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Savior developers’ work desk and concept art

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Cuban games start to find a foothold in global game scene

Indie finds a way

Savior developers’ work desk and concept art.
| Photos by Brian Crecente/Polygon, collage by Emily Haasch

Savior is a uniquely Cuban game, from its hand-drawn art steeped in the dichotomous racial, cultural, political complexities of the country and introspective, religious narrative undertones to the way the platform game’s development is slowly lurching along, carrying with it the hopes of not just a two-person team, but the country’s slowly blossoming independent game development scene.

Indie in Cuba doesn’t mean independence from just publishers or big financial ties; that is the case for nearly all games created in Cuba. Instead, in Cuba indie game developers are those who create titles free from government support or ideology. In a socialist country where the government has its hand in nearly all walks of life, not having official support can kill an industry or, in the case of game development, slow its growth.

The past few years have seen the birth of Savior, which some have called the first modern Cuban indie game in history, but also Cuba’s increased interest and support in official game development, the growing acceptance of gaming as a pastime by the government and a burgeoning pro-gaming scene.

All of this bodes well for a country peopled with enthusiastic gamers, but the creators of games not backed by the government in Cuba still face seemingly insurmountable odds.

The sun is low in the sky as the old Russian car I’m in coasts to a stop outside the gates of Johann Hernandez’ home, where Cuba’s best-known modern independent game developers are both grinning, waiting to welcome me into the house that serves as their studio.

We walk down a short gravel driveway and past the shell of a very old car, its slightly rusted frame encircled with shin-high grass. Inside, in a back room, artist Josuhe Pagliery and programmer Hernandez walk me over to a large dining table piled up with a monitor, a keyboard, a computer and stacks of audio equipment. A nearby bulletin board is coated with layers of printouts and penciled, hand-drawn concept art of creatures and characters, maps and animations.

For a time in the U.S., Savior was the golden child of Cuban game development. Pagliery and Hernandez’ story, the story of their game Savior, appeared on many game sites. It was on television. There was even a segment on NPR.

That attention helped to fund the game’s modest Indiegogo campaign, bringing in $12,658 by the end of 2016.

But then Pagliery, who had traveled along the east coast to promote the game and some of his art showing in a museum, returned home and reality set in.

“When I came back from the USA, from running the campaign, all of those articles, all of that attention, I thought, ‘When I get to Cuba I’ll say hey to the rest of the gaming community,’” Pagliery says. “But it’s like none of that ever happened, you know?

“And that is kind of discouraging, but at the same time, when you’re first, you have to deal with that kind of thing all of the time. You have to open the path for other people to come later.”

Design concepts for Savior displayed on the home office wall of developer Johann Hernandez’
Design concepts for Savior displayed on the home office wall of developer Johann Hernandez’
Brian Crecente/Polygon

While various games are developed in Cuba, they’re mostly done through government programs or at universities, which are fully funded by the government. So these two are creating their game in a sort of vacuum, influenced by Cuba’s rich culture and artistry, while avoiding its politics and, in many ways, its other developers.

I get the impression that it’s a lonely pursuit, although the two seem happy in their work, if not their progress.

“We say right now that we are [at] 35 percent or something like that, but we are almost done with the core of the gameplay and that is the most important thing,” Pagliery says. “Almost all of the animations are done, too. That is the most difficult part of the art.”

The game is being built in Unity, though originally the two were talking about creating their own engine and making a game from “scratch,” as Pagliery puts it. But then they realized they didn’t want to spend six or seven years working on this one thing, he says.

So they decided to work in Unity. The same sort of thinking drove the decision to set their crowdfunding goal at a mere $10,000. Pagliery says they can make the game with $10,000, but probably need $50,000 to do so in a timely manner. He was worried they wouldn’t get any, so he set the goal as low as possible, knowing that if they didn’t pull in much more it would be very slow going.

And it has been.

One of the key problems with game development in Cuba, according to journalists, developers and the country’s two best-known indies, is that while the government now recognizes the power, potential and inevitability of gaming in the country, it sees it as a tool, not necessarily a form of entertainment.

There is no question about Cuba’s passion for playing games, but is the country and its current socio-economic environment a place where games as entertainment can be made?

“Yes,” says Alejandro Ulloa, a journalist with Cuban independent website El Toque. “We are creative. But government policies about games are complicated. The government thinks that all games have to teach all of the time. So the games in Cuba aren’t as interesting as the ones you can find outside of Cuba. They are just for teaching, not for fun.

“We also have no technology, [a] really bad connection to the internet, and developing games requires a lot of technology. Despite that, there are people who are trying to prove their game making skills.”

Ulloa tells me that he’s heard of two or three developers working on an independent game. He tells me this as if it’s a rumor, or myth. He’s read about it online, he says. It turns out it’s Pagliery and Hernandez’ game: Savior and Ulloa sees it as the sort of thing that could help other hopeful indies.

Savior is a really good idea and they are developing the game with their own resources and trying to make art and also make fun ...,” Ulloa says. “That’s only possible because they are independent and they are doing it as they want.

“The government doesn’t see games like that.”

Pagliery and Hernandez tell me the same thing.

Concept art for Savior
Empty-heads Games

In fact, Hernandez, who has a degree in computer science, did his degree work at Havana University in serious game development while studying math and computer science.

That first game, he says, used Kinect to help with rehabilitation.

After creating that, Hernandez started to work as a freelancer, making what he called "simple" video games. And then he met Pagliery, who explained what he wanted to do with Savior.

“I said, ‘OK, that’s cool. Let’s do it.’”

Ensconced in their home office in a quiet Havana suburb, the duo working on Savior hasn’t been able to show off the working game to anyone publicly, so I’m the first. They walk me over to the table to show how Savior works.

The game is a classic 2D action platformer, albeit rich in painterly backdrops, hand-drawn characters and animation.

The core mechanic relies on both timing and matching colors to button presses to defeat enemies. Players must pray, quickly dropping their spirit-like avatar to its knees amid the sounds of harmonious invocation, to recharge before attacks. When an enemy is defeated they fade amid a splash of numbers.

“It’s like a hexadecimal code,” Hernandez explains. “When you destroy the enemy that information is shown to the user.”

That’s a key component of the game’s story, which revolves around the idea that god discovers that it is in fact inside a video game.

“I start from the philosophical idea that in theology reality is equal to god,” Palgiery says. “Then in a video game, god is a video game.”

Cuba’s history did have at least one other group of game developers which, while originally connected to a university, quickly became independent before eventually leaving the country and then falling apart.

Merchise, which gets its name from a wise man in a Mayan creation myth, started out in the early '90s at the University of Las Villas in Santa Clara, Cuba. Medardo Rodriguez, a professor there, started pulling together students from different parts of the university that were into computers and programming, said Jorge Romero, one of the original programmers with Merchise.

“He would teach classes off of the normal schedule to them,” Romero says. “In the nights we would gather to do things. For a long time it was games because it’s something that is very hard for people to not like to do.”

Originally, the group also did non-gaming things. For instance, Romero says he busied himself creating Cuba’s first anti-virus software. But soon, gaming became the main focus of the group.

While still connected to the university, the team started working on games, creating role-playing games, adventure games and even an engine called Magister Ludi, which was a bit like LucasArts' own Script Creation Utility for Maniac Mansion engine.

Romero says that while the group was using the university’s equipment, at least initially, they didn’t have its support.

Jorge Romero, one of the original programmers with Merchise
Brian Crecente/Polygon

“If they caught us doing that it was kind of a problem,” he says. “Anything that is not approved is by definition disapproved.”

Slowly, the university came around to the idea of Merchise.

“Eventually, we were more or less tolerated or something like that,” he says. “For the first four years it was mostly people enjoying computers and trying different things.”

By 1998, having made a number of games, none of which could be legally sold or really marketed, the core group involved with Merchise left for Canada and an attempt to start a commercial studio.

Many in the group joined Oceanus Communications in Ottawa where they worked on a web browser called Skipper, a Tetris-like game called Netris Kombat and their own take on SimCity: Star Peace. Eventually, the game failed and the studio went under, its Cuban developers spreading throughout the industry and to different parts of the world.

In Cuba, those who remained, like Romero, simply went their separate ways when they graduated. But in 2015, some of those members got back together under the old name with a new focus.

“Entrepreneurship, trying to do business here in Cuba,” Romero says. “Games is one thing we have. We want to take it up again.”

Cuba’s gaming revolution

You just read one entry in Polygon’s 12-part series on video games in Cuba. Check out the rest on our hub.

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