. Thinking is corrosive, toxic.”

The product of that philosophy is an art style that’s simultaneously unique and uncharacteristic of Angel. His subjects are often beautiful people with horrible flaws. Two pieces that hang in his apartment feature a well-dressed man and woman, looking almost as if they’re going to a ball, but the man has his mouth agape, exposing his gums and teeth, and the woman has a deformed hand. A similar piece features a woman with exposed muscles and tendons on her neck, and the man looking as though most of the skin of his face, including his entire nose, has been removed. Body horror isn’t exactly what I expected as a subject from Angel, but here we are.

As I continue to talk to him, I can’t shake the feeling that Angel isn’t always truthful with me. Not in the sense that I think he’s lying, but rather I think he’s good at deflecting things he doesn’t want to to talk about. “I dunno” is a convenient answer if you don’t want to be too introspective. Gut feelings or intuitions are convenient ways to explain away something that might’ve been a complicated, emotional, or difficult decision to make. Or maybe I’m projecting, and Angel simply doesn’t know why he does what he does sometimes. Like leaving Rockstar. Why did he do that? It was a great future with one of the biggest game developers in the world. He could’ve made a lot of money — a lot more money, that is, since Angel by no means is hurting here; his apartment is very big and he has multiple living spaces throughout the country — but he left it behind. Why?

These aren’t my questions. They’re Angel’s.

“Now that I think about all this with [where] Rockstar went, I had an offer before moving to Colombia to stay in New York, [to continue to] work with them,” Angel says. “If I would’ve stayed, if I would’ve taken their offer — but I wanted to come back. I don’t know why I wanted to come back here. I had a good future there.”

As he tells it, the point when he left Rockstar was the last time he talked to Sam and Dan Houser. Something about that specific question — and perhaps a couple of drinks — seems to unlock something in Angel’s brain. An hour or so earlier, when I asked him why he chose to leave Rockstar when he did, he told me he didn’t know, and we moved on. But now, something about thinking about the last time he talked to Sam or Dan has him really looking inside himself, trying to figure out why he did what he did.

And he just can’t, he says. He’s stumped.

“And I don’t know what the fuck [it was], but I had a tremendous need in here to come back,” Angel says, pointing once again to his gut.

“I just realized that I left some career that I could’ve done a bunch of stuff [in] to come here and hang around,” he says. “It’s not that I regret it at all.”

It may be the first time he’s ever truly thought about this, Angel tells me. Our night isn’t over, but we won’t find our answer. Not tonight. We talk about it for 10, maybe 20 minutes, and reach no conclusions. It comes back up every now and then during conversation, but still nothing.

Parque Lleras is loud again when I get back; the party is in full effect. I fall right to sleep.

A look at the streets in Medellín, Colombia
Medellín, Colombia
Photo: Blake Hester for Polygon

Wherever you are

I return to Angel’s apartment in the morning. Ironically, the view of Medellín from the patio is less clear than it was last night: A thick fog hangs over the city. Angel and I sit in the same place and begin small talk over coffee. He’s reached a breakthrough. He seems to know why he came back to Colombia.

“It was time to come home,” Angel says. “Mentally and emotionally, I was done in the video game industry. I enjoyed the people at Rockstar, but I was getting homesick.”

When his contract with Rockstar was up, he says he chose not to renew it. While he enjoyed his career with the company and Angel Studios, Angel put his time in, he’s well off, and now he’s surrounded by his passions, paintings, and gardens. He has his family in a city he loves, a city he wants other people to enjoy. All things considered, it’s a pretty good life for a guy who swears he had no business plan the entire time.

“We were right in the middle of the transition between 2D and 3D,” Angel says. “How did I get there? Did I [write] that in the business plan? I wish I can bullshit and say, ‘Ooh I saw this fucking thing coming!’ No, it was just, we got in there.”

He took a risk when he went to America. It was a country he was unfamiliar with, but after 30 years, it’s a place he fell in love with. He was fortunate to avoid a lot of the pain here in Colombia, but still there was no way for him to know of the success he would find in the States. He just wanted to make some movies. And when it was time to come home, he did.

Medellín is a complicated place, a city defined by its violent past just as much as it’s recognized for its recent progress. In some ways, the two feel impossible to separate. It’s not perfect here. As Angel points out, no place is perfect. “The American imperialism — is that better than this?” he asks. And he does admit that part of him likes Colombia’s reputation with a lot of the rest of the world. “I kinda like that we’re kinda bad,” Angel says. It weeds people out. The people that are scared don’t come here. The people that aren’t do, and they love it here, Angel says. A large majority of the clientele at his restaurants is tourists, he says.

It’s a logic that’s hard to argue with. The bright colors of the city, the mountains, the lively people — Medellín is a place I have a fondness for after only a few days walking its streets. I understand why Angel would not only want to come back here, but why he’d want to show it off. If your daily view were this beautiful, you’d probably want to brag about it, too.

“Let me tell you this — it is still dangerous,” Angel makes sure to point out.

But to define a place by its shortcomings is to rob it of what makes it special or important. I try numerous times to talk to him about Medellín’s history and the American perception of Colombia in general, and every time, the conversation never goes anywhere meaningful. On the one hand, he did miss a lot of it. He came to visit two or three times a year while living in America — and had “no problem at all,” he says, because he didn’t get involved with the crime — but as with a lot of other questions and things I bring up to him, I never really get a conclusion from him. Maybe that’s fine.

Angel says multiple times that I helped him learn a lot about himself, that I awakened him to some things in his life. I’m pretty sure I learned something from him, too. It’s important to see the good around you, even if there was a lot of bad that preceded it. “I mean, look around,” Angel says.

“At the end of the day, it’s your life,” he says. “You’ve gotta be happy wherever you are if you’re with yourself.”

After our coffee, I tell Angel goodbye and make my way back to my hotel, to get ready to head home tomorrow morning. Parque Lleras is already getting ready for the night to come.

Special thanks: Monti Velez