Cactus flowers: an intro to the indie game mind warps of Jonatan Söderström


With just a handful of years under his game development belt, 24 year old Jonatan Söderström — better known by his handle Cactus — has already become something of a cult legend in indie circles, particularly for his relentless, near-manic prolificness, as illustrated above by Crayon Physics creator Petri Purho's inspirational desktop background.

And Purho's point is only half-ironic: by Cactus's own count, he released some 16 games in 2008, after nine in 2007 and another 12 the year before that. But quantity's only half the story: Söderström's oeuvre wouldn't be nearly as well regarded were it not for the fact that each is fiercely original and unmistakably his own.

But just how broad his appeal might be (given the right exposure), was put to the test when I debuted his last game, Tuning, at my Austin Game Developers Conference session earlier this year, which, as expected, created the biggest buzz of all the games shown — I continued to field questions about "that ball game" for the rest of the week.

Tuning — which went on to take the Sublime Experience award at Indiecade and is now in the running for the 2010 Indie Games Festival Award — perfectly encapsulates what it is that Cactus does best. At its core, it's a game about little more than rolling a ball from point A to point B, but embellished by a series of steadily more perception-fucking filters that truly test your brain's ability to process inputs.

Below, then, is an introduction to Cactus's output from the past few years, to warm you up to the eventual release of Tuning, a game which even Keita 'Katamari Damacy' Takahashi had to concede was a worthy art-game contender.

Cactus's Mondo series — spread across Mondo Agency and Mondo Medicals comes closest to Tuning in the way they consistently bruise both your perception and assumptions. Quasi-Lynchian in tone (both are underscored with that low-frequency industrial drone), they're simple lo-fi first-person experiments elevated by their ability to take tasks like basic navigation and turn them on their head.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is his shoot-em-up output, including Protoganda: Strings (above), and Clean Asia (below). Protoganda hook rests on its grainy 8mm Constructivist design — the closest we'll get to understanding what El Lissitzky might've designed if he'd lived to build a game —

Where Clean Asia! is a far more mechanically complex game of attraction and repulsion done up in razor-sharp laser-vectors, and is essentially the game I'd always grown up to believe would be played off pirated boards in dirty HK back-alley arcades once the inevitable cyberpunk future had arrived.

Air Pirates


Unfinished games

But Cactus's true signature is catching these fleeting glimpses of all the games we haven't yet had a chance to play — as above — which come across like leaked footage from an alternate universe of 8-bit nostalgia.

Söderström's only Achilles heel is the attention span that pushes him from one idea to the next at breakneck pace: with a proper schedule, budget, and singular focus there's no doubt he could dominate the indie sphere, but you're left wondering if the trade-off — losing the other three games he's no doubt already finished in the time it took you to even browse this post — is worth it.

To play nearly all the games mentioned here, visit Cactus's newly re-established website (and his more formal Lo-Fi Minds partnership), and start with the Cactus Arcade: and wonder at the notion that even those 17 of his best ideas collected into one browsable interface represents only a fraction of the man-hours put into any given single blockbuster game.