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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.