'Savior': Politics, Game Development, Performance Art in an Evolving Cuba

Empty Head Games' story illustrates the realities of being a Cuban artist in 2017

Savior Credit: Empty Head Games

This past weekend, Savior, one of Cuba's first independently developed video games, gets its first public showing, with the duo behind the unusual title debuting a nearly completed version of the game at the Video Game Art Gallery in Chicago.

The unveiling of the game, which according to the gallery is designed to tap into the changing cultural and political landscape of Cuba, times neatly with the strained relationship between the United States and Cuba, made even more dramatic thanks to the unusual political climate in both nations.

Relations between the United States and Cuba are at a precarious crossroads. Under President Barack Obama, the U.S. reestablished a diplomatic relationship with the island nation, relaxed its suffocating trade embargo, and moved to placate the Cuban government by repealing "wet foot, dry foot," the Clinton administration's policy that allowed any Cuban national reaching American soil to become a US citizen. But while the repeal may have been popular among Cuba's dogmatic elite, it was met with ire in parts of the Cuban-American community.

More recently, President Donald Trump began pursuing an agenda to roll back much of the progress towards normalized relations. While these developments receive only cursory coverage in the mainstream press in the U.S., they reverberate strongly in the lives of Cubans like Josuhe Pagliery and his creative partner Johann Hernandez, the team behind Savior.

For Pagliery and Hernandez, the gravity of every shift in policy is felt in a pronounced way, as it is for so many on that deceptively small island just 90 miles off the Florida coast. On a map, it looks close enough to reach out and touch, but in reality, it's a world apart from its neighbor to the north. The ideological gulf is even wider, a fluid and living conversation between the Cuban people and their leadership about the modern definition of socialism and the place of the Revolution of Che Guevara and Fidel Castro in the 21st century.

In the U.S., we tend to think of Cuba first as a political entity, but its culture has inexorably wafted north for decades – the food, the literature, the music, the art. Cuba is a place where moving forward means dragging along a mountain of dogma and a difficult, fractured past, but it's a mountain inching forward thanks to the hard work of Cuban artists like Pagliery and Hernandez. Their studio, Empty Head Games, is unique on the island, and theirs hasn't been an easy trail to blaze.

"Right now, people see the development of indie games in Cuba as too risky and too expensive," says Pagliery, Savior's creative director. "The government has invested in a bunch of awful games that nobody plays. For them, the sole purpose of a video game should be educational or historic. It's the wrong, boring approach, and it's only darkened the horizon for all the potential developers on the island."

Pagliery describes an environment that is anathema to creativity, particularly in an untested field (by Cuban standards) like game development. Neither he nor his partner, and Savior's lead programmer Hernandez, have cars, and given that they live a considerable distance from one another, they're forced to rely on Cuba's unsteady communication infrastructure to shape their game and share ideas.

This includes internet that makes tasks we take for granted, like loading a video or sending an email, a huge chore at best and totally unfeasible at worst. Getting online means traveling to public Wi-Fi spots where Cubans sit around in the sweltering heat, trying to hold onto a signal long enough to load a single web page. Pagliery says even loading their Indiegogo page – the site that Empty Head used to crowdfund early development on Savior – was often impossible, and managing the funds they raised was further complicated by the fact that neither of them have bank accounts.

"All the money I have goes directly to the production of the game. And imagine that you have almost no idea of what other people like you are developing. Of course, you can forget access to press, festivals, or normal crowdfunding campaigns," Pagliery says, stressing that they had to rely on the Innovadores Foundation, a US non-profit that focuses on the sciences and technology, in order to crowdfund Savior in the first place. "When we started that campaign, we had 200 followers on Facebook and 36 on Twitter. We read the number of followers that Indiegogo suggests you need to start a campaign, which is around 8,000, and it was absolutely heartbreaking."

Pagliery and Hernandez had no roadmap to follow, no template to help them navigate the choppy waters of international money transfer or marketing. And on a personal level, embarking on their dream was a project of gradually increasing isolation and alienation.

"The expectations and feedback of my family and friends before we started making Savior was almost all negative. 'You're crazy, how you will recover all this money you've spent? Who's going to play this game anyway?' And suddenly, you're no longer a professional or even an artist, you're just some lone weirdo with a stupid dream, making an invisible video game for no one."

Pagliery says they started referring to themselves not as independent developers but underground developers, reflecting the often desperate environment they worked in, especially during the first year, where it was he and Hernandez in a vacuum with almost no outside feedback or support. "I was drawing with an old Wacom Bamboo model from 2009, Johann working with an I-5 from 2012. He didn't even have an internet modem – he had to walk to the Wi-Fi hotspot two miles from his house."

But they endured, fueled by a powerful desire to create and a passion for video games born in their youth. For Hernandez, his love of programming and the cold logic of code was born in a childhood influenced by the echo of Soviet glory.

"Where I grew up in Atabey, a little district far from downtown Havana, there weren't many other kids. You could count them on one hand. But that never bothered me – quite the opposite. My parents were both highly educated, and my mother studied Russian in the old Soviet Union. As a kid, I was surrounded by books full of images of the Soviets – big facilities, space rockets, all that stuff. At some point, the images in the books weren't enough and I wanted to understand those machines and how they worked."

He began reading complicated manuals on Unix programming and became enamored with the idea of computers and their reasoned, concrete organization. He excelled in computer classes, and, around the time of his senior year in high school, discovered the wild west of PC game piracy. Computer games were freely copied and passed around in Cuba, and it was a great tonic for a bored kid with more time than money. "I discovered shooters, role-playing games, and strategy games. Some of my favorite games of all time came from that era."

His passion for gaming and programming led Hernandez to the Computer Sciences program at the University of Havana, where he studied algorithms and computational geometry, and devoured the works of video game development luminaries like id co-founder John Carmack and Jason Gregory of Naughty Dog, the studio behind the PlayStation behemoth Uncharted.

"After I graduated, I began working as a freelancer video game developer for companies inside and outside of Cuba." He learned new programming languages and engines and how to develop in different environments, and for different platforms.

Pagliery grew up in Havana's Playa municipality, home to the district of Buena Vista, which was made famous around the world by the eponymous album and film. He took a distinctly different path to video game development.

"My father is an engineer and my mother is a doctor, but I was raised by my grandmother Olga. She was the one who bought my very first game console," he says. "When I was a kid, I used to spend a lot of time reading and drawing. I was not athletic at all, so I never got into sports, and as you can imagine, when video games arrived in my life, that only got worse."

Pagliery came of age during the Special Period, an era precipitated by the 1989 collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of its economic assistance to Cuba. It ushered in a decade of severe economic crises, food rationing, and a dearth of many of the commercial goods on which the Cuban economy relied. One of the many ramifications of the Special Period was the outlawing of the sale of personal computers, a prohibition that was only lifted in 2008. Video game consoles were understandably rare, which only served to increase the magic associated with them for kids like Pagliery.

"Finding games was super hard at that time in Cuba. My older cousins had an Atari with games like Tron and Burger Time," Pagliery says. "For me, it was love at first sight, and that feeling only got deeper. But the first time I saw Super Mario World for the Super Nintendo, I stared at the screen and I remember thinking 'This is it, this is what the future will look like!' Discovering that game and playing through that first level is without a doubt one of my happiest memories."

Another side-effect of the rarity of game consoles was that they became huge social magnets for their owners. As one of the few kids with a Super Nintendo, Pagliery was suddenly very popular.

"Weekends in my house were always full of kids playing and screaming, sometimes like 11 kids together in one room. You'd lose and pass the controller to the next kid. Looking back, you could say that I was a 'truly' socialist boy at the time."

Pagliery knew early on that he wanted to create these games, but it always seemed impossible. He went on to pursue a degree in visual arts from the Instituto Superior de Arte in Havana and in 2005 founded his own performance art troupe – a fairly radical idea in the Cuba of the mid-aughts. The group, called "La Teoria Dorada de Popeye" (Popeye's Golden Theory) dressed in costumes and performed a combination of grunge-noise rock and violent, transgressive performance art inspired by the Viennesse Actionism of the 1960s.

"Rock music in Cuba has always been unpopular for the vast majority of the population and is frowned on by the government, so every single one of our performances was always in jeopardy until the last minute," Pagliery says. "Many of them were even suspended in the middle of the act."

Through his career as an artist, Pagliery participated in numerous of projects, including animation and video work that was heavily influenced by a video game aesthetic. That was his entree into game design.

"I think that the most important element of video game development is the conceptual structure, and that's something that the study of visual arts and literature gave to me." He talks passionately about a fundamental fusion of aesthetic and mechanics, a unified design that he feels is missing from even some of the most polished (and well-funded) contemporary video games. For Pagliery, the relationship with the audience is more important in video games than in any other medium, because of the way the audience directly interacts with the art.

"I toyed briefly with some non-game projects and some really experimental video games. I quickly discovered that I didn't really want to do that – it felt to me like taking the easy path," he says. "So I started developing the concept of Savior. Once I felt like I had something solid, formally and conceptually speaking, I started to look for a programmer."

Enter Hernandez, who at the time was working with a group of other freelance programmers. Pagliery showed his early designs for Savior to the group, but only Hernandez expressed any interest. He recognized Pagliery's surname; as luck would have it, he'd gone to high school with Josuhe's youngest brother. He was immediately drawn to the concept.

For a project that's so risky and precarious in so many ways, Savior doesn't shy away from big, controversial ideas. "A lot of elements in the game come from the very distinctive reality of Cuba," Pagliery says. "The symbols are there, and in Savior, I use many of them liberally – thousands of historical, philosophical, political and artistic Cuban references – because you can never escape from the reality of your everyday life and where you come from."

Savior puts you in the shoes of a "Little God" who awakens to find that his world is disappearing. Abandoned by its creator, the universe is starting to come apart at the seams, and it's your job to knit it back together. As you play, however, it becomes apparent that you're only a bit player in a much larger story – and perhaps even a much larger game.

"I've always been very interested in this idea of a 'game inside a game' and how you could deconstruct a video game from this particular perspective," Pagliery says. "Savior is made up of very different layers of concepts that coexist together." One layer is the literal – the story of the main character and his attempt to save his world. It's in this layer that Pagliery explores the idea of what a "savior" really is, whether a hero or "an egocentric figure focused on himself and his own personal goals."

But Pagliery insists there's an equally important second layer. "The whole of the game is very much related to philosophy – a kind of misanthropic existentialism – and Judeo-Christian mythology. I start from the theological concept that God and reality are indistinguishable, and then translate that logic to a video game."

For Pagliery, the way video games create their own pocket realities mirrors the concept of pantheism, the idea that god is everywhere and everything. "If God is reality, then a video game – which is a self-sufficient reality unto itself – could be a genuine manifestation of God. And when questions about what reality is arise, when the characters discover that they're all living inside a collapsing game, there's an immediate tension between reality and fiction, as well as the player and the game itself."

Savior represents Empty Head Games' attempt to emulate the way we as humans compress and contextualize a shared, global reality and make it coherent and personal. For Pagliery, that reality is one defined, for better or worse, by his nationality. It's a factor that not only shapes his ambitions but is also a constant influence in his day-to-day life. But for all these limitations, which he readily acknowledges, he's not embittered by circumstance.

"Being Cuban is really important to me. The motherland is the place where my family and friends live, the place where I was born and raised – my place inside this big world. I wish we had the same opportunities that every other developer in the world has. My greatest hope for Savior is that the people that play it say 'Hey, check out this wonderful game,' and maybe never even know that it came from Cuba. I don't want to be 'that Cuban guy' who made a video game, struggling with poor internet and a lack of funds. I just want to be the guy who made a great video game."

Whether Pagliery likes it or not, he, like all artists, is molded as much by nurture as by nature, influenced by his circumstances and his background in ways no one, least of all him, can fully quantify. But Savior isn't a game about Cuba, at least not overtly. It's a game about the human experience, about our species' complex relationship with religion and our fumbling understanding of concepts like immanence and divinity. If anything, it's a game that flies in the face of the sort of weighty Cuban patriotism Pagliery grew up inundated by.

"Patriotism is a concept more related to chauvinism from my point of view, and in this country it's always used from a very ideologically-oriented perspective. I don't like politics much and usually distrust anyone with a microphone, regardless of where they're from, who insist on speaking in my name. If the history of the world didn't have so many 'saviors' with that kind of personality, I honestly think that we'd all better off.

"But hey, I'm just a Cuban independent game developer, what do I know about politics?"