Savior: Cuba’s First Independent Video Game

 
 
 Savior, 2017. Image courtesy Josuhe H. Pagliery and Johann H. Almenteros.

Savior, 2017. Image courtesy Josuhe H. Pagliery and Johann H. Almenteros.

SAVIOR: CUBA’S FIRST INDEPENDENT VIDEO GAME
Interviewer: Teresa Silva
Director of Exhibitions & Residencies at the Chicago Artists Coalition
Interviewee: Josuhe H. Pagliery
Director, art designer, and screenwriter of Savior

Abstract: Josuhe H. Pagliery is an artist and game developer based in Havana, Cuba. He is one half of the co-creators behind the new and critically-acclaimed video game Savior, along with partner Johann H. Almenteros. In this interview, Pagliery discusses the background and influences of Savior, as well as his aesthetic approach and efforts to collect resources to make the project a reality. Answers for this interview were provided through an email exchange with Teresa Silva.

TS: First, I want to thank you, Josuhe, for giving me the chance to talk with you about your video game, Savior. VGA Gallery and its brand-new VGA Reader feel fortunate to feature your project to a global audience.

I want to start off by mentioning that recent media coverage in the United States for Savior has been very positive, though highly focused on certain aspects of the game. Are there more important themes or concepts that are part of the game, which we, the international audience, are missing? Also, what is the intention behind the title, Savior?

JHP: Savior is a 2D platformer heavily inspired by 16-bit video games. The history comes from the idea of a “game inside a game,” and begins when the main character, Little God, discovers that his whole world is nothing more than a collapsing video game. To reinforce our breaking of the fourth wall, our game starts in the most archetypical way possible: a hero trying to save his world after the mysterious departure of his creator, the Great God. But this sense of familiarity rapidly disappears as you begin to see the true nature of Savior, a game that uses its narrative and gameplay to deconstruct the nature of a video game.

The game is rooted in Judeo-Christian mythology, based on the theological principle that God is equivalent to reality. I translated this logic to a video game: if God is equal to reality, then a video game, which is its own self-sufficient reality, could be a literal representation of what God metaphorically is; from this central premise, the tension emerges between reality and fiction, the player and the game. From this perspective, the search for the Great God could be seen as the desperate need of the protagonist to repair the fiction of the video game while on a self-destructive path toward the annihilation of this artificial reality.

TS: Some younger or general audiences may not be familiar with significant moments in recent Cuban history. Specifically, I am thinking of the “Special Period” that occurred in the 1990s. It forced a new phase of the Cuban revolutionary process. Cuba struggled with the loss of support from the Soviet Union when it dissolved. There was a mass exodus of Cubans from the island to mostly the United States. Is Savior a reaction to that era—or the very recent opening up of political relations with the United States—that international audiences should know about? How have these phases affected your relationship to gaming and game development?

JHP: Of course, a clear parallel exists between Savior and the socio-political changes currently taking place in Cuba, and, with that in mind, we’re trying to create a sort of generational document to archive this unique moment in the history of our country. If we manage to achieve that with Savior, then the line between game and reality will be erased completely.

TS: As I understand it, your partner Johann H. Armenteros is a computer scientist and the programmer of Savior, while you created the concept, art, and design. When did you meet Johann and decide to collaborate on this project? What were the steps you took to procure the resources to make it a reality?

JHP: The development of Savior started almost two years ago. I always wanted to make a video game, but until a few years ago we didn’t have the technology to try something like this in Cuba. After I started creating the designs and writing the story, I began to look for a programmer and quickly found Johann, a programmer interested in video games as well. In the beginning, we nearly made the same mistakes that many other startup developers make: a game more complex than what we could produce, constant changes in the story and the gameplay, issues developing a game from scratch…the list goes on. But I always felt, even in the most challenging moments, that we had something special on our hands, and we persevered.

The challenge in the first year was to find a way to finance the game. We started out using the money I’d saved from my art, and later Johann’s savings as a web programmer. Our funds quickly dwindled, but we met someone from a US nonprofit that helped us launch one of the first Cuban crowdfunding campaigns on Indiegogo. To our surprise, we funded our $10k goal in just 6 days. With this campaign came a lot of press—Polygon, Kotaku, PC Gamer, Game Spot—publications that I wouldn’t have imagined we could reach in my wildest dreams! Thanks to the international press, while being completely ignored in Cuba, we gained some kind of weird notoriety in the world of video games. Honestly, we got more attention for being Cuban guys who work in isolation without internet than for the game itself; but, thanks to that, our project, Savior, is still alive today.

TS: What has the reaction to Savior been inside Cuba—both general audiences and the gaming and artist communities?

JHP: Sadly, in Cuba our game is almost non-existent. It’s funny, though, that there are more than 50 articles, from all over the world, about Savior: articles from the US, Australia, Turkey, China and Russia. However, we still don’t have one single article from the official press in our own country. In Cuba, everything has political meaning, and the fact that we are completely independent doesn’t exactly fit in with a centralized vision of the Cuban government. So only small and independents publications have spread the word, and the most impressive is that almost daily we receive emails of support. I deeply believe that if our game succeeds that it will create a whole new breed of Cuban indie developers, but we are still far from that point. In the meanwhile, we are just two isolated weirdos with time to spend on something very, very risky and even unimportant, as some think we are making a “Mario kind of game.” It’s a pessimistic view imposed on us from people we know, as well as those we know from the art world. They say, “you should draw or paint to make real money,” and that’s the “friendliest” advice I’ve heard so far.

TS: I understand that you are trained as an artist—you went to art school in Cuba. You also participated in the Havana Biennial. This is significant because the Havana Biennial—in a relatively short amount of time and resources—became successful in bringing Latin American and Caribbean artists and their work to international contemporary art circles. Often, these are artists whose work falls outside the scope of institutions. What did it mean for you to be included in the Havana Biennial? What was your experience? Did it change your relationship to making art or game development?

JHP: That’s the biggest achievement a Cuban artist could have inside the country. So, for me, both personally and professionally, it meant a lot. The video game art I showed in the Biennial (which was programmed by Johann) was a non-game called Destroyer structured from the Schrodinger cat paradox.

 Screenshot from Destroyer, 2015. Image courtesy Josuhe H. Pagliery and Johann H. Almenteros

Screenshot from Destroyer, 2015. Image courtesy Josuhe H. Pagliery and Johann H. Almenteros

That work was a real turning point for me, because it helped me to understand (and this is a very subjective view) that even though I feel a lot of respect for this kind of more art-oriented video game, I felt like I was betraying something. In my humble opinion, video games don’t need to be associated with other historically established forms of art to gain respect or authenticity from people, including intellectuals. Video games have a very unique form of narrative, structure and visuals, by any means inferior to other artistic or intellectual forms of expression, so I deeply think we don’t need to emulate, out of self-pity, another art discipline to gain “high art” status. Of course, that doesn’t mean that we should stupidly dismiss all the invaluable experiences we gain from the humanities: philosophy, literature, film, visual arts, science, poetry, etc. In any case, we should include this knowledge into the video game experience and not let it masquerade as something it’s not.

TS: What artists, either working in contemporary art, video games, or illustration, do you think you are most in-conversation with?

JHP: Savior is structured like a conceptual work of art. The deconstructive narrative is reflected visually in the classic 2D aesthetic; it accentuates the artificiality of the “reality” that is represented in the game.

 Savior, “Isle of the Dead,” 2017. Image courtesy Josuhe H. Pagliery and Johann H. Almenteros.

Savior, “Isle of the Dead,” 2017. Image courtesy Josuhe H. Pagliery and Johann H. Almenteros.

Many of the visual influences come from symbolist painters like Bocklin or Millet, with touches of Art Nouveau and Art Deco styles in the game’s backdrops. I use heavy, dark outlines to emulate both the religious aesthetics of stain glass windows and the classic style of 90’s games from Japan, specifically CAPCOM and Konami games, as wells as visuals artist such as Akiman, Amano, McCarthy, Barney. Also, writers such as Carlyle, Kafka, Capeck, or Cervantes have been big influences on my work.

Strictly talking about video games, I feel very influenced by games such as Earthworm Jim, Castlevania 4, The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening, MDK, Final Fantasy 6, the work of Fumito Ueda, and more recently the Dark Souls series, and particularly for Savior, The Legend of Mystical Ninja or Ganbare Goemon in Japan (the 16-bit versions). I always remember that in the third level you could play Gradius inside a fair tent, a game inside a game. That move simply blew my mind!

TS: I want to change gears and talk about some of the aesthetic choices you’ve made in Savior and what they mean to the cultural content of the game. One thing that is striking about the game is that it goes from very lush visuals to harsh, glitched-out moments that can have a really visceral effect on players. What is the intended effect of contrasting a highly-illustrated world with exposed code and glitch aesthetics?

JHP: First I bring the player into this very conventional 2D platform with this never-ending story of the typical hero trying to save the world, and all of a sudden everything starts to fall apart, not only visually speaking but also from the gameplay narrative. The aesthetic needs to be impressive, very smooth and polished in order for you to really experience the radicalism of the destruction of everything around you later. It’s a huge contrast between the world that you know and the destruction that later ensues. I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but I will say that the game at the very end will really take you out of your comfort zone.

TS: Why did you choose to resolve Savior as a puzzle platformer style game? Or does it not fit the normal conventions of platformers, and if so, why?

JHP: Savior is not a puzzle game. To be honest, I don’t like too many puzzles games. With Savior, I tried to make a “weird” platformer, but its gameplay and aesthetics come from the 2D platformer genre, and still—like in the “old good days”—you will need some skills to get through the whole game.

TS: What’s next on the horizon for Savior and for you in terms of new creative projects in gaming or art?

JHP: Next for Johann and I is the launch of the demo at VGA Gallery in Chicago. We come from a place where it is safer and smarter not to look too deep into the future. Once we accomplish a milestone, we will set a new one for ourselves. The only thing is that we don’t want to stop. Luckily for us right now, it’s been easy to keep moving forward and not look back.

TS: Thank you very much for your time and generosity in sharing your thoughts, Josuhe.

JHP: Thanks again for this interview.

Bios

Josuhe H. Pagliery (b. 1981, Havana, Cuba) graduated in Painting from the National Academy of Fine Arts San Alejandro and later from the University of Arts (ISA) with a degree in Visual Arts. He also has been a teacher at ISA and gained experience as an animator in the Cuban Institute of Film, Radio and Television (ICAIC). For many years, he did performance art with the group La Teoria Dorada de Popeye. His artwork has been exhibited in Cuba and internationally in Germany, US, UK, Spain, Canada, among other places. More recently, Pagliery was officially invited to the 12th Havana Art Biennial and is currently working with the programmer Johann Hernández Armenteros to create the first Cuban independent videogame Savior.     

Teresa Silva is a writer, curator, and the Director of Exhibitions & Residencies at the Chicago Artists Coalition. She is a member of the artist-run spaces VGA Gallery (Chicago), Tiger Strikes Asteroid (Chicago), and Exgirlfriend (Berlin).