Developer of Games Like Hotline Miami, Norrland, Clean Asia! & Mondo Medicals, Jonatan "Cactus" Soderstrom Interview with Timothy Courtney

Interview Published: 03/05/2016

Timothy Courtney interviews Jonatan Soderstrom, also known as Cactus, an indie game developer who has made dozens of games. Some of the games Jonatan has created are Norrland, Mondo Medicals & Clean Asia. He also co-created Hotline Miami and Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number.

Timothy Courtney: Where did you grow up and what is a fond memory you have as a child?

Jonatan Soderstrom - Cactus: I grew up in Gothenburg, Sweden, where I still live today. No particular memory pops out as especially endearing, but I had a relatively pleasant time as a child. I had fun with my friends, and I liked to draw.

How did you feel about school growing up? Did you like it and why/why not?

I both liked and hated school. I enjoyed learning and being around other kids for the most part, but I didn't enjoy being told what to do and when to do it. I guess that's never really changed.

What was the moment when you first decided I'm going to express myself with games, and did you get excited thinking of the possibilities?

I don't think there ever was a moment like that. I wanted to make games since I first got a NES, but it wasn't my biggest dream. When I was around seventeen I started actually making games, but I didn't take it very seriously, and by that I don't mean that it wasn't exciting, it certainly was. It was fun for the most part too, and I really enjoyed doing something creative that other people actually enjoyed. Still I looked at it as more of an experiment or a hobby. The design aspect of games was surprisingly interesting, I first thought I would make more visually and story oriented games, in the sense that I would probably spend more time on graphics, concepts and plot than on actual game building. But the logic and gameplay systems behind everything turned out to be more interesting.

Let it slip is so good and I really like the music videos too. I watched the album hypnotized. How did Crystal Boys come together and did you make all the videos too?

Haha, thanks! Crystal Boys is what happened when me, my brother and a friend wanted to start a band. I bought a synth, a couple of guitar pedals and a portable 8-track recorder. We recorded a couple of more or less improvised "songs" while drinking beer. We had a hard time being organized though, so I ended up writing most of the two albums we released on my own, as well as making music videos for each and every song.

Cinema in the early 70's was really booming and camera technology was advancing a lot. Do you think there's something magic about the footage from the early 70's? What attracts you to that time?

I'm attracted to virtually anything shot on actual film. Something about it just looks very dreamy and surreal. As for what's depicted in our music videos, there's something about society before the 80s where everything just seems less complicated. It's interesting to see how much has changed in the last century and that it's so well documented, yet hard to grasp what it would've been like to be around back then.

Some themes on Let it Slip are control, destruction, decline, indulgence, and the absurdity. What was your vision when you started? What were you feeling at the time?

In the music videos yeah. I was looking through old footage at archive.org and found all of these beautiful images of a past world. I felt a bit like an alien looking at human history from an outside perspective, perceiving it more like a spectacle than something relatable. I felt like our music would fit as a soundtrack to that experience.

You talked before about rapid game design and you have over 30 or 40 games, granted some are very small and experimental. Do you think to make a lot of smaller games is better, not only so that you can be more creative and execute more ideas, but also to see which one might spark the most popularity? Is that a strategy that you actively think about sometimes?

There's definitely benefits to get experienced with what you're doing before attempting to make something truly good. I don't think measuring your work by popularity is necessarily the best route to take, but rather finding what resonates with you and gets your creative juices flowing. Having tried out a lot of different things lets you develop your own taste. Just diving head first into a massive project without much experience doesn't seem like a very good idea, it works for some people though.

An artist's life can be an isolating life and the independent game developer is often alone. Are you most happy in isolation?

I live with my twin brother so I'm never really alone. When I want to be creative that can be a bit frustrating. I usually work best, or at least have a way easier time to explore my own creativity when I'm on my own. The last couple of years I've been working with Dennis on Hotline Miami, and that has worked really well. He's usually as absorbed in his own work as I am in mine so I can space out a bit without interruption. That said, I'm happiest in the company of friends, but enjoy some alone time every now and then as well.

There's a charm in games that are made where not too much work was put into sprites and animation. Is it the simple color schemes or is less detail easier to look at? Maybe, people can see the pain that went in on something that's overdone. What's your philosophy on it? What do you think it is?

I think that's a misconception. What fascinates me about simplistic graphics is (for instance) how someone can give a 6x6 pixels big face a personality, or create a monochromatic world that looks detailed and feels interesting to explore. Removing the fancy surface leaves the ideas and concrete design decisions bare for everyone to see. To me it makes it easier to get a feel for if the person drawing the sprites has a personal creative vision. There's lots of games with extremely complex sprites and animation that somehow end up feeling generic, because the ideas and concepts that went into those sprites weren't personal or interesting to begin with.

If you were to make a movie right now, what kind of movie do you want to make?

A surreal crime story. Not like Hotline Miami, but maybe a little bit more towards Twin Peaks.

David Lynch and Alejandro Jodorowsky are film makers that you take inspiration from. What other film makers have really inspired you?

There's lots of anime that's inspired me. Satoshi Kon's films, Neon Genesis Evangelion, Berserk, Akira, Genocyber, Angel Cop, Fist of the North Star... Then there's David Cronenberg, Dario Argento, Stanley Kubrick, Akira Kurosawa, the Coen Brothers... There's lots more but I can't really remember at the moment.

When I first got into making games, I had these notions that it would be better if every level were drastically different than the one before. I don't agree with that anymore, but you make games where levels are all much the same. Then, you design it so it increases in difficulty and introduce more and more. Is it because people need to be comfortable with the theme or game consistency. How do you think about theming and designing limitations?

Variation can be good, but so can consistency. When I make games I try to keep them unified and to the point, so I don't drift off too far. It's also one of the reasons most of my games are so short, when I feel like I want to turn the game in a new direction I usually explore that new direction in a separate game instead.

We all have those days, you know. Do you ever feel tempted to make a game that will just piss everybody off?

Well, yeah. Luckily I've never really acted on it though.

You strike me as anything goes when you're being creative. Is that accurate? When do you do your best thinking?

I basically do anything as long as I think the results may be interesting, yes. I often do my best thinking when looking at stuff other people have made, trying to imagine how I would've done my own interpretation of it.

When I was a kid, I was really into magic. I made my own magic kit and I wanted to be David Copperfield. Then, there's the darker stuff we got into, but I can't really believe in it all anymore. Some part still believes in it somehow. What was discovering magic to you? Do you still believe?

I've never been a big fan of magic/magicians. However the concept of dark magic fascinates me, though I don't think many people have done it justice in fiction so far. I believe in the magic that science is slowly figuring out.

Hotline Miami was the game that finally gave you security where you wouldn't have to be homeless, and now you can keep making games indefinitely. When you saw that, how much did it lift you up?

Not much sadly. Making a great game was one of my goals in life, and actually achieving that didn't change my life or make me feel happier about myself.

Is shooting the most satisfying thing you can do in a game? If not, what do you like most?

After playing Dark Souls and Bloodborne, I'm more into swords.

Do you think it's important to keep the player off balance in some ways, and how so if it is?

I think it's nice to make the player feel uncomfortable in one way or another, it elicits a response that is more interesting than what you get from just giving them casual fun. I also think being provoked makes you remember something more clearly.

Mainstream is like this concept that has to exist or maybe it doesn't, but do you feel more comfortable outside of that?

Mainstream to me is usually synonymous with doing things the safe way with minimal risks. This results in bland and boring entertainment. I'm definitely more comfortable as an outsider, I don't ever want to create something that everyone has to find enjoyable.

Is there anything you're more proud of than Hotline Miami?

I'm more proud of having good friends.

Where should people go to follow you and your work?

Twitter: @cactusquid
Homepage: cactusquid.com

💘 Interview by Timothy Courtney

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