HAVANA – At a relative’s house in Miami's Coconut Grove, Cuban artist Josuhe Pagliery is showing me something on his laptop that looks what he calls "super cool." (That's the English translation. I can't print the Spanish expression.)
A petite robed figure is squaring off with monsters against an eerie backdrop of jagged peaks and mystical music. It’s a scene from a video game Pagliery is developing called "Savior." More important, it’s Cuba’s first independent video game. As in, not produced by Cuba’s communist government. And the stakes are high.
“If our game goes really bad, maybe it’s like we close the door for developing independent games in Cuba," says Pagliery, who is 35. "But if our game goes well, I think a lot of young people in Cuba will say, ‘Hey, we want to try that too.’ ”
The international “gamer” community seems to think “Savior” can be a hit. This year Pagliery has promoted his project in Miami and New York – and raised more than $10,000 in crowdfunding to finish the game’s demo.
Along the way, “Savior” is pushing the boundaries of Cuban art, computer tech – and private entrepreneurship.
“We feel like pioneers in this,” says Pagliery’s partner, 30-year-old Cuban computer whiz Johann Hernández, at his home in Havana.
Though Hernández and Pagliery are both devoted gamers, they're techie and artsy mindsets don't always mesh. (Their gaming sensibilities are different too: Hernández is a computer guy; Pagliery is console.) But when they met last year, Hernández was so impressed with Pagliery's art he signed on as the tech brains for their new company, Empty Head Games.
“Almost all the gamers here in Cuba, nobody plays Cuban government video games," says Hernández. "The government video games don’t entertain.”
It's not that Cuba's state-produced video games are particularly bad. They just really aren’t meant to entertain. They’re often designed to teach Cubans about the Cuban Revolution. Not exactly “Super Mario.”
But in recent years, popular games like the “Super Mario” series and “Sword and Sorcery” have made their way into Cuba. And they’ve fired the imaginations of artists like Pagliery.
“I’m very influenced by that kind of aesthetic," says Pagliery. "It feels like a whole new universe, but interconnected.”
Pagliery studied at Havana’s Higher Institute of Art – and there’s a lot that’s interconnected in his video game vision. It’s equal parts fantasy and philosophy – creatures and Kafka. And like many Cuban artists will tell you, it’s driven to some degree by their island’s economic deprivation.
“Sometimes when you have less you go more deep in things," Pagliery points out. "Like the way I see creation.”
Creation is what “Savior” is about. Or re-creation. A child-like hero named Little God awakes to find his world has collapsed. He has to travel through several levels – and face a gallery of beasts – in a quest to rebuild it.
The visuals have a dark but dream-like quality – some of it inspired by Arnold Böcklin’s haunting painting, “Isle of the Dead.” The story evokes the allegory of Tolkien, the surrealism of Karel Čapek – and the redemption of the Bible.
“It’s about the idea of what a savior is," says Pagliery. "Then, take that concept and put it inside the logic of what a video game is.”
In Havana, Hernández shows me how that concept plays out in the game itself. Using an ad hoc collection of desktop hardware common in Cuban households, he wants to make the timing mechanism on the player control more responsive than most Cuban games.
“You must always let the gamer think that he has the control," Hernández says, "not the game has the control over the player.”
Pagliery and Hernández haven’t let the obstacles in Cuba control them.
Making a video game requires downloading a lot of programming components – and just as much online networking with the gamer community. But Cuba has one of the world’s lowest and slowest levels of internet access. If the “Savior” duo wants to get connected they buy an internet card and trudge out to a WiFi hotspot. What takes hours in the U.S. can take them a day.
“It’s unbelievable what the two of them have done and how far they’ve come given their limited resources," says Jonathan Matusky of the Connecticut-based Innovadores Foundation, a non-profit that mentors and promotes Cuban tech start-ups.
After seeing some of the “Savior” project this year, Matusky took Pagliery and Hernández to the crowdfunding company Indiegogo. It’s the first time Cuban entrepreneurs have raised cash that way.
“I think Josuhe and Johann will encourage other young, creative Cubans to stay here and develop games, develop apps and websites and build the future of Cuba,” says Matusky.
That’s a lot riding on one video game. And the “Savior” team still has to raise another $50,000 to get it completed by 2018. But most gamers would consider that challenge, as the man said, "super cool."