“Unexplored Territory”: The Cactus Interview

Jonatan ‘Cactus‘ Soderstrom is one of the most prolific and interesting indie developers currently working. During the IGF judging sessions I was fortunate enough to play an early version of Mondo Nation, the compilation of Cactus’ series of bizarre, unsettling FPS puzzle games. These games are, I would suggest, about as close as videogames have come to the weirder elements of a David Lynch production. Cactus cites Mr Lynch, along with plenty of other esoteric influences, in the interview below. If you want to set the scene for yourself, and get a little flavour of Cactus’ mad humour, then perhaps you should play some of his games before reading onwards. Mondo Agency, Psychosomnium, or SeizureDome are all good places to start.

RPS: The Mondo games are my favourite of your productions, can you tell me a bit about how they came about?

Cactus: The first one was made for a competition at TIGSource. The theme was “B-Game”, and most other people seemed to be struggling to make the most ridiculous game, which didn’t seem that appealing to me. I prefer games that can be taken seriously if the player wants to. So I decided to turn it into a “B-Game” by making it minimalistic, obscure, weird and poorly written. The main concept of the game is to mess with the player. He’s continually lied to and deceived, whether it’s by the game’s “plot”, mission titles, the nature of certain obstacles or the unrealistic design of the levels. He’s meant to figure out that he has to question everything, but without getting any answers back, so by the end of the game he won’t know what to make of his experience.

RPS: Can you tell me a bit about your plans for Mondo Nation? How does it relate to the previous Mondo games?

Cactus: Mondo Nation is actually what I decided to call all three games; Mondo Medicals, Mondo Agency and Mondo Wires. I might go back and redesign some of the levels in the first game, but likely the two parts that have already been released will stay the same.

In the new installation the player will have a slightly different experience from the first two games. There will be no levels, but more of a seamless adventure that continues to evolve throughout. The storyline will also have a bigger scope, as well as be a bit more clear and integrated into the gameplay. As to the mood… If the first game was claustrophobic, and the second one was agoraphobic, then with the third part I’ll try to make the player uncomfortable by having him question his perception of space.

RPS: I often feel like games don’t play with reality enough, first-person games particularly try hard to be realistic or logical, and the Mondo games are quite the opposite. Was that your intention, to mess with heads?

Cactus: Yes, that was a big part of it. Affecting your players beyond just entertainment is something I find very interesting, and wish that more games would do.

There was also this thing about how games were supposed to be innovative, and innovation often means that players will have trouble understanding how to play the games. I figured that adding the confusion as an element in the game design might just be a good idea, so that you can predict the trouble that players will have when playing the game before hand and use them as an advantage instead of a problem.

RPS: You create a lot of rapid-fire small games, do you find it’s difficult to get stuck into a longer project?

Cactus: Yes, it’s extremely difficult. At first I thought that it was so hard because I kept getting new ideas all the time and wanted to try out new stuff instead of focus on one thing. But as my ideas ran dry while I was working on a big project, I realized that I had piled up a lot of tasks that I had to go through to see any results, and it started feeling like the workload just went off the chart compared to working on a small project where you can actually see the end of it on the horizon straight out from the beginning.

While in comparison I really prefer making small games, I’d love to be able to work on something big and enjoy it. Most of my projects would benefit from being fleshed out and I often don’t even get the main point across when I finish a game.

RPS: Do you have any predictions for 2009? Is there anything you’re particularly excited about?

Cactus: Well, there’s a few games that have been in the making for a while that I look forward to being released. Fez, Night Game, Blueberry Garden, Love etc. They all seem like really good or interesting games, but at the moment nothing really feels fresh or in tune with what I’m currently longing for.

I’ve been saying this since the first interview I ever did; I really want to see more games targeted at “adults”, especially ones that try to create something that no one else can, notably storywise. I mean, where’s the game world equivalents of Alejandro Jodorowsky, David Lynch, Philip K Dick, Stanley Kubrick, William S Burroughs, Shintaro Kago or J G Ballard? Why aren’t people making games that are anywhere close to those areas. There’s plenty of unexplored territory for anyone with some twisted imagination to take rule of.

People today seem to feel that innovation and new ground has to come through gameplay mechanics in one sense or another, no one really cares that games usually don’t even try to tell an interesting story. I’m not saying that it’s an easy task to carry out, I know I’ve tried a few times, but I still find it strange that no one has gone all the way yet.

My prediction for 2009 is that it will be just another average year with some cool releases that will get people hot for a while, and I guess there’s nothing wrong with that. But I would love to see something that really makes me go “Wow! How did they come up with this?!” rather than “Man, I wish I had thought of that!”

RPS: Jonatan, thanks.


  1. Ben Abraham says:

    What an interesting gentleman.

  2. The Poisoned Sponge says:

    I think it’s just a matter of time until either the tools become available to someone with a proper vision of a brilliant, challenging, thought provoking game or one of the bigger companies decide to take an insane risk. I could just be being blindly optimistic though.

  3. Del Boy says:

    None of the links to the games work.

  4. Dave says:

    Del Boy: They’re Mondolinks; they’re not meant to work.

  5. Jim Rossignol says:

    Gah, I can’t find suitable mirrors.

  6. Hajimete no Paso Kon says:

    I just wish the man would provide the games people payed for.

  7. j39hsieh says:

    “a brilliant, challenging, thought provoking game ”

    For some, those games already exist. I guess you’re really scrutinizing games eh?

  8. Jukio says:

    Just add “D/” between “/users/” and “dorkman/” in those download links.

    Will host for food is a bit messed up currently.

    link to willhostforfood.com
    link to willhostforfood.com

  9. Pags says:

    I mean, where’s the game world equivalents of Alejandro Jodorowsky, David Lynch, Philip K Dick, Stanley Kubrick, William S Burroughs, Shintaro Kago or J G Ballard?

    Knowing most of RPS, I know there’s a lot of us waiting for the game world equivalent of Philip K. Dick.

  10. Tei says:

    I am reading just now “Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid”. I suppose Zenon will feel really great with that youtube video.

  11. Xercies says:

    I would love a Phillip K Dick kind of game where you questioned your reality. But maybe that can’t work until Virtual Reality is released.

  12. Cooper says:

    Thanks, I’ve always loved Cactus’ games. Particularly his bite-sized bits of arcade mayhem, Ad Nauseum 2 has to be my favourite.

  13. Pags says:

    Yeah, I can imagine trying to make that game now wouldn’t really work.

    “But are you really playing a game?”
    “Uh, yes.”

  14. Al King says:

    Tei, if you can get your hands on ‘Metamagical Themas’ read that as well — it’s a collection of articles he wrote for Scientific American. Hofstadter’s great.

  15. AndrewC says:

    Pags you are writing on a comments section right now. Are you really not playing a game right now?

    Almost everything we do has rule sets, and thus has ‘game’ elements. And, as people who spend too much time in front of pcs, exactly what are we doing different when we are playing a game and not playing a game, if we are sat in front of our PCs?

    The point being the lines are already blurred, and not in just superficial ways. A game could happily play on them.

    Mostly I would like these things to be used to make the next System Shock more scary, rather than in an existential rumination on systematised reality, but then i’m superficial.

  16. Sonic Goo says:

    I have a few ideas for games that are at least sortof in that direction. Now all I need is a few million in funding and a few dozen people to build it with.

  17. AndrewC says:

    Are games more expensive than movies to make, even at an ‘amateur’ or ‘bedroom’ level? Certainly it is very cheap to write a novel – at least in terms of money – which is why Soderstrom’s references to Burroughs or Dick seem wobbly. Certainly making a commerical game can not happen without a great deal of funding – and that means corporations, which means return on investment, which means less experimentalism.

    But maybe this indie revolution will happen and games without the 3D whizz will, in the future, not seem like a compromise or like second rate product.

    But here’s my wonderful theory for the real reason it isn’t happening much:
    Programmers are nerds. Programming is hard and, historically, not sexy, so the sorts of people who would be drawn into this specialised shadowy world of obtuse number crunching have been those drawn to the mechanics and the abstract mathematical structures of it. these people have not tended to have the types of personalities that tend to think in terms of theme, subtext or cultural statement.
    The only ones with enough passion to get over the immense technical hurdle of knowing how to make games are not ones naturally given to the sorts of artistic statments Soderstrom is talking about.
    That’s nice and broad and all-encompassing, isn’t it? The first game was about space ships. Programming nomenclature seems to hold a heavy debt to D&D. Well, it’s a theory.
    The solution, if that theory holds any water, is generational. Creative types growing up now no longer have to choose to learn computers and programming because it is now all around them. They can’t not do it. So when they come to want to express themselves, a ‘game’ will be just as natural a choice as a book or a film.
    So we just have to wait for those punk kids to grow up a bit.

  18. PleasingFungus says:

    Agh. Just downloaded and played Mondo Agency. [i]It is the strangest game I have ever played.[/i] And there’s some lovely competition for that position!

  19. Super Anon says:

    AndrewC: But then again, programming being a huge technical hurdle might become a thing of the past, with tools like Game Maker (which Cactus uses to make his games), Multimedia Fusion and RPG Maker becoming available to anyone with a decent internet connection and a will to create. While traditionally making video games has required huge teams of programmers, artists and designers, we now have guys like Cactus, who can make their vision reality with no prior programming experience. Basically, rapid development tools enable “non-nerds” to make games as well. And these programs have only been around for a few years, so who knows what the indie scene will bring us in 2009? :)

  20. Super Anon says:

    Also: Modding tools, open source game engines and level editors are becoming more popular and easy to use, which also helps contribute to this.

  21. whitebrice says:

    No mention of Illegal Communication? Definitely my favorite of cactus’ game and among my all-time favorite games.

  22. Sonic Goo says:

    Super Anon:

    I haven’t worked with many modding tools, but the ones I have aren’t very accessible and more advanced tends to mean feature creep rather than easier to use. Anyone have good tips for simple, accessible tools? Google has failed me, it seems…

    (or, I have failed @ Google, of course…)

  23. Filipe says:

    I’m really glad you profiled Cactus. The end of Mondo Medicals just made me bolt upright. It was so provocative. Instead of tying off the game, I was left with a sense of unease. I need more moments like that.

  24. MrFake says:

    AndrewC: You’re assuming that programming and game design are done by the same people. It’s probably very common, and especially so for indie games, but it’s not necessary.

    I think it’s just the same wall that games have been crashing against since inception: there’s an underlying need, at the moment, for games to be fun. They are judged highly against that. When you slip into the abstract or similar modes of conveyance, you tread farther from accepted norms of gameplay styles; accepted because people tend to enjoy them more than others.

    You can always wrap deep and innovative concepts around a more conventional gameplay style, but that’s not really any different from any other game, is it? With authors and filmmakers, they can use (or abuse, in the case of Lynch) the medium but twist the telling for effect. Games, however, don’t just use a medium, they are the medium. They are each unique in how you play them, and every gamer approaches each one uniquely.

    It’s not that programming needs to shift towards these new types of thought, it’s the design and purpose of the game itself. Maybe they can make it fun (for instance Lynch could be fun, Kubrick not), but they need first to accept that it doesn’t have to be, or at least that there are alternative ways to enjoy a game.

    I figured most programmers come to the scene for the innovation, though most get watered down (or enslaved by mass-market giants like EA). It’s just they have an idea of what would be a fun or cool game, and so their innovation is only a cool new idea or approach, not a provocative experience.

  25. an ape says:

    First person adventure + JG Ballard = small tear out of the corner of my eye.

    If not actual narrative influence from the authors Soderstrom has mentionned, athough I don’t see why not, games could easily draw their aesthetics or moods from more diverse influences than they currently are. It seems that there is much inbreeding of genre conventions (be they mechanistic of aesthetic) to the point where you end up with games that seem to have been develloped with a bullet point list of “what a good game has” with little regard to how those points interact. Dead Space comes to mind.

    Luckily there are some games like Tension, Zeno Clash, FEZ or Cactus’ own Braindead Toon Underworld that might end up being those rare flashes of brilliance we sporadically see outside the usual spectrum of gaming.

    I know there are a lot more promising games out there, just naming a few. Anyone else care to add?

  26. Yam says:

    Am I the only one who gets mildly motion-sick from trying to play Mondo Agency? I want to play it, but…

  27. Diverse says:

    Great interview. I’ve been playing Cactus’ games for years and am always eager to see what he comes up with next. I was very surprised to see him mention Shintaro Kago, really awesome.