The notion of private enterprise in Cuba usually refers to restaurants known as “paladares,” classic car owners who serve as taxis or homes that offer rooms-for-rent to tourists.
But despite limited access to the internet for the masses, lack of information from outside the island and constrained social media interaction — in a country where piracy rules — two young men from Havana are betting on an almost untapped market: video games.
Using a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo, multimedia artist Josuhe Pagliery, 35, and programmer Johann Armenteros, 30, hope to raise $10,000 to fund “Savior,” the first independent video game made in Cuba.
“Having launched this without access to social media or the internet is like going to run at the Olympics without shoes,” says Pagliery, who is visiting Miami, where he has family.
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The “Savior” game, an animated 2D-platformer, is based on a fictional tale about “little god,” the protagonist, who wakes up early in the game to discover that his world is falling apart. He then starts searching for the “creator of the universe” through different game levels. “Savior” seeks to constantly surprise the player and exploits personal and emotional experiences.
Pagliery, who graduated from Havana’s San Alejandro Academy of Fine Arts and Superior Institute of the Arts said that being outside Cuba gives him the possibility to network and connect with more people.
Before launching a crowdfunding campaign, he said, it is desirable to have as many supporters and followers on social media as possible.
“We did not have any of that in Cuba. We really did the best we could,” he said.
Pagliery founded Empty Head Games, a home-based Havana studio, and later partnered with Armenteros, a mathematics and computer science graduate from the University of Havana.
Cubans are fascinated by video games.
Josuhe Pagliery, founder of Empty Head Games
The duo has faced several challenges creating an indie video game in Cuba, mainly because “there is no previous experience. There is no close reference to go to,” Pagliery said.
Still, he said, “Cubans are fascinated by video games.”
On the island, most video games are pirated and distributed along with movies, novels and other entertainment products in an underground network known as El Paquete — a two-gigabytes mix of audiovisual materials distributed on external hard drives and flash drives.
All video games produced by Cuban state-run institutions such as the University of Information Sciences (UCI) and the Youth Computer Clubs are about educational or historical topics.
For example, the video game “Gesta Final” (Final Feat) based on revolutionary history and produced by the Youth Club, recreates the guerrilla war led by Fidel Castro to overthrow Fulgencio Batista. Other games such as “Aventuras en La Manigua” (Adventured in La Manigua) or “Super Claria” represent what Pagliery calles the “cubanization of video games,” which he considers “very superficial, based on formulas too widely used.”
Those games “could work the ‘cubanidad’ from a different perspective,” Pagliery said, adding that independent productions are more sincere.
“The independent spirit of production gives you the freedom to do whatever you want,” he said.
Although there are other independent video game projects on the island, Pagliery said they are built “for mobile phones, are more commercial.”
“Savior” is “more serious, more elaborate, more professional,” he said.
The game thrives on Pagliery’s experience in art and Armenteros’ programming skills.
Empty Head Games has received backing by Innovadores Foundation, a U.S.-based non-profit exchange between entrepreneurs and technology innovators in Cuba, and the Ludwig Foundation of Cuba, which promotes Cuban artists.
Pagliery expects that next year they will have a playable demo ready for PC, Mac and Linux that can be promoted in festivals and technology events. The duo’s dream is to bring the game to consoles like XBox and Playstation.
“Although we do not have the necessary background or visibility, to launch this campaign has been a huge first step,” he said.
Follow Abel Fernández on Twitter: @abelfglez