Saviorless aims to put Cuba on the gaming map

By John Walker, Contributor

Cuba is not a country known for its video game output. But in the last few years, some seismic cultural changes have been occurring within the island nation with the arrival of the internet. It’s not good internet—it’s mobile-based, via speed-throttling VPNs—but it’s enough for developers to begin to communicate across distances, and enough for one small indie team at Empty Head Games to create action-platformer Saviorless.

Following a successful fundraiser in 2017, using the fledgling internet access that had begun to appear in the country at the time, Empty Head and Saviorless ended up gaining the mantle of “the first Cuban indie video game.”

“Personally, I believe the true significance of Saviorless's development lies not in the dubious distinction of being first (a fact with little real value) but in the potential to become the first Cuban indie game to achieve success and global visibility across consoles and online platforms,” says the project’s lead, Josuhe Pagliery. "That's the real achievement, a potential catalyst for the Cuban game development scene.”
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Saviorless plays like a brighter and more combat-focused Inside, a combination of platforming and action, with a focus on avoiding enemies. It’s a tale told by three narrators—two of them new and naive, one older and stuck in his ways—and the game depicts the conflict in their approaches. Saviorless is a game of obstacles, of evading danger and overcoming challenges, and none of that is a coincidence.

“Cuba presents a unique set of obstacles for aspiring video game developers,” Pagliery tells us. “Unlike many other countries, there's no established industry to learn from or draw upon for inspiration. The social reality adds another layer of difficulty—limited resources, infrastructure, and a precarious economic situation make development a constant uphill battle. Inexperienced creators face a lack of access to investment, international markets, and skilled professionals across various aspects of game production. The absence of a local market for games, combined with frequent power outages and slow internet, further restricts possibilities for monetization.”

And that’s all on top of the difficulty and complexity inherent to creating a video game.

Internet access has made such challenges surmountable, though it comes with high latency and frequent downtime, and there’s no broadband home internet. “Even with internet availability and slightly faster speeds, video game development is still time-consuming for certain tasks,” says Pagliery. “For instance, sending a game update to a programmer is not a simple ‘push to the cloud’ process. We have to copy the entire project onto an external hard drive, physically travel to the programmer's computer, and manually copy the changes, because otherwise it would take too much time to upload the changes every time.”
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Given this, the resulting game is something of a miracle. Saviorless is utterly beautiful—entirely hand-drawn and featuring extraordinarily detailed animations. No two levels are the same, and its challenges are ever-evolving as our character Antar attempts to reach the Smiling Islands and become a Savior.

“Culturally, Cuba has always been a fortunate nation,” Pagliery explains. “Throughout history, we've produced top-tier artists in nearly every art form: dance, music, visual arts, literature...contributing references of global importance to the ever-selective record of world art. This rich, five-century-old cultural heritage we inherit fuels our dreams—even as independent developers confined to a limited space—of someday achieving similar heights with our work.”

While Saviorless is a team effort, Pagliery certainly brings a lot of talent to the table. He has a degree in fine arts, has trained in animation, and has worked with sculpture, literature, music and audiovisual production. In fact, he was a founder of infamous Cuban music collective, La Teoría Dorada de Popeye.
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It has, however, taken a lot longer than planned. During the initial 2017 fundraising campaign, Saviorless was targeting a 2018 release. Check your nearest calendar and you’ll notice that it's no longer 2018, so what happened?

“Our inexperience, combined with the challenges of developing in Cuba, and a bit of bad luck, all contributed to the delay,” says Pagliery, with refreshing frankness.

But “a bit of bad luck” is really under-playing it. In 2017, the USA closed its Cuban embassy, following claims of mysterious illnesses among staff, making visa entry to the United States extremely difficult. “The closure of the US Embassy and the subsequent expulsion of Innovadores Foundation [a not-for-profit that promoted Cuban projects in the USA] left Saviorless without access to foreign funding," says Pagliery. "Shortly after, the original programmer left the project, and we also lost the name 'Savior' due to a trademark by a development team in Portland. To top it all off, by that point, our campaign funds were nearly depleted.”

Late in the year, the small team—now joined by David Darias—made the difficult decision to scrap what they had so far and start over, now feeling far more cut off. “In complete isolation, we poured our efforts into creating a demo to pitch to all the publishers we could. We ended up creating three demos, each with unique mechanics, which were essentially the equivalent of developing three separate small games, funded entirely out of pocket.”

But as close as they got to publishing deals, the issues around being in Cuba scuppered their attempts, and they came very close to entirely giving up. “Disheartened by years of fruitless work,” says Pagliery, “and aware that reaching the international scene and multiple platforms without a publisher was impossible from Cuba, we contemplated releasing a large, free demo as a farewell.”
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Then, at the eleventh hour, Plug In Digital’s publishing arm Dear Villagers got in touch out of the blue. “[They] placed their trust in two unknown developers from a country with no history in the game industry, believing we would deliver on our long-held promise. After three years of relentless effort, battling through COVID-19, crippling power outages, and the joy of my son Renato's birth, we finally conquered the odds and completed the project we started seven years ago.”

It’s an extraordinary development story, and the results speak for themselves. Saviorless might not truly be the first Cuban video game, but it looks like it could be the true first internationally successful Cuban game. As Pagliery puts it, “I'm incredibly proud of what we achieved. Given the circumstances, I don't think I could have done much better.”

Saviorless is available now on the Epic Games Store.