Jonatan Söderström is flattered when his games are called disturbing. “I feel that everything in life has an unsettling side to it, but it’s not always something you notice since you’re so used to looking at it a certain way. Like when you repeat a specific word out loud over and over—you notice how it deteriorates from having a meaning to just being strange sounds.”
The 26-year-old Swedish designer, who goes by the name Cactus, makes games that traffic in the disturbing and surreal. His games are about Lynchian logic puzzles (Mondo Medicals), men who want to become cars (Hot Throttle) and shotgun-wielding ninjas (Shotgun Ninja, obviously). Söderström is revered for his output in the indie community, but is mostly unknown to the mainstream. For years he churned out free games every few weeks, each a lo-fi explosion, a digital punk song.
Lately, he’s moved away from the throw-anything-at-the-wall approach. “The idea of being able to make a whole suite of graphics, music, gameplay, story and even a world for other people to explore was extremely fascinating. But doing all that takes a lot of time and when you have many ideas that makes it hard to flesh out them all as much as they deserve. Until recently I haven’t had the focus to do so,” Söderström admits. He’s switched to longer experiments, leaving his bursts of creativity and noise for something more sustained, taking notes from his influences, Philip K. Dick, Lynch, Jodorowsky, Stanis?aw Lem and Cronenberg. He’s been tinkering on Life/Death/Island and Tuning for years, perfecting and tweaking. Both are ambitious and represent Söderström’s pet themes taken to their extreme. Life/Death/Island is operatic in its violence. It throws everything at the player, (snakes, zombies, troll kings) and gives you an arsenal that’s just as varied. Tuning feels purer, “get a ball to its goal”, but the world gradually shifts, forcing the player to change her perspective and see like the designer does. But for reasons that are mainly financial they sit unfinished.
His next game, Hotline Miami, is his first commercial game, and probably his most unsettling yet. It’s a top down shooter, bringing to mind arcade classics like Smash TV and Robotron 2084, but with R-rated violence and the signature Cactus surrealism. “The player is receiving cryptic messages on his answering machine which seemingly lead him to go out mutilating local gangsters in Miami,” says Söderström. “The dialogue leaves a lot unsaid, and you have to figure out how you want to interpret what’s going on and why.”
Working alongside graphic artist and musician Dennis Wedin, and with backing from publisher Devolver Digital, Söderström feels good about the game. “Since I started working on Hotline Miami with Dennis over six months ago, I’ve only opened Game Maker once or twice to actually work on something else, and every time I’ve felt like I wanted to go back to Hotline Miami instead. I feel great about what I’m doing right now. I don’t think I’ve ever been this proud of anything I’ve done previously in my entire life.” Hotline Miami might get Söderström some well-deserved mainstream attention. Is the rank-and-file videogame player ready for him?