Dossier

Jonatan "Cactus" Soderstrom

Fast, Cheap, And Out Of Control

Jonatan “Cactus” Söderström is a master of the transgressive quickie.

By Gus Mastrapa • June 25, 2012

Dossier is a survey of one game maker’s creative output—an attempt to tease out the themes that emerge over the course of a video game career.

Video games are usually the product of dozens, if not hundreds, of people. Because of this, games are often reduced to an expression of the same platitudes: Evil is bad, loyalty is good. On a smaller scale, however, game makers find new opportunities. Cactus, a prolific independent game designer from Gothenburg, Sweden, understands that when you put on the hat of the auteur and set out to make a small game, this still-young, relatively unmined medium can be used as a means of self-expression as well as exploration, finding avenues to make intellectual or emotional connections with players.

Cactus is the nom de game of Jonatan Söderström, a practitioner of rapid prototyping—an approach to game design that focuses on speed and execution. Where some ambitious indies spend years mired in one project, designers like Söderström build games over the course of weekend. This kind of output can feel slight compared to fully fleshed-out projects like Fez and Super Meat Boy, but it also prevents ideas from languishing on the back burner, favoring energetic concepts with poignant, flawed beauty over those that must prove themselves over the course of a years-long development process.

Söderström readily admits that many of his ideas can’t prop up a 20-hour game. They’re fleeting notions, like video game mayflies. He dallies with arcade-style shooters, warped adventure games, and art experiments that are impossible to classify—Cactus has no apparent loyalty to any one genre—but he isn’t just barfing out half-baked concepts. Each of his games puts stakes down in new territory. He uses his work to screw with perception and with expectations, making a case for games with the creator’s fingerprints smudged all over the glass. He’s saying something about the world in which he lives and the games that he plays while retreating from it.

Norrland

Norrland

Take Norrland. The experimental art game from 2010 is a nasty critique of the Swedish outdoorsman—a brute that bears no small similarity to his American counterpart. On a lonely weekend in the woods, players trudge through mosquito-infested forests, shooting at wildlife. This retro take on Big Buck Hunter is made more intriguing by mini-games that interrupt your stroll through nature. Some are base observations on the man in the wild—you chug a beer, swat a mosquito, take a dump, and jerk off to a porn mag—but the more interesting intrusions happen when the hunter goes to sleep. He dreams of being a bird that burns to a cinder when it flies too close to the sun. In these moments, Cactus is wrestling with people he doesn’t understand, trying to get a handle on what makes them do the things they do. Norrland is clearly an attack—an artsy salvo in the class war—but it also feels like an ambivalent act of empathy.

Norrland is a hybrid of several genres. At times, Cactus constructs his games like a collagist, tearing bits from old Atari games and shoot-em-ups, then cobbling them into some kind of obtuse art piece. Norrland is an adventure game melded with a collection of WarioWare-style mini-games. It purposefully disarms you as an adventure game would, throwing you into scenarios where you have no clue what to do or how to react. The mini-games, for example, ambush you with no instructions. Suddenly, you’re in a close-up of your arm with a mosquito buzzing. You flail on the keyboard to figure out which button is the one that swats the bugger. Unless you’re lucky or quick, the mosquito jams its proboscis into your flesh and feeds. Where many games aim to empower the player to overcome challenges, Norrland is like many of Cactus’ games in that it sets the player up to fail.

It’s not often that a game sets out to make you feel bad. Each little failure or moment of confusion makes the player feel that much more alienated by Norrland’s animalistic hunter. Every time the hunter misses a shot or fails to net a fish, you might feel about this chap the way that Cactus feels about him—befuddled and more than a little annoyed.

Stallions In America

Stallions In America

It would be easy to suppose that Cactus is some kind of digital prankster. The Atari-flavored shooter Stallions In America comes off as a one-note goof on our penchant for unload first and never ask questions. Each of the game’s fifty levels (one for each state) is a unrelenting shooting gallery that sees the ripped hero spraying lead everywhere. Explosions bloom and shrapnel spreads everywhere. Finish the game, and you’ve shot the entire U.S.A. to hell. More than a few of Cactus’ efforts trade in “illogical” puzzles. The only way to bridge a gaping chasm in his puzzler Psychosomnium is to give up and go back the way you came. Rather than return to the previous screen, you appear on the opposite side of the impossible expanse, sidestepping the obstacle by looping from stage left to stage right. In the wrong hands, such a willingness to play fast and loose with the rules of the game could seem like a breach of trust between game maker and player. But Cactus’s playfulness is often countered by gravity. A good portion of the designer’s work is dedicated to grappling with the nuts and bolts of play.

Clean Asia!

Clean Asia!

Of particular interest to Söderström is one of the most elemental components of the video game—the projectile. It has been a long time since Galaga and Space Invaders, when players maneuvered at the bottom of the screen and fired bullets, one tedious shot at a time, up toward their enemies. Cactus’ game Clean Asia! riffs on some of the more imaginative modern evolutions of Japanese “bullet hell” shooters. It’s quite a bit to wrap your head around. Players choose from two ships: one that charges headlong into enemies, damaging them by collision, and another that can absorb the debris left behind by enemies and fire it back at them. Clean Asia! is a work of fan fiction—like Cactus, after spending hours awash in the sensory overload of Japanese arcade cabinets, felt he had a new voice to offer to the cacophony.

Minubeat

Minubeat

Another shooter, Minubeat, forces players to think and play rhythmically. Every time the player fires on beat, they’re rewarded with a lock-on that will take out its target at the end of a series of notes. The influence of Tetsuya Mizuguchi’s trippy rail shooter Rez is clear, but Cactus is a much harsher taskmaster. Where Rez was forgiving and somewhat mellow, Minubeat is demanding and difficult. Since Cactus isn’t wordy when he’s communicating a gameplay idea, there’s no break-in period. He throws the player right into the shit and expects them to work out a way to survive. This, of course, is a function of working in the short form. Cactus doesn’t have the time, resources or (presumably) the patience to dole out softball tutorial lessons. He cuts straight to the moment where his concept congeals into a fully formed challenge, in medias res.

Hot Throttle

Hot Throttle

Cactus’ visual style ricochets between primitive (he favors the chunky, barely expressive pixels of the Atari 2600) and gratuitously stylized. Hot Throttle, a racing game, showcases the designer’s signature style—a thin, deliberate cartoon linework that looks like it was rendered in MS Paint. The game centers on a Fight Club for people who think they’re cars. They race through the streets naked on all fours, making “vroom vroom” sounds with their mouths as they zoom around a trashy city. There’s a whiff of punk dystopia here—the same kind that wafts off the comics of Kaz and Gary Panter. Both ’80s cartoonists imagined filthy worlds where man was demeaned by his own urges, but it was clear that they also enjoyed wallowing in the imagined squalor. Cactus may have never read Jimbo or RAW, but he’s tapped into that same subterranean art punk mainline.

Published by Adult Swim Games, Hot Throttle’s rough nihilism fits in nicely with the anti-humanity of Adult Swim shows like Superjail and Metalocalypse. Similarly, Cactus takes his own cultural potshots. The confused car men in Hot Throttle are drawn with rigid grids of teeth, shocked round eyes, and grotesque sweat bumps on their heads—they’re amped, mainlining a delusional frenzy. But where Norrland is an arms-length attempt at empathy, Hot Throttle is a little more vicious. These weirdos want to be cars, and Cactus doesn’t mind using his art to help dehumanize them. It is clear that Cactus isn’t celebrating the trans-humanistic urge to pierce, paint, and embellish our flesh. When the game’s hero uses his tournament winnings to buy the surgical procedure that will fully transition him from man to automobile, the surgeon admits that the procedure is morally questionable. He’ll take the sucker’s money regardless. If Cactus channels the sensibilities of punk cartoonists, he’s also transmitting an opposing kind of conservatism. People who try to be what they’re not are kind of weird, he says.

The benefit of being a serial experimenter is that nothing is sacred—even your methodology. In 2010, Cactus’ abstract puzzle game Tuning won the Independent Games Festival’s Nuovo Award for experimental gameplay. The psychedelic game sees players trying to move an orb across a shifting, pulsating landscape of cubic platforms. It is a game about perception and feedback. Whereas most game makers work hard to assure that their camera doesn’t get in the player’s way, Tuning’s camera pulls away, casting perspective as yet another obstacle. On paper, the point of the game is to move your orb from start to finish, but the world twists, contorts, and warps as you make the trek; the camera swirls, and the world fades in and out of view. It all distracts from the simple tasks of jumping and rolling. At times the course is duplicated in a confusing kaleidoscope, giving the player control of multiple orbs, all on their own, nearly identical quests. To conquer each level is to come to understand what you’re seeing and why you’re seeing it—or at least to weather Cactus’ visual obfuscation.

Two years ago, the game felt complete enough to win honors. Cactus, in his terse manner, got his point across. But rather than move on to the next idea, he has spent the last couple of years designing new levels—actually fleshing out Tuning beyond his typical bite-sized proof of concept. In film, this would be the equivalent of Takashi Miike suddenly adopting Terrence Malick’s work ethic. After years of working fast and on the cheap, Cactus is buckling down to elaborate on an idea rather than moving on to the next one.

If Cactus were to die tomorrow, he’d be remembered as an iconoclastic young game designer who showed great potential. But that assessment is unfair. Söderström has already done a great service. His development as an artist has been highly public, and he has shared his creations generously, asking little in return. Of the dozens of games Söderström has produced, he has charged money for very few; most are made available for free download as soon as they’re completed. He sold just a handful of physical copies of Norrland on eBay—enough to buy some beer and tickets for a summer music festival.

But the idealism of the young artist can be as much of a trap as a gig in the Electronic Arts salt mines. The current pause in output and the focus on Tuning signals a potential transition. That’s not to say that Cactus is poised to “sell out,” level up, or tone down his approach. It’s just hard to imagine that someone whose games are so concerned with agitation would settle into any routine without a fight.

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  • feisto

    Don’t have much to say about Cactus, but I think Dossier is a great idea! Looking forward to see if you discuss game makers whose imprint might not be as obvious (like in the type of big-budget games you mentioned in the first line).

    • blue vodka lemonade

       I’d actually never heard of this guy before now. It didn’t surprise me to hear that one of his games was published by Adult Swim–they’ve got some really odd games on their site, the oddest of which I’ve played is Cream Wolf.

      My question: are any of his games fun?

      • James Bunting

        Norrland was fun and maybe borderline meaningful. It reminded me of the fever dreams I had when I was a child – very Atari 2600.

      • http://kaminskopoliszone.tumblr.com/ Brian

        “Keyboard Drumset Fucking Werewolf” is really fun and interesting and short….its like a videogame music video….hard to describe

    • Eric Kahn

      Please don’t get me started on Cactus Tony.

  • http://twitter.com/marrrrshall marshall roorda

    Norrland is amazing!

    • Knarf Black

      Yes! Everyone download and play it right now. Don’t even read about it. Just give yourself 45 minutes and prepare to be weirded out.

  • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

    Dossier is a great idea for a feature, and Cactus is a great guy to kick it off with. I especially like how it goes beyond a “best of” list, providing some interpretation and drawing connections between the games.

  • lokimotive

    I remember a few years ago, the AV Club wrote up a review of a free game whose title had something to do with Abortion Doctors. Indeed the game purported to be sponsored by some pro-choice organization, which seems dubious considering how iconoclastic and surreal it was. The first level involved driving around a highway while this annoying drone played. And, I believe, you always listed to the right. It was a pain in the ass. And then suddenly the level changed to something similarly obnoxious, but different.

    I had thought it was by Cactus, but I could never find it. Am I making things up again? Help?

    • http://twitter.com/william_daw william daw

      This is Randy Balma: Municipal Abortionist by Mark Essen, AKA Messhof. He also made Creamwolf, I believe. Similar approach to Cactus.

      Edit, beaten. Damn you, Billy Nerdass.

      • BillyNerdass

         Sheeeeiit.

      • lokimotive

        Man, thanks a lot. (and thanks to @BillyNerdass:disqus  too, even though he put in the wrong place).  I see Messhof also made Nidhogg, which has been making the rounds for some time as an excellent indie game but, for some completely bizarre reason, isn’t released on anything that I can play.

        • BillyNerdass

           I’m not exactly sure what he’s doing with Nidhogg. Like… touring art galleries with it or something?

        • http://twitter.com/william_daw william daw

          (Can’t reply to Billy’s answer below this, but this time I read it at least)

           Yeah, Nidhogg has been touring galleries as an artwork. I’m simultaneously frustrated not to be able to play it and really glad that Messhof is finding cool new ways to bridge games and art. As a game designer/artist it makes sense for him to be able to monetize his work on it by getting gallery commissions to show it, while also putting it in a context where it can exist as a two-player arcade game and be played in the kind of setting that serves it best.

          I like the idea of Nidhogg finally coming to my town and having to get in line to play it in a dark, sweaty art-room. It’s like an exhibit or band or limited release film coming through town, and I can’t think of any other game that’s ever tried this model.

          Cactus should do one too (for thread relevance).

    • The_Misanthrope

       I’m positive that you are talking about this game:

      http://messhof.com/randy-balma-municipal-abortionist/

      It’s Messhof, not Cactus, though I can’t fault you for confusing the two.  Both have a penchant for surreal setups and mini-games.  Messhof also did Cream Wolf for Adult Swim Games, if you’re looking for another example.  To the best of my knowledge, the RBMA is not endorsed by any pro-choice organization; That seems like a joke or a myth.

  • Spacemonkey Mafia

    I’m not going to say Gameological has changed the face of games journalism by referencing a Errol Morris film for the title of a lovely, in-depth article on an outsider game maker.  But lord, if it hasn’t raised the bar just at least a little bit.

    • BillyNerdass

       You’re probably thinking of Messhof’s Randy Balma: Municipal Abortionist.

      http://messhof.com/randy-balma-municipal-abortionist/

      • Cheese

        This comment is slightly but hilariously misplaced.

        DISQUUUUUUUUUUS!

    • http://www.facebook.com/bensalazar Ben Dunbar

      Naw, screw stylized documentarians, I wanna talk about DLC sellouts and how DRM is the first signs of a proto-fascist empire!

      • Spacemonkey Mafia

        Also, the Mass Effect 3 ending.  I’ve been robbed!

  • doyourealize

    Really like the feature and the idea of interpreting several years of a game designer’s work. I’ve always wondered to what extent people should consider the creator’s thoughts when interpreting any kind of art (as an English teacher, literature especially), and at times I’ve wondered if it even matters what the creator thinks at all. This is even trickier when the artist is still alive. Interviews are nice, but it’s nice to see something like this written from a complete outside perspective. Not only that, but Cactus seems the like the perfect person for this kind of article, his creations being more idea than fully formed game – although it seems he may be working towards the latter more recently…and I may be speaking out of hand, having experience with only a couple of his games.

    Changing gears, are games like Cactus’s significant by themselves, or only for their potential impact on gaming as a whole?

    • BarbleBapkins

      I’m on my way to becoming an English teacher as well, and I definitely agree with your reservations about how much importance seems to be given to authorial intention in videogame journalism.

      I remember an interview on the A.V. Club with Jonathon Blow of Braid fame where he complained about how a lot of critics just didn’t “get” what (he thought) Braid was about so they, basically, shouldn’t even be allowed to call themselves critics. It was one of the most infuriating things I have ever read.

      • http://twitter.com/MikoSquiz Miko the Squiz

        Lemme let you in on the secret. There is no text, either.

    • Spacemonkey Mafia

      That’s a fair question and one that’s made a little more difficult to answer, as why someone creates something is so mutable.
         Speaking for myself, I sometimes create something with a specific statement and sometimes it’s more of a question or a mood.  Something to reach out to the viewer.  Granted, I do illustration, so even at it’s most vague, there’s not layers of subtext to a robot fighting a bird-headed samurai… but I think the principle stands. 

  • BarbleBapkins

    Dossier is a great idea! I heard a little bit about Cactus when Norrland first came out, but never really knew what he did before or since. Its good to see a column talk about the creative individuals in videogames that goes beyond the typical Molyneuxs and Miyamotos. Keep up the good work Gameological!

    • Aaron Riccio

      Seconded! And I really enjoy the way in which you’ve tracked the progress from “mayfly” experimentation to actually landing on something. It’s almost as if he’s evolved. But I know a staunchly conservative site like this one would never suggest that such a thing were possible. Next, you’ll be theorizing that designers are like gods, creating their own sacrilegious little universes of code!

      To be serious again for a second, I think this is the right mode of development. Play around, find ideas that interest you and move on when they no longer do. That’s the creative-writing approach, eh @doyourealize:disqus ? Then, once you’ve found an idea that really fascinates you, step back into it. Revise it. Polish it. See where it takes you, and above all else, allow it to surprise you. An earned surprise should always be the goal of any good game. 

      • doyourealize

        That analogy works, but it seems like Cactus might be putting a time limit on his ideas. If he was really working on them until he lost interest, some of his creations might seem like more than ideas put on the computer. Hopefully fleshing out Tuning is a step in the right direction.

        The whole discussion reminds me of the Sawbuck Game from last week, Take Care of the Trees, which drew you in and then didn’t take you anywhere.

  • Effigy_Power

    As a more casual gamer with little to no knowledge of the deep and dark recesses… am I the only one who is confused by all of this? Like seriously confused?
    I mean, I get it, ’tis a pretty avant garde sort of area of gaming, but I can’t make heads or tails of it… and I am practically a hipster.
    -shakes fedora’d head, goes back to skim LCD Soundsystem CD-cover for references-

    • http://www.facebook.com/bensalazar Ben Dunbar

        Anyone who actively follows gaming culture is, axiomatically, not cool
      so slow yer roll. That having been said, video games are art and not all
      art will or can be appreciated by the whole of the public. I find Cactus to be deeply weird as well, but, I also get some of his reference points, sort of like getting to know someone personally. Which is the point of art. Look what we did!

      • Effigy_Power

         I am not sure your answer and my question have anything to do with each other. “Slow your roll”?
        I just meant that this is something I’ve never seen before and without making any judgement, found bewildering.
        And how does following gaming culture make you not cool? Honestly, your answer is more confusing than the article. Not sure what you read into my comment, if anything.

        • http://www.facebook.com/bensalazar Ben Dunbar

          You were operating on the principal that there is something inaccessibly “cool” or avant-garde about Cactus’ output, and my response was, there’s no such thing as a cool or avant-garde gamer therefore your response was misguided. If you feel you don’t “get” it, then it’s probably not something you have much of a beholder’s share in and that has nothing to do with how much of a hipster* you perceive yourself to be.

          1: I am operating under the assumption the hipster comment was a joke but kernel of truth etc etc

      • HobbesMkii

        I’m troubled by the automatic “videogames are art” assumption. And since this is my Disqus comment, I’m going to veer off into that and maybe provoke a discussion.

        Here we go:

        So, videogames share with other art forms a symbolic nature. That is to say that they use one thing to stand in for another. Sometimes this is a simple understanding of symbolism, where a collection of pixels in the shape of human carries a collection of pixels in the shape of a gun and the viewer is expected to understand that those pixels represent a human and a gun. Sometimes it’s a more complex understanding, with collections of pixels that appear to be one thing yet serve to highlight another (the Call of Duty series, for instance, has a theme that seems to be “Rah, rah! Military!”). This is true of pretty much all art.

        But it’s the level and degree of interaction that throws me. That seems to me to be a game, like chess, and that seems entirely unartful. It’s skillful. And chess also serves as a symbolic game. It’s a game of war, where the King is protected at all costs by his realm.

        So, maybe you say, “well, chess is art, too.”

        But this seems to open up a whole different can of worms: you’ve just expanded the definition of art. What games don’t also utilize symbols and interactivity? Monopoly uses brightly colored plastic houses and pewter pieces to tell the story of capitalism in America. I think you can take gaming beyond even something you can do in your own home. Football (of whatever stripe), for instance, uses symbolism in that the ball’s moving from one end of the field to the other could be said to represent any task that must be performed by a group of people (a communal goal, if you will). Is football also to be included in art? I feel as though many would say no, but I don’t see a whole lot that differentiates it from chess, at its most basic.

        What I do believe is that some games are art. Most are not. I’m not sure Cactus’ games are art. I don’t have a precise definition for them. I’m just saying I don’t trust the argument that games are art very much.

        • The_Misanthrope

           I think most automatic “videogames are art” assertions come on the heels of “videogames are most definitely not art” assertions (especially from vaunted film critics).  We gamers are a defensive lot, likely because we’ve been told most of our lives to go outside.  If you prick us, do we not bleed the same blood as anyone?

          Really, all matters of how we define something as Big-A “Art” aside, I’m not really sure it is a productive discussion.  In the end, I’m not really sure if it matters all that much.  The magic of art has always been the communion between a work and the individual.  I might check out something that has been recommended, but if it doesn’t “work” for me (“work” being the inadequate term I’m using to describe the intangible quality of art that transcends the representation), am I in the wrong or in the right?

        • http://www.facebook.com/bensalazar Ben Dunbar

           I am troubled that you assume my statement was automatic. I am also not going to take yer non-academic synthesis of what art is or isn’t as a viable discussion point. I suppose we are at a crossroads. Cool icon, though.

        • HobbesMkii

           @facebook-710302887:disqus I don’t in any way assume your statement was automatic. I should have made that clearer and apologized. I deviated to the position I felt needed criticism, not one I assumed you held.

          That said, it’s great that you hand-waved away my argument for not including an academic definition of art, but you also undermined your own point in doing so. Academia does not consider swordfighting (or any sport) an art, except possibly in the wider sense that would include science, business, history, etc. (basically, the whole range of human activity) in that definition. When we say “the arts” we mean creative art, so when I say “art” in connection to videogames, that’s the sense I mean as well.

          Academia has routinely rejected videogames as creative art (that’s why exceptions very often get news coverage), and it was only last year that the NEA even classified games as art. And why should academia? Many videogames designers don’t even classify their creations as art, but rather as service.

          Moreover, I think it’s entirely condescending and, frankly, shortsightedly rude, to have done such hand-waving. It’s not exactly like academia has done a solid job of defining what can be and cannot be considered art, or what it is in the first place. Academics and philosophers from Aristotle to George Dickie have all have different definitions of what art could be. I might just be some asshole on the Internet with an opinion, but my asshole opinion on art is no less valid than Goethe’s, by gum! It’s just (far) less prestigious.

  • http://twitter.com/william_daw william daw

    He’s made some great weird first-person puzzle games too… Mondo Agency and I think maybe one other with mondo in the title? They have this great, bleak aesthetic with untextured black and white polygons. Medium-highly recommended.

    • http://www.avclub.com/users/ghaleonq,4597/ GhaleonQ

      I just wish he’d decide to pull them all together.  Notional games are still games, but they never want to make me play more or think about them after I’m done.  Say what you want about prolonged exposure, it works as an emotional device.  Spending 80 hours with a Tales Of character probably affects someone just as much.

      The problem is that you’re spending full days with Tales Of characters.  Even a 3-hour game with his ambition would be groundbreaking.

      Could you recommend the longest/thematically substantive one of his?  I’ll try it.

      (Incidentally, great feature.  However, I think the game designer focus is already very heavy at The Gameological Society.  Extend it to artists, puzzle designers, composers, sound effects teams, everyone!  I want to read 20 paragraphs about Motoi Sakuraba progressive rock.)

      • http://twitter.com/william_daw william daw

        Mondo Medicals (as it turns out it is called) and Mondo Agency work well together for maybe an hour or more of gameplay (counting the failure-based learning that is a big part of the experience)- thematically they are nice and make a good, simple sort of sense. The first level of Medicals is a great distillation of the games’ theme, which I won’t spoil here. Visually they have an ugly, spare punk-ish sensibility that doesn’t go too far into the Randy Balma-ish realm of seizure inducement. Maybe not really deep or long but I think these two make a good introduction. Some of his others are either so visually abrasive or difficult to play they can be a little offputting, or not worth playing past the point of getting the gist.

        It’s been a few years since I played them but I assume they’re still somewhere on his website.

  • The_Misanthrope

    Thanks for covering Cactus!  I just wish I could get more of his games to run on my PC!  Even more to the point, thank you for making an indie auteur the focus of a Dossier article.

    When I see a big studio head going into his “End Times for the Games Industry” schtick (with used games being the current bete noire) or a bored consumer complaining about the lack of inventive games on store shelves, I enter into a state of apoplexy and point to people like Gregory Weir, Auntie Pixelante/Miss Anthropy, Jonas Kratzes, etc. and I say “Look!  It seems there’s a thriving, creative game scene just over there!”  They may not all be refined or poilshed affairs, but they are, for the most part, free (or at least super cheap).  There is a reason that the Sawbuck Gamer columns is able to run daily, because this scene is exploding with many voices.  Yes, Sturgeon’s Law still applies and there will be a fairly sizable percentage of shitty or just boring games among the teeming masses, but when you find that diamond in the rough, it makes the search well worth it.

    I am also going to reiterate my idea that the doom-fortelling big game publishers should think about opening up “indie” imprints, much like Hollywood does for its prestige imprints.  Granted, you could argue that publishers already do that when they snatch up to dump onto digital distribution platforms, but I think they can do more to foster this talent.  While I’m not sure I want to invite the overt award-baiting that the movie studios engage in, I think it might be beneficial for them to have something beyond commercial success to show.  And, compared to the bloated budgets of AAA titles (for useful comparison, see also blockbuster season), these smaller imprints would be able to operate at a relatively lower cost, so a game can suffer failure (or even just modest success) without shareholders calling for heads on a pike.

    As usual, I may be talking out of my ass again.  If I am, don’t hold back and let me know.

    • http://twitter.com/Triphibian Gus Mastrapa

      That indie imprint idea is golden. I would be surprised if it hasn’t been floated in some way, shape or form at the big publishers. I think EA Partners was an attempt at something like this, but the projects were still big and expensive so the risk didn’t pay off.

      • Aaron Riccio

        The things that could be accomplished if resources were but shared or “trickled down” from AAA studios to their quirky, experimental imprints. Of course, that brings with it the goal to monetize all of these games (the free-to-play model isn’t all that sustainable, is it?), and while a smaller label might have laxer goals for “success” and a cheaper environment given that engines were already designed or re-licensed, it still might frown at certain headier types of design, at least in the States. 

        So: is there a market for people BUYING Catcus-type games? I guess we’ll figure that out based on the progress of Tuning.

        • http://twitter.com/Triphibian Gus Mastrapa

          I think that’s the test. People give a lot of lip service to wanting something different. But when something different presents itself it is largely ignored.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1320596433 Matt Gerardi

      Some publishers have been better about this “indie branch” than others, but I don’t think any have really embraced it in the way you’re talking about. 

      As Gus pointed out, EA Partners is a step in that direction and despite working mostly with bigger titles they have published a number of smaller indies (Warp, Shank 1 and 2). 

      Both Microsoft and Sony (Sony especially) have been supporters of indie development. One good rule to remember is that any game that’s published on Xbox Live Arcade REQUIRES a publisher. Most of that platform’s signature titles (Braid, Castle Crashers, LIMBO, Fez) were published by Microsoft. 

      Sony has been a great backer of small, innovative titles. It put ThatGameCompany under a three-game contract, resulting in Flow, Flower and Journey. It’s taking a similar tact with the developers of The Unfinished Swan, one of this year’s most promising indies.

      More importantly Sony started something called the “Pub Fund.” It’s an initiative that allows self-publishing on the Playstation Network and helps fund development. Supposedly the royalties on offer are also much better than those on Xbox. This has resulted in stuff like Joe Danger, but the real fruits of the program should be dropping later this year with Papo Y Yo (a game inspired by the designer’s experiences with an alcoholic father) and Dyad (a super trippy racing sort of game).

      • The_Misanthrope

        Yeah, I suppose there is a sort of fumbling towards that notion; It’s just not always easy to see amidst the rest of the gaming hype. I guess I have this weird vision where people get as excited for the release of a smaller arcade/indie title as they would for Shoot Some More Foreigners For America 3, instead of being something that suddenly pops up on PSN/XBLA and you take a chance on. But I suppose that the inherent nature of all media outside the mainstream.

        • http://twitter.com/Triphibian Gus Mastrapa

          And then you get a Minecraft and all bets are off.

  • James Bunting

    I think it is interesting that Hot Throttle was perceived to be somehow conservative in its message. is it possible that this perception came about as a result of a subconscious to desire to gentrify that which is transgressive? Shouldn’t transgression be grotesque? Isn’t that part of the fun?

    The gentrified transgression of boudaries between man and machine are already there. They’ve been done seven billion times, from Wall-E, to Terminator, to Ghost in the Shell. Hot Throttle is more in the Tetsuo: The Iron Man camp. Just because it’s kind of revolting in its presentation doesn’t automatically denote a moral judgment.

    • http://twitter.com/Triphibian Gus Mastrapa

      To me there’s something kind of mindless about the portrayal of the car people in Hot Throttle — the sweating, the way they crouch kind of ridiculously and the aforementioned surgery bit at the end sort of all give me this holistic sense of judgement. I could be totally wrong, but that’s my read at least. As mentioned before we are lucky to have games this rich and ambiguous that they can carry these different readings.

  • kendra padilla

    FUNtastic, that’s all i can say.

    http://www.joeydavila.net