Welcome to Day Four of The Escapist‘s Indie Developer Showcase, a five-day celebration of the individuals and small teams who are making a big impact on the games industry. Each day we’ll feature a new developer and new games to play, so keep checking back throughout the week for more indie goodness! To see the full list of developers, click here.
The first thing you need to know about Cactus, aka Jonatan Söderström, is that he’s more interested in novelty and quantity rather than quality. Cactus has released over three dozen games in the last few years, all freely available on his website. Listed next to each one is the amount of time it took him to produce it; most clock in at under 48 hours. As you’d expect, these aren’t the most polished designs out there, but what they lack in slick visuals and pinpoint controls, they make up for in creativity and unbridled weirdness.
Many of Cactus’ designs are new takes on the shmup genre, but two of his games stand out. The first is 2007’s Mondo Agency, a primitive first-person puzzler that has you stumble through a world of barely comprehensible talking cubes, bottomless pits and vast expanses of empty space. The other is Tuning, an as-yet unreleased (and IGF nominated) platformer that contains more ways of messing with your perceptual abilities than a trunk-load of Hunter S. Thompson’s luggage. The Escapist recently spoke with Cactus about these two titles and game design in general.
The Escapist: You’ve already created more games at 24 than many developers have created at age 50. Are they just lazy, or do you have some kind of game development superpowers?
Cactus: I don’t really know why game developers often decide to make few games instead of many. At some point in time, it was decided that games have to last about ten times longer than a movie. Sure, I’d love to make a game that lasted 14 hours, or whatever the standard is for a commercial game. But to be honest, I doubt it would be worth the effort.
I don’t think any of my games would benefit from being that long, and I think it’s very likely that I would trail off at some point during the development time. And since I don’t have any strict goals as to how long my games should be, I can easily finish a game off when I don’t feel that it interests me anymore. That doesn’t mean that someone who takes three years to create a game should be considered lazy in comparison, probably just more focused and patient.
TE: Many writers have described the atmosphere of Mondo Agency as “Lynchian.” Has David Lynch’s filmmaking actually influenced your designs?
C: I love a lot of things that David Lynch has done. He is my favorite director. I really like how he doesn’t explain everything to his viewers, and how there often doesn’t even seem to be any explanation for what happens in his movies. The feeling that there might be some kind of logic behind something completely illogical is very fascinating, and he manages to create very interesting moods by doing this.
There actually are a lot of things that people haven’t picked up on in Mondo Agency, and I’m not sure anyone sees either of the Mondo games the way I do. But instead of telling people how to look at them, I’d rather have them find their own meanings and explanations for the events that occur while they play.
I’ve noticed myself that often when I listen to music and can’t fully hear the lyrics to a song that I like, I will hear something different from what is actually sung. Often when I read the real lyrics, I’m disappointed and feel like “my version” of the song is superior.
I think it would be the same thing if I told everyone everything about the Mondo games; many of them would feel that their own interpretations made more sense to them than mine did.
TE: Is Mondo Agency a horror game? What kind of feelings were you trying to evoke in players?
C: I would say that it’s a bizarre science-fiction game. Science is both fascinating and scary to me. There’s so many things in life that we don’t understand yet, and not understanding something makes it feel a bit threatening.
One of the things I find the most discomforting is space and the sea. I tried to achieve the feeling that I get from both of them in the Mondo games. The sense of having to wear a special suit in order to stay alive, and constantly hearing your own breath seems like it would be very unsettling. I also wanted to explore claustrophobia and agoraphobia. The first game take place in narrow corridors while the second one had infinite space surrounding the player. I think both create a sensation of loneliness, while at the same time you have no idea what could be lurking just outside your field of view.
I also wanted to make the player not fully understand anything in the game, from how to beat the levels to what exactly the few people you talk to are saying, nor what they mean. I’m especially pleased with the sense of there being some kind of logic behind how illogical everything is in the games.
TE: What was your inspiration for Tuning?
C: Three-dimensional balls. And brain malfunction.
TE: I’m having trouble articulating this myself, so I’ll ask you: What makes Tuning fun and not just frustrating?
C: I think it’s the sense of discovery. In order to beat most levels you have to discover how to look at them. Understanding how each level works is a rewarding experience, plus the player knows that he’ll get to see something new with each level he plays. The game is also pretty lenient; there’s not many places where the player can blame the game for failing. Plus the levels are small and you restart instantly when you make a mistake so you never have to repeat larger parts of the game.
TE: Your games are frequently disorienting and perception-warping in a way that many would call “psychedelic.” What do you find fascinating or appealing about this aesthetic?
C: I find it interesting to experience something that feels alien or new. I think there are a lot of people in this world who have unique ideas and views on life, and sharing them through entertainment is something that I highly appreciate.
As for the somewhat “psychedelic” visuals in my games, I just like to experiment with how things look and what can be done with lo-fi aesthetics in general. I don’t think it’s very interesting how commercial games just try to look as realistic as possible these days, and many indie games rely heavily on high-detail pixel art. While I can appreciate both, I think it’s just as nice to look at something that maybe doesn’t look equally impressive crafts wise, but has a distinct and unique style nonetheless.
TE: How do you decide when you’re finished working on a game?
C: I hate working on something that has stopped feeling fun to develop. If something stops giving me ideas that I find fascinating, I will most likely stop working on it. I also hate it when I get too many ideas for one game simultaneously. The aspect of game creation I like is when I come up with the ideas; implementing them feels more like a chore. So if I write down a list of ideas I want to implement in my game, it will start to feel more like work instead of something that I enjoy. And what is the meaning of working with something creative if you don’t enjoy it?
So if when I don’t feel like working further on a game, I either decide to finish it off as fast as possible, or start working on something new.
TE: Why do you make games? Is it a career or a hobby for you at this point?
C: It’s a career, unfortunately. If I was rich by now, I maybe would’ve felt that it was a wise choice, but working from home is very isolating and I haven’t made a lot of money from it so far.
TE: How do you manage to support yourself when all of your games are available for free on your site?
C: Right now I’m living off of donations. I suck at the business side of game development. If I don’t start getting a better income soon, I’ll probably quit making games (at least as any form of career). I wish I didn’t have to sell my games, but I guess it’s unavoidable.
TE: What are your interests besides game design? Between school and your game projects, do you have time for anything else?
C: Music, friends, girls, beer, movies, food, weird comics and my cat. I honestly sometimes feel like I should’ve kept playing music instead of picking up game design. Creating games is not a very social thing to do.