Mission complete: Cubans defy odds to release first video game abroad

Pagliery (left) and Darias gesture during the release of ‘Saviorless’, the first Cuban game on international video game platforms, on April 2, 2024 in Havana. — AFP

HAVANA: Cuba’s first independent video game launched internationally this week after its creators leveled up from an epic real-world quest: battling sanctions, wrestling with Internet connection demons, and forging through economic turmoil.

Saviorless is a 2D game with hand-drawn illustrations that invites players into a dark fantasy world to unravel the mystery of the “Islands of Smiles” by fighting monsters and solving puzzles.

Much like their characters, creators Josuhe Pagliery and David Darias had to overcome a multitude of obstacles to achieve what at times appeared impossible on the Communist island.

"The project arose at a historic moment," said Pagliery, 43, a graphic artist who first dreamed up the idea in 2016, at a time when Cuba and the United States saw a thaw in relations under the presidency of Barack Obama.

The endeavor got support from an American foundation and crowdfunding, and Pagliery even travelled to the United States where his dream of creating an independent Cuban video game was covered by the media.

At the same time, in Cuba, where it had only been available in public places at high prices, the Internet became available on cellphones in 2018, and the cost of connecting dramatically lowered.

But after this “bright period” came “the perfect storm to cancel the project”, said Pagliery.

Sanctioned shores

Political tensions returned under the US presidency of Donald Trump, who reinforced economic sanctions. The initial programmer tasked with developing the game emigrated, and Cuba plunged into its worst economic crisis in decades after the Covid pandemic, marked by shortages and electricity blackouts.

"Instability is what characterised this project throughout its development," said Darias, 35, a former professor at the University of Havana who now works from home as an independent programmer.

Financial constraints, a spat over the name of the game, doubts, and technological challenges all provided obstacles along the way on the island which has been under US embargo since 1962.

Their software did not always work on a slow Internet connection, they had to connect via a VPN (virtual private network) to use programs banned due to sanctions, and backups were complicated by power outages.

"The worst thing, which happened twice, was when we lost not only the work we had just done, but also that from the whole week," when the electricity cut during a backup, said Darias.

After four years of work, their finances bled dry, and hundreds of letters to international publishers that went unanswered, the two friends decided to do a "free demo so that there was at least a trace of all our efforts", said Pagliery.

Conquering the dream

It was then that Dear Villagers, a game publisher based in the south of France, spotted the Cubans' work and decided to support them so that they may "accomplish their dream", company founder Francis Ingrand told AFP.

"We have always had this appetite for original projects, we loved the artistic touch and the game spoke to us," he added, praising the tenacity of the two developers who "accomplished something crazy”.

Among the community of gamers on the island, the project became somewhat of a "legend" due to how long it took to realise, said Luis Antonio Noa, 27, who runs a YouTube channel dedicated to gaming.

His partner in the channel Carlos Oscar Anaya, 29, said that Cuban gamers – who mostly play free games, pirated games, and those produced locally – are used to Cuban video games being “more educational”.

Saviorless is "a game with a darker plot that only seeks to entertain," he said, emphasising its "graphic and musical beauty."

He now hopes it will "reach a wide audience and put Cuba on the video game map" around the world. – AFP

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