Cuba is known for quite a lot of things: its famous cigars, the Cuban Missile Crisis, Castro – but video games? No. At least not yet!
Savior is a special game. Some might see it as just another platformer. It is, however, not only one of many indie games, but the first one ever to be developed in Cuba. Just so you get an idea of the circumstances Josuhe and his colleagues work under: All pictures in this article were taken from his website, Facebook or his campaign video, as he wasn’t able to send us any material due to the nightmarish internet connection.
Thank you so much for taking the time to tell us about the game you are working on and of course what makes it so unique. But first things first: Would you please introduce yourself and your team? Where do you guys come from?
Hi, my name is Josuhe Pagliery and I am the creative director of Savior. I have a degree in visual arts from the Superior Institute of Arts in Havana (ISA). My partner in this adventure is Johann Hernandez. He is our programmer, a graduated computer scientist from the Havana University. We are the true core of Empty Head Games and we worked completely on our own for almost a whole year. Besides that we collaborate with a very small group of friends and professionals when it comes to certain tasks as animation, VFX, SFX and music. Some of them come and go, others like Ruben Cruces (SFX and everything else!), German Carrasco (musician) or Tony Nodarse (animator) are staying with us as fundamental parts of the team.
The game you are working on is called »Savior« – but before we talk about what makes the development process so uniquely special, please tell us more about the title itself and about its basics like the genre, the core mechanics and the player’s goal? And of course: What is the game’s story? How did the idea behind it come to life?
I always felt very interested in the idea of a »game inside a game«, and how you could deconstruct the whole structure of what a video game really is from this particular perspective. Savior is created under very different layers of concepts that co-exist together: The first layer is what I call the »literal background« of a history in which the player interacts with the sort of classic video game fable. Our main character (intrinsically a hero) tries to save his own world after the Great God – some kind of anonymous and very powerful, supreme being – disgraced it by leaving it.
Sometimes it was like having to reinvent videogames over and over again!
At this point I explored some ideas about what a savior really is. Maybe a hero – I go very close with Carlyle’s conception of what a hero is (»On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and The Heroic in History« is a book by Thomas Carlyle, published in 1841 in London, as a collection of six lectures, given in May 1980; source: Wikipedia) – or maybe some kind of egocentric figure focused on himself and in his personals goals. The game itself is closely related to the Judeo-Christian mythology. I started with the theological concept of God equal to reality, and from that point I translated this logic into a videogame: If God is equal to reality, then a video game (what is a self-sufficient reality by itself) could be a genuine manifestation of what God is. And when these questions over what reality is arose, you could not miss the tension that immediately erupted between reality and fiction and therefore the player and the game itself. Savior tries to emulate the human process of personalizing the »global« conception of reality into a very personal one.
Finally I have the game mechanics and they are something I feel extraordinarily proud of, because we managed to create a very particular mix between a classic 2D platformer control and a timing-based gameplay mechanic. The gameplay itself will be constantly evolving during the process of playing, but that is something I don’t want to spoil for our future gamers.
Who composed the excellent soundtrack? The atmosphere it generates in combination with the visuals is amazing.
The musician working with us is German Carrasco who is already studying composition in fifth year at the Superior Institute of Arts in Havana (ISA). His tendency as an artist to this sort of melancholic sadness in sound is present in almost the whole game, solidifying my goal in recreating a deep emotional experience with Savior.
So, Savior is actually a video game about characters being part of a video game. Looking at the art of your game, the graphics, the characters and monsters range from mythical to even a little disturbing. Would I have to guess, I’d say it’s a mixture between Egyptian and Greek, with an oriental touch. But what exactly were your main inspirations?
Well, for sure I have a lot of cultural references in Savior. The concept, as I mentioned before, comes from a theological background, so in terms of history I think we are very related to the Judeo-Christian mythology. In terms of visuals I have a lot of influences from symbo- lism-artists such as Brocklin or Millet, some of Art Noveau and Deco style in the way I deal with the backgrounds, steam glass aesthetic in general (all of the heavy black lines around every single element come from the idea of emulating that iconic religious look), a lot of Japanese artists as Akiman or Yoshitaka Amano mixed with some of the old Disney movies, European and even Russian animation as well. Sorry man, but I could keep going and going when it comes to this subject!
I love these moments when levels become totally surreal, e. g. when there are lines of code shimmering through in the back of the stages, making clear the world your character is trying to escape from actually is a video game. It reminds me of Kratos from »God of War« having to escape Hades, with a little bit of »Matrix« mixed in. I have to ask: Considering the circumstances under which the title is being developed, Savior seems like one huge metaphor. If so, would you talk about what it stands for?
A metaphor should never be revealed. Knowing about the concrete idea kills the fun and the important mental process of actually getting into what you are playing on your own. Still, we have a lot coming from our very distinct reality in Cuba, and as I told you before I really enjoyed this kind of philosophical analysis, the interpretation of what reality is. The symbols are there, and in Savior I have used many if not thousands of historical, philosophical, political and artistic references as well as, of course, typically Cuban references. Simply because you could never escape that »real« reality of everyday life! Then you have the pieces but you have to put them together on your own, and depending on what kind of person you are, you have your very own perspective of what kind of game Savior is. But don’t worry, if you don’t want to »suffer« too much from any intellectual process, you can still simply play that silly and superbly animated video game of a »hero« with a white mask and horns trying to save »another« ruined world.
Apart from being an indie game with beautiful graphics, a cool story and a formidable soundtrack, there is one other thing that makes Savior such a unique title: It actually is the first indie game to be developed in Cuba which kind of makes you pioneers for an industry that’s been growing immensely over the last decades. What makes developing a game in Cuba so difficult? Is it the politics? Is it the infrastructure?
It is a mixture of all those factors. Back in the 80’s or 90’s video games in Cuba were very uncommon among regular people. If you could afford an SNES in ‘92 with four cartridges you were kind of a very wealthy person. At that time people in Cuba weren’t allowed to have a personal computer of their own, so all the games back in those days were exclusively on consoles. Besides that negative fact, the Cuban government saw video games in general as this American imperialistic way of brainwashing the new generation. Believe me, those weren’t cool times for Cuban gamers! Right now the government invests at least some resources trying to create a national video game industry in Cuba, aiming at the kind of boring historical and/or educational video games of poor quality. And it’s still like before, they wish to create a monolithic structure in which all developers work under only one direction – good luck with that s#§%!
What were, from a developer’s standpoint (programming, design, etc.), the most difficult hurdles to master?
We struggled a lot with the animations when we first started the production. Keep in mind: Cuba is so much different to other countries, especially when it comes to accessing information. Therefore many, many times we were confronted with a lot problems concerning video games, that had actually already been solved looooong ago, but we had to solve them all by ourselves! It was like having to reinvent video games all over again!
For example, the idea of having different and individual game mechanics sounds – at least in this case – cooler than it actually is, because you need triple the iterations compared to working with classical and already established gameplay. You could always end up doing something »new« that still wasn’t fun or good. Let’s just hope this will not be the case, but – you know – »new« isn’t necessarily a synonym for »good« …
How do you finance your work? What is the most expensive part of developing Savior? And are there ways for interested gamers to support your project? You had a campaign on Indiegogo.com – is it still going? And are there any other campaigns as well or do you all have regular jobs, with Savior being a project you can only work on in your spare-time?
‘New’ isn’t necessarily a synonym for ‘good’!
All the things we’ve accomplished so far we exclusively financed ourselves and that is something I am really proud of! Believe me, it’s particularly hard in a country in which we experienced the conversion towards a capitalist way of living but under the same old socialist-based society over the last five years. For me as an artist it is extraordinarily difficult – sometimes you have money, sometimes you simply don’t, the production, however, never stops running. The Indiegogo-campaign seriously came in at the perfect time, a genuine »savior« so to say. At exactly that point we started to run out of money and that put us and the project itself under a lot of pressure and stress. Me, I’ve always been working on Savior full time. Just now – again thanks to the campaign – Johann left his prior job as a web-programmer, so he could focus entirely on the game. We still depend on the Savior-campaign at Indiegogo, and luckily for us, there are still a lot of amazing folks all around the world supporting us and our project. Let me take this chance to express my deepest gratitude to all of them!
In your interview with Kotaku you said, it took you almost 30 minutes to open the website and read their article about Savior. Exactly how badly does the lack of internet slow you down? And how badly does it affect the most important factor of developing a game besides the actual development: getting people to know about your game?
Know that you are a really lucky guy! You could have this really slow internet-modem in your house, which hasn’t enough power to let you see anything in motion – no videos, no Youtube, nothing! Here it is, for example, impossible to open the Indiegogo-page. Imagine that you don’t have a bank account, imagine that you have hardly any idea what other people like you are developing at the moment. Forget access to press, festivals, crowdfunding campaigns (we were only able to do that with the help of the Innovadores Foundation based in America).
When we started the campaign we had 200 followers on Facebook and 36 on Twitter; it was a heartbreaking moment for us when we read about the necessary numbers that people and even Indiegogo suggested for starting a campaign. Imagine, they talked about 8.000+ followers and things like that! How could you promote yourself in a country where even having a simple video chat requires a hideous travel to some sunny Wi-Fi hotspot, where you are surrounded by hundreds of people sitting in the streets like they are homeless? Because of that I always insisted that we aren’t indie developers. We are indie-undergrounds because our working conditions are far worse than almost anywhere in the rest of the world. Our equipment, for example: Until my recent trip to the US, I was drawing with an old Wacom bamboo model from 2009, the same with my I-3 computer I got on a distant trip to Canada within the same year.
Our programmer is working with an I-5 from 2012, he doesn’t even have the »luck« of having a modem so his only chance to go online lies at one of those few Wi-Fi hotspots! For Cubans, Cuba isn’t exactly a cheap place to live, you have to struggle with all sorts of difficulties – financing a game and still making enough for a normal living. And what about your personal life? Hey man, I am lucky enough to still have a girlfriend. All the money I have flows directly into the production of the game. The expectations and the feedback of all people prior to the campaign was almost completely negative: »You’re crazy, how are you ever going to recover from all this money you spent? Who will play this game anyway?« Suddenly you’re no longer a professional or even an artist, you’re just some isolated weirdo who is stupidly dreaming of making a video game no one’s ever going to see anyway.
On Indiegogo.com it says that you initially tried to collect just enough money to produce a playable demo. How about the stretch goals? What’s the actual status – of the campaign and of the game itself?
As far as I can tell you we are now listed under »on demand« on Indiegogo and we are still receiving some money from there. Our next goal is to launch the playable demo of Savior in late March 2017, maybe April. That could help us reaching and finding more people interested in future collaborations, but I’m telling you: For us, the demo will be the real game changer! At the end of the day a game has to be played and tested for his value. If it fails at this point already all the wonderful history, graphics, visuals and music were in vain.
I would imagine that your interview with Kotaku gave you and your game quite a solid push? Did it actually help making a greater deal of people aware of Savior? Promoting a game nowadays often seems to be more of a deal-breaker than developing the game itself. Do you get the chance to attend many events to promote the game?
Yeah, that is something I had to learn the hard way. I really hate the entrepreneur part of being a businessman. It’s a necessary evil I am simply not good at. Plus, it’s really sad when people who don’t know anything about you or your life instantly think of that stereotype of the poor Cuban guy struggling with his »colorful« socialist reality. On hand it becomes really annoying, on the other hand you need to pursue every chance you get to make your project visible to others. That’s the price and my personal rule. It doesn’t matter if it’s an interview with Polygon, Kotaku, you or that really cool girI from Turkey – I go into every interview with the same enthusiasm. When it comes to gaming events – well, no, we didn’t have the opportunity to attend even a single event in our lives as developers so far.
Have you ever thought about moving to another country, even if it’s just for developing Savior under different, more comfortable circumstances? Or do you actually say: »No, even if it’s hard, I’m going to stay here, develop this game here in Cuba and show the people, what is actually possible!«
The future is always uncertain but I think that it is fundamental that at least the playable demo comes completely from Cuba – »Made in Cuba«. I see that as a statement, proof that you can make a really good game no matter how many resources you have at your disposal. That’s the beauty of art and sometimes less is better. Viewing the whole situation from that angle probably puts us as developers in a better position than almost anybody else in the world. It’s really hard thinking of another video game developer who has less than we do.
Are there any bigger events, maybe even in Europe, that you are going to attend in 2017?
Not at the moment, but I’m quite optimistic that with the playable demo in our hands we could reach a whole new level of possibilities that may even bring Savior to Europe.
When do you plan on finishing Savior?
In late 2018, but I don’t want to set it in stone.
Should Savior become a success, what are your plans for the time after?
Man, let’s hope your words come true but I don’t want to have any expectations towards »future success« and things like that. We have to stay realistic and respect what we have now. In that order you need to focus on your immediate next steps, and for me this next step is the demo. After that I will put up another close milestone and another, until you suddenly find yourself finishing the whole game. If you don’t work t that way, at least here in Cuba, you could end up getting lost in a vacuous world of wet dreams and illusions.
What are your personal wishes for this year and the following – for Savior itself, but also for Cuba’s gaming community and the industry?
I wish that we could have the same opportunities every other developer has in this world – no more, no less. My biggest expectation with Savior is that at the end of the day people from the rest of the world will say »Hey, check out this wonderful game« and maybe that guy never knew that this specific video game came from Cuba. My point is: I don’t want to be the Cuban guy who made a video game. I want to be the guy who simply made a great video game. Period.
Is there a game – besides Savior – you always dreamt about developing?
That’s easy: »Final Fantasy 6«, in my modest opinion, is the best video game ever made. Even if I reincarnate a million times with the only purpose of making video games, I still couldn’t get even close to the perfection of this incredible work of art!
Josuhe, thank you so much for your time – we wish you all the best and lots of success for Savior!
About Josuhe Pagliery
Josuhe is the director, art designer and screenwriter of Savior. He graduated in fine arts from the »Academia de Bellas Artes San Alejandro« and the »Universidad de las artes I.S.A.« He has experience as an animator and founded and directed the performance group »Golden Theory Popeye« from 2003-2013.