Cuban Video Game ‘Saviorless’ Subverts the Revolution’s Narrative

Cuban video game Saviorless joins Lillian Guerra’s scholarship and Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s film The Last Supper in subverting the Cuban Revolution’s narrative.

Josuhe Pagliery and Johann Armenteros
Empty Head Games
2 April 2024

Cuba is a disparate island. In 2017, in a place where Fidel Castro gave marathon speeches to hundreds of thousands of people, some lasting over four hours, I found myself gazing across an empty plaza. The Plaza de la Revolución was desolate. I asked myself, “Where are all the people?” The Plaza de la Revolución is seared into the historical imagination of leftist, anti-imperialist, and would-be revolutionaries who felt saviorless. Blame whatever you will for this now cursed space and its emptiness; I became disillusioned.

When I awoke the next morning, my experience at the Plaza de la Revolución was a dream turned nightmare. I began to think that the revolution was simply a convergence of visions of power.

What do we talk about when we talk about power in video games? Power is often showcased through observable actions, usually in the form of acts of violence. In Saviorless, the road to “salvation” is riddled with the corpses of the dead. Saviorless is billed as “Cuba’s first-ever independent video game to collaborate with an international publisher.” It’s definitely the first video game from Cuba that I’ve played.

Saviorless is a 2D platformer with a strong penchant for narrative as its main driver. You avoid, escape, and outsmart environmental hazards and abominations and gain insights into the world as a reward. I played the game in Spanish in hopes of receiving the story as intended (though the game can also be played in English). Like my experience in the Plaza de la Revolución, I was shocked to witness aspirations of transcendence in the story turn into nightmares.  Saviorless is a competent first release from Empty Head Games with a mortal flaw.

When historian Lillian Guerra’s book Visions of Power in Cuba: Revolution, Redemption, and Resistance, 1959-1971 was published in 2012, it broke new ground by offering a detailed reinterpretation of the Cuban Revolution during its first decade. It challenges the prevailing notion that the revolution was betrayed. In Guerra’s words, “The idea of betrayal does not work as either a starting or an end point because this story is about participation in a mass project of change and empowerment in which citizens cast aside their own legal protections in order to back the evolving and, at times, capricious plans of a handful of leaders to fulfill widely held goals.”

Saviorless is a product of this revolution and, in a sense, its perceived betrayal. Aptly, betrayal is a core motif of its story. Power in Saviorless is a cul-de-sac. You eventually need power to change the world and survive, yet achieving and sustaining the power leads to tragedy. This is told through gameplay and narrative framing that leaves much to interpretation. Maybe the mysteries in the story are a way for the game’s developers to get past Cuban censors.

In Saviorless, you play as the child Antar, attempting to reach the Islas Sonrientes (the Smiling Islands) and become a Salvador (a Savior). The game has a Greek chorus of sorts in the Narrators, a group of divine storytellers. For a large part of the game, the Narrators “tell” Antar’s quest but are explicit in their intent never to let the hero reach a desired goal. Things don’t go as planned as Antar’s story violently converges with an unforeseen god-like figure.

While playing Saviorless, I was reminded of another work of art made in Cuba, Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s film The Last Supper (La última cena). In a pivotal scene in the film, one of the characters recounts the story of the Yoruba god Olofi’s creation of the world, Truth and Lie. This story is relevant not only for offering an important examination of how violence plays a role in creation but also to understanding Saviorless within the context of post-revolution art when dissatisfaction and criticism begin to prevail.

As the story goes, Truth and Lie are personified. They are more than just concepts. After being created by Olofi, they are caught in a desperate struggle. Eventually, Lie strikes a decapitating blow. Truth loses its head and blindly searches for it. In desperation, Truth reaches for Lie’s head and rips it off its body. Truth takes Lie’s head and places it upon its shoulders, wearing it victoriously. Now, the Truth stalks the Earth indistinguishable from a Lie. Chaos reigns as the entities become one.

Gutiérrez Alea’s bleak vision is made more so by the knowledge that the machete that struck the decapitating blow was given to Lie by Olofi. It’s as if God, with its infinite wisdom and power, ordained a scourge to plague our world. To make it even more ominous, this story is told by an enslaved man during a reenactment of the Last Supper organized by a slave owner in a bout of misguided and faux magnanimity. The slave master may not have been that different from Olofi when he gave Lie a weapon. We were betrayed from the beginning, even by the god itself. Thus, Truth becomes corrupted.

Saviorless’ embrace of this betrayal is a core part of its world-building and overarching narrative. Its visual style intones those of Gris and Sundered, both 2D platformers, with its bright colors and vibrant animation. It’s a game with a deep appreciation for gothic imagery and the uncanny. It relies on body horror and fairy tales to grab the player. Yet its reliance on myths—the infrastructure of legend—via sacred animals and hollow places is only one layer of many. Ultimately, the world of Saviorless is tormented by false promises and messianic figures. Childhood fairy tales are not to be believed as they inevitably will lead us astray. Bleak stuff.

Here lies Saviorless’ mortal flaw: it also betrays the player. The game begins by offering little stress and no tension to speak of. It’s unassuming in its gameplay objectives. Solve a simple puzzle by moving a crate to progress. Jump from one cliff to the next until reaching a specific destination. This initially creates a space for the story to take center stage and makes the world more palatable, again like the aforementioned Gris.

Soon enough, the difficulty increases, first gradually and then astronomically. What began as an unassumingly calm game about uncomfortable themes becomes an exercise in the hardcore. The only saving grace is that Saviorless takes only a few hours to complete, and the difficulty segments are measured enough so as not to seem impossible. So, “Cuba’s first-ever independent video game to collaborate with an international publisher” is meant to be experienced as a gamers’ game. It can be appreciated by all from afar, but only a few hope to complete it. Fitting? Maybe, but the experience is tainted, nonetheless.

Thus, when taking this into consideration, Antar’s quest for salvation is not about escape. It’s about gaining power and destroying all that stands in the way. Saviorless is vague about this on the narrative front. But during the final chapters, the gameplay increasingly places you in bitter conflicts and timed sequences that leave no room for error.

Even Antar is a false prophet, a Salvador is just a killing machine. You are saved by killing the fastest and most effectively. The Narrators weave a tale that would deny Antar salvation by stopping our hero from escaping, first to the Smiling Islands and then off them. Yet, due to boredom, they decide to break away from their predetermined narrative by adding carnage. This is literally part of the story, an ingenious one that, unfortunately, also makes Saviorless a vision of power. Hence, it is a gamer’s game.

Nevertheless, as a fable, Saviorless joins Guerra’s scholarship and The Last Supper as a study in subverting the narrative of the Cuban Revolution. They reveal that over time it was not betrayed but diverged towards possibilities that were there from the very inception. Like Antar, some sought personal gain, while others got tired of following “traitors” and “counterrevolutionaries”. Expectations clouded our judgment.

Saviorless’ principal concern is an aesthetic of violence and the decay that results from it. Narrative and mythmaking can only go so far in making a person believe in redemption for a cursed place. For Antar, this cursed place is the Smiling Islands. The ruins of physical spaces, ideology, and even living bodies remain decrepit but still stand as testaments of dreams deferred and left ragged in a tainted puddle of corruption.

Empty Head Games provides many allusions to life in a society that appears to be at a standstill – nowhere to go but back to the beginning. It’s a world doomed to repeat the same mistakes again and again as if human stories were narrated by a grand architect, agency be damned.

The first commercial game from Cuba, Saviorless, leaves much to ponder. It succeeds due to the inherent simplicity of its core design. Yet, it stumbles like any protagonist in a world doomed to make the same mistakes as their ancestors. Who can blame them for that? I look forward to what Empty Head Games will make next.

Works Cited

Guerra, Lillian. Visions of Power in Cuba: Revolution, Redemption, and Resistance, 1959-1971. University of North Carolina Press. 2012.

Gutiérrez Alea, Tomás. The Last Supper (La última cena). 1976.

RATING 7 / 10