Cubans Create First Independent Video Game To Come From Isolated Country : All Tech Considered Video game enthusiasts in Cuba face big obstacles with limited access to the Internet. With the opening to the U.S., two young Cubans hope to release the first independent game produced on the island.

Amid Isolation, 2 Cubans Develop Island's First Video Game

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Our next story is about something that probably could not have existed even two years ago, an independent video game design company in Cuba. It's the product of a partnership between Cuban entrepreneurs and a U.S. foundation, a partnership made possible by recent changes in U.S. policies toward Cuba. NPR's Greg Allen reports.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Empty Head Games is the company started by two young Cubans, Josuhe Pagliery and Johann Armenteros. In November, the duo launched a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo for their game, Savior.


JOSUHE PAGLIERY: You set out to save your world, traveling through numerous levels and encountering strange creatures and unexpected situations along the way.

ALLEN: That's Pagliery, the game's creator, director and art designer. In just six days, the campaign hit its $10,000 goal.

PAGLIERY: For me, everything is like a victory (laughter). Everything is like a victory.

ALLEN: Pagliery was in Miami recently, talking about the challenges of launching an independent video game in a country where access to the internet is severely limited. In many ways, he says, he was lucky. His cousins had an Atari game console in the early '90s. And he grew up playing video games.

PAGLIERY: I had the luck to grow up with different consoles that, in Cuba, are not quite common, like Nintendo, Super Nintendo, PlayStation One.

ALLEN: Pagliery's game, Savior, is in part an homage to those old '90s video games. In Cuba, that was a time known as the special period, when the country went into a deep recession following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Pagliery remembers his grandmother was forced to sell the family's silver. But his main memory from that time was when he first saw "Super Mario World," a game released for Super Nintendo.

PAGLIERY: And for me, that was like seeing, you know, like the future (laughter). It was like, wow. I really wanted to play and have the game.

ALLEN: Pagliery graduated from Havana's University of the Arts. With computer programmer Johann Armenteros, he began working on developing Savior. It's based on art and ideas he's been developing for years. Capturing it in computer code, though, is a technical challenge made even harder, Armenteros says, by Cuba's isolation. Speaking on the phone from his studio in Havana, he says with limited internet access, he's largely on his own when it comes to game design.

JOHANN ARMENTEROS: It's very difficult for me because everything that I have to do with the game, I have to figure out how to solve the problem.

ALLEN: In Savior, the player is in a world that's crumbling. You play as a little god who must overcome strange creatures and obstacles to reach the great god and save the world.

ARMENTEROS: This is not a stylized version of "Mario Brothers," if you will. This is a very rich and intense, artistically based game.

ALLEN: Miles Spencer is one of the founders of Innovadores, a U.S.-based nonprofit that runs a tech incubator, an entrepreneur exchange program in Cuba. Spencer says Innovadores helped Pagliery and Armenteros put together their crowdfunding proposal.

MILES SPENCER: It would never occur to someone in Cuba to actually do it this way.

ALLEN: With the first stage of their crowdfunding in hand, Pagliery and Armenteros hope to have a demo of their game ready by the spring. But Pagliery wants Savior to be much more than just Cuba's first independently produced video game. He says it has to be great.

PAGLIERY: Like, it's a good game, not like a good game for a Cuban guy.

ALLEN: Good enough so not just Cuban guys but gamers all over the world want to play it.

Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.


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