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"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.

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