Amid Isolation, 2 Cubans Develop Island's First Video Game

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Josuhe Pagliery grew up playing video games on consoles he says were not common in Cuba. Those games helped inspire him to develop Savior, Cuba's first independent video game.

Between Fidel Castro's death and the new American president, it's hard to know what's next for U.S.-Cuba relations. But partnerships are already underway, including one involving Cuba's first independent video game design company and a U.S. foundation that helped it get started.

Empty Head Games is the company started by two young Cubans, Josuhe Pagliery and Johann Armenteros. In November, the duo launched a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo for their game, Savior. In just six days, the campaign hit its $10,000 goal.

"For me, everything is like a victory," Pagliery says.

He spoke in Miami recently about the challenges of launching an independent video game in a country where access to the Internet is severely limited, and where there are few opportunities to collaborate with other developers.

With computer programmer Johann Armenteros, Pagliery began working on developing Savior, a game based on art and ideas Pagliery has been developing for years. Capturing it in computer code though is a technical challenge made even harder, Armenteros says, by Cuba's isolation.

In his studio in Havana, with limited Internet access, Armenteros says he's largely on his own when it comes to game design.

"It's very, very difficult," Armenteros says, "because everything that I have to do with the game, I have to figure out how to solve the problem."

With this limited access, it is harder to get information from outside of the island. But in many ways Pagliery says, he was lucky. His cousins had an Atari game console in the early 1990s and he grew up playing video games.

"I had the luck to grow up with different consoles that in Cuba are not quite common like Nintendo, Super Nintendo, PlayStation One," Pagliery says.

Savior is in part a homage to those old '90s video games.

In Cuba, that was a time known as the Special Period, when the country went into a deep recession following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Pagliery remembers his grandmother was forced to sell the family's silver. But his main memory from that time was when he first saw Super Mario World, a game released for Super Nintendo.

"For me that was like seeing the future," Pagliery says. "It was like, 'Wow! I really want to play and have that game.' "

Pagliery graduated from Havana's University of the Arts. Before he began work on this, his first game, he used drawing and animation to produce an interactive conceptual piece for a major Havana art show. Pagliery calls it a "playable non-game" and it taught him something.

"I discovered that it was not too different the way you structure a conceptual work of art and the way you made a video game," he says.

In Savior, the player is in a world that is crumbling. You play as a "little god" who must overcome strange creatures and obstacles to reach the "great god" and save the world. The art is inspired by 19th century painter Arnold Böcklin, and his almost surreal work, "Isle of the Dead" — "a strange mix," Pagliery says, "of reality and dream."

Miles Spencer is one of the founders of Innovadores, a U.S.-based nonprofit that runs a tech incubator and entrepreneur exchange program in Cuba. After seeing a presentation of the game, he was impressed.

"This is not a stylized version of Mario Brothers," he says. "This is a very rich and intense artistically based game."

Innovadores helped Pagliery and Armenteros put together a crowdfunding proposal, something new for a Cuban entrepreneur.

"It would never occur to someone in Cuba to actually do it this way," Spencer says.

To launch his Indiegogo campaign, Pagliery temporarily relocated to Miami. With the first stage of their crowdfunding in hand, Pagliery and Armenteros hope to have a demo of their game ready by the spring.

But Pagliery wants Savior to be much more than just Cuba's first independently produced video game. It has to be great, he says.

"A good game," he says. "Not [just] a good game for a Cuban guy."

For now, Savior is being developed for PCs. If it's successful, Pagliery's dream is to have it released for play on Xbox or PlayStation, consoles like the ones he played growing up in Havana.

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